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Thursday, August 18, 2011

MGBG Form Tip #1: Walk Barefoot

When I asked for suggestions on what to write about in a recent blog post, the majority of you responded that you'd like my to give you all some advice and tips on good barefoot running form.  So I've decided to dedicate the next few posts on my blog to some barefoot running form advice.

First, a rant...

Here's the thing.  The advice you get here is a lot different than what you get on other sites.  Mostly because I don't believe in teaching people how to run barefoot in the traditional way.  That is, I refuse to tell people over the Internet to consciously manipulate some aspect of their form.  If you want someone to tell you to "bend your knees", "straighten your posture", and "take smaller steps", go somewhere else.  There are a zillion barefoot blogs out there for you. 

Although if you're still asking questions about barefoot running form, that angle probably hasn't worked for you.  But keep spinning your wheels.  Be my guest. 

For the most part I think that advice is very good and very well-intentioned.  And I certainly think it works in a one-on-one coaching or clinical setting.  Over the Internet, I think it's crap. 

Here's all you need to run barefoot successfully.  It's my one rule about good barefoot running form (and here it is).  For those who don't want to read my post, it is this.  HOW YOUR FEET FEEL IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF BAREFOOT RUNNING FORM!  You will have good barefoot running form (maybe not optimal, but good) when your feet feel comfortable and relaxed while running.  That should be your focus in learning to barefoot run. 

So I'm not a big believer in telling people to consciously do something different with their bodies, like straighten their posture, shorten their steps, and the like because I think it overrides what your mind should be doing in order to achieve your own perfect barefoot running form: listening to your feet.

Why do people keep dispensing this advice then?  For one, I think people like to hear that kind of stuff  because they want to take charge of their progress, and feel like they are actively doing something to improve their running.  And for some, it might even work.  Or at least they think it does.  If you don't know what's wrong with your form, it's not likely that you're going to know how to fix it.  But even a blind dog gets a bone occasionally. 

Normally, good form doesn't usually happen because of something you consciously do.  It happens naturally as your body improves your proprioception

It's not just a big word, and a clever way for me to link to two prior blog posts.  It's why my number one rule is my number one rule.  It's the most important aspect of barefoot running...your body's awareness of it's orientation in space.  And as a noob, you really don't have it.  Prior to becoming a barefoot runner, you blocked a majority of your bodies proprioception by covering your feet with shoes.  So you're not used to receiving feedback from your feet about what your running form looks like.  You're also not good at interpreting it.

But you CAN be good at it, if you allow yourself to listen.  So how I teach people to barefoot run over the web is by giving them tools to help them stop thinking about what good form looks like, and start FEELING what good form is like. 

It's not going to be the quick fix you're looking for.  Barefoot running isn't a bag of tricks.  It's a process of learning about and growing with your body. 

So your first MGBG form tip is this: start walking barefoot...as much as possible....everywhere.  That's it.  Sorry if you were expecting more. 

Learning to walk again...

To explain why barefoot walking is such a useful tool to learn barefoot running, let me start with a story.  Back in September 2010 my wife, daughter, mother, and I took a trip to Disneyworld.  At this point in my life, I had been barefoot running for at least a couple of years.  I had logged at least 1,000 barefoot miles, and I could run the marathon distance barefoot on blacktop.  And I was one month away from starting a wildly successful barefoot running blog.  You may have heard of it.  Point being...I thought I was pretty hot shit. 

SIDE NOTE: I took the above picture as part of a little game a couple of my barefooter friends and I played called The Disney Barefoot Challenge.  All the manhole covers in Disney have these cool Mickey Mouse ears on them.  This was to prove that I wasn't BS-ing, and I had actually made it into the park barefoot. 

Disney is pretty hardcore about keeping people's shoes on at the parks.  My friend Jimmy Hart, a barefoot runner and coach, has what we determined to be previous "The Record" for amount of time spent barefoot at Disney parks (during races doesn't count...they let you go barefoot in those).  He made it past the front gate of a park and walked around for six whole minutes!  Way to go Jimmy!

Not to brag or anything, but I now hold the current record of three and a half full days (from park open to park close).  Beat that bitches!   

Back to your normal programming. 

Anyway, while training for that marathon I was putting in around 40-50 barefoot miles a week without any pain or injury to my feet.  That included several runs where I was on my feet for 4+ hours.  But on the first day we were at Disney, I was in some serious pain after walking around the park for only a couple of hours.  I especially noticed pain on the balls of my feet and in the arches of my feet.

How was this happening?  I had run barefoot for way longer periods of time than this!  I was seriously considering buying some of those stupid Croc sandals everyone wears around the parks in order to get away from the pain. 

They're EVERYWHERE!  If you think there are a lot of Crocs in this picture, imagine how many are walking around in the parks.  Fashionable right? 

Well I didn't buy the Crocs, and I'm glad I didn't.  And as I continued to walk barefoot around the park for the next couple of days a funny thing happened.  My feet stopped hurting.  I wasn't walking any less.  In fact, we were hitting up multiple parks in a day at this point, so I was probably walking more.

So what happened?  As I started paying attention to my walk form, I noticed it had changed.  I hadn't done a lot of barefoot walking prior to this trip.  As a result, I walked the way I did in heeled shoes.  WRONG!  I was taking big, long strides, then slammed my heel down on the pavement, rolled over my arch, and pushed off hard with my toes. 

Now I was landing more or less like I would while barefoot running.  I was landing on my midfoot.  I was placing my foot down softly.  I was taking shorter strides.  And I was really feeling how my feet felt as they made contact with the ground.  Without me knowing it, my body was reacting to the pain my body was experiencing and finding a way around it.

Barefoot walking is barefoot running practice...

A lot of people will tell you that barefoot walking has totally different mechanics than barefoot running.  To a large extent that's true.  Barefoot walking can be almost the reverse of barefoot running from a biomechanical standpoint.  But that doesn't mean that it can't instruct our barefoot running.

What I think barefoot walking does for us is to slow everything down.  If you played a sport, did you always practice at full speed?  Or did you slow down the game and break it into its components?  Then you increased your speed as you got proficient at the skill at that slower speed.  It's hard to perfect a skill if you don't take your time and focus on its individual components. 

So why are you always trying to learn barefoot running at full speed?  That's a horribly inefficient way to learn.  If you can't seem to get the hang of barefoot running at full speed, slow it down and try walking.  Try different things to see how your feet feel.  If it feels good, keep doing it.  Then when you get the hang of feeling good while barefoot walking, speed back up to running.

Barefoot walking also provides us a safer way to practice feeling the ground.  What happens when you try to tweak your form while running?  If you do it wrong, eventually you're going to get a blister or worse.  It's really hard to do the same while walking.  Because the speed is less intense, so is the friction between your foot and the ground.  You can still get blisters barefoot walking, but it's much harder to do.

In doing this, always keep in mind your goal.  The first and only rule of barefoot running.  Your feet are comfortable and relaxed.  Your form will follow...

Every day, all day long...

And the great thing about walking as opposed to running is that you're ALWAYS doing it.  I would wager that I walk at least a few miles a day just getting around during the day.  By comparison, when you start barefoot running you probably only do it for a few minutes at a pop.  The more you practice something, the better you get at it right?  Think of all that time you could be practicing barefoot running by taking your shoes off more often! 

And I guarantee that the whole time you're walking around barefoot, your mind is getting together with your feet and learning how to walk better.  Just like it did for me.  Whether you concentrate on it or not, you're building your proprioception. 

So go barefoot as often as you can in your daily life.  You'll be running with great form in no time!  Happy barefoot form citizens!


  1. As usual...you ROCK!! Thanks So much for this!! It is what I needed to hear!! Mostly the part about not trying alter every part of my form while bf running. It was driving me insane trying to focus on all the things I have read that I SHOULD do-when really really proprioception is the key. Also the slow part is very helpful-as runners we sometimes need to be "allowed" to slow down!!Thanks MGBG!!

  2. Great post! I practiced walking barefoot around my neighborhood on a little jaunt with my wife, son, and dog this evening!

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