Categorized | Barefoot

The 200-Yard Rule: The Only Way To Start Barefoot Running

Posted on 26 August 2011

by  Steven Sashen.

I was recently on a panel discussion about barefoot running. At one point, someone in the audience asked “So how do I transition to barefoot running?”

Before I could respond,  a well-respected physical therapist suggested the following:

“First, switch to a slightly lower heeled shoe than what you have. Run in that for a few months. Then add a racing flat, maybe one day a week for a while… then add an extra day every month, until you can run in those. Then maybe try something like Vibrams on a soft surface, like grass in a park. Work up to being able to run on the grass… then try a soft dirt path. Eventually you may be able to run on hard surfaces, but don’t do that too often. And I don’t recommend being totally barefoot because you could step on something.”

The only reason I didn’t interrupt him was that I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But then he tossed out this next line:

“Expect to spend about 2 to 3 years making the transition. That’s how long I’ve been doing it and I’m still not there.”

And that’s when the politeness stopped.

“Hold on,” I said, “this is completely upside down.”

Danny Abshire from Newton jumped in as well, “Right, that’s backwards.”

I’ll tell you what Danny and I proposed, instead, in just a moment. But first, let’s back up to the question that started it all.

“How do you transition!?”

The idea built into the question itself seems to make sense. If you’re wearing a motion=controlled shoe with a 3″ heel and a $400 orthotic, it seems logical that you need to slowly wean yourself from all that support. It seems clear that you would need to get comfortable in a lower and lower heel until you’re ready for barefoot.

But things are not always as they seem.

Here’s the bottom line: There is nothing that “prepares” you for being barefoot. Nothing.

Not “zero-drop” shoes (where your heel is at the same height as the ball of your foot. Not Vibrams. Not a thinner insole. Not even huaraches (more about those in a second).

Anything that you put on your feet will change either your stride and biomechanics or the amount of sensation you’re feeling in your feet (or both) compared to being barefoot. So once you take off your shoes, or fully feel the ground, you’ll need to learn to move differently.

Here’s where some people stop reading what I’m saying and respond with two arguments (to points I’m not making).

First, they’ll say, “Oh, so you’re some sort of barefoot purist! Who are you to tell me what to wear or not wear?”

To be clear, I’m not telling anyone what to wear and I’m not saying barefoot is the only way to be (the majority of my time I am in Invisible Shoes). This article is about the myth of “transitioning”, not about your footwear, or lack thereof.

Secondly, people will say, “Yes, but switching to a racing flat or zero-drop shoe will give your Achilles time to stretch and strengthen, and that better prepares you for being barefoot.”

To them I say, “Not always and, even if it were true, there’s a better way.”

Keep in mind that the biggest reason for going totally barefoot is that feeling the ground with your skin gives you the most feedback about your form. Feedback that, if you attend to it, can inspire you to change your gait to something more efficient, easy, and natural.

I’ve seen hundreds of people in VFFs or racing flats who still heel strike or have some other gait pattern where they aren’t getting much if any extra “Achilles strengthening and stretching”.

So, what’s the better way to “transition” that Danny and I chimed in with?

Take off your shoes, and find the hardest and smoothest surface you can find (like a bike path or street) and run.

But only do it for about 200 yards.

Then see how you feel the next day.

You may be sore, you may be fine. If you’re sore, wait until you’re not. Then go try again, and add 100 or 200 yards. Repeat.

I think of this as the “Shampoo method” of barefoot running. Instead of “Lather, Rinse, Repeat,” It’s run a little, rest, repeat (and run a little more).

Keep in mind, there are two types of soreness. One is from using muscles you haven’t used in a while, or using them in a way you haven’t used in a while (if ever), or using them a bit more than usual.

The other is from doing something wrong. Like doing way too much distance (which part of 200 yards was confusing to you?), or trying to stay on your toes without letting your heels ever touch the ground (Not necessary… land mid- or forefoot, but your heel can touch down. No need to do 200 yards of calf raises).

In other words, a little soreness is probably normal. A lot of soreness is telling you to try something different.

And this idea that you need to be on soft surfaces. Completely wrong. And wrong for the same reason that you don’t want to be in cushy running shoes.

Give yourself a soft surface and the odds are good you’ll heel-strike. Plus, soft surfaces don’t give you the feedback you want, the kind that can help you quickly learn a new and better way to run. I’ve seen barefoot runners who’ve only run on grass, and they usually look like shod runners who lost their shoes.

Instead of thinking that you can work your way to barefoot slowly. Go to barefoot immediately, but work your way up in time/distance slowly.

All the strengthening that you want to do before you run barefoot, you’ll get that faster by running barefoot.

To misquote Yoda’s famous “There is no try. Only do.” There is no transition, only run.

Steven Sashen is an All-American masters sprinter and the developer of Invisible Shoes “Barefoot… PLUS!” running sandals, a high-tech upgrade of the Tarahumara huaraches. Free “How to make running sandals” videos, Invisible Shoe kits, and custom-made huaraches at www.InvisibleShoe.com

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24 Responses to “The 200-Yard Rule: The Only Way To Start Barefoot Running”

  1. MarkC says:

    Stephen,

    PERFECT advice….thanks for describing this so well and having the guts to question the establishment. Your feet are the best teachers and at times pain is your friend. this is NOT injury pain…but more like touching a stove.

    Dr. Mark

  2. Wiglaf says:

    Ezzactly!

  3. Mark says:

    Steven,
    Thank you for this article. More and more people in my community are noticing me running barefoot and are asking me all these questions and I try my best to explain things. I would like to forward the link to your article to them so that they can get a better understanding. Thanks so much!!!

    Mark, aka Tatman

  4. Andrew Klein, DC (@Barefoot_DC) says:

    Great post!

    I like what you said about running in grass as being nearly the same as running in shoes. I took a wrong turn on a run two weeks ago and ended up going much further than I should have (double my previous max distance). My feet were getting sore so I got off the asphalt trail into the grass and immediately started to heel strike without even thinking about it.

  5. Ken Skier says:

    Beautiful! Exactly right. Especially about the importance of FEELING the road with your bare skin.

    I spent several months a year, for two or three years, running barefoot on grass…but it never felt right. Plus I had to drive miles to find a long grassy surface. Then I tried running barefoot on the street in front of my house. It was wonderful! I “got it” right away. No more knee problems when I run!

    Last year I ran 20 races barefoot. (5K to 10K; nothing longer.) I am running ONLY barefoot now, until Thanksgiving…when it will be too cold for me to run without something on my feet.

    Thanks for a thoughtful, well-presented article on the difference between running barefoot vs. so-called “barefoot shoes.”

    (P.S. If you are running in your current shoes without injury, don’t change a thing! I only turned to barefoot running because I was getting injured running in my shoes.)

  6. Ryan says:

    Great article! I started in VFFs. Wish I wouldn’t have. Ran too much on my foregoot and continued to overstride (w/o heelstriking) and injured both calves during the first 2 months.

    Now I’m up to 6 miles fully barefoot. Then I put on the VFFs for the rest of the run (another 9 or 9 miles).

    Also just picked up NB Minimus trail for trail running (Santa Cruz Mts near San Jose, CA). They will work fine, but I am most comfortable completely barefoot running now … which is a weird place to be. I’ve had flat and weak feet my whole life, wearing motion control trainers, sports orthodics, avoiding barefoot anything. Now my feet are strong. What a great feeling!

  7. Spencer says:

    I love this advice. I started a year ago running barefoot. I started first by being able to walk six miles in my barefeet before I started running, on chip and seal. I think we need to learn how to run efficiently without pain barefoot before we attempt to mess with our biomechanics by putting something between our sensors and the ground.

  8. Mo says:

    Amen! I too fell into the “transition trap” and spent most of last summer on very sore feet from trying to run in VFFs. While I think they are great (and huaraches too)… I wish there had been as much wisdom like this readily available when I started. I think every site rebasing minimal footwear should have a home page stressing to run BF FIRST.

  9. Lisa says:

    Great advise. I am using your 30 sec. walk/run method on the sidewalk right now. I am only increasing by 30 sec. each time. I feel a little lower back tightness and still dealing with the blister issue but all in all, I am seeing that I will be able to run again. This, after listening to an ortho tell me I had to stop running 15 years ago due to degenerative disc issues. If I was in shoes right now, I would be in agony.

  10. Rodney says:

    Great post! I made the transition to VFFs myself over roughly 6 months following the “Shampoo Method”.

  11. Al says:

    Thanks so much for this post. This is basically what I did recently, I stoppped with the “barefoot like” shoes, and simply started to run barefoot on a track. I am up to a mile at a time now, my biggest problem seems to be blisters rather than muscle or soft tissue problems. I am focussing always on my form, but it seems that blisters may just be part of the process at the beginning…or so I hope!

  12. DPatterson says:

    For many people they want too much too fast and are not willing to slow into the transition to barefoot running. For many the reason they are making the transition is that the have experience injuries and the traditional brace and support philosophy has not made sense to them. However they need to realize that the injuries and discomfort that forced the need for the traditional treatment was years in the making, and the faulty mechanics, that most likely were the true cause of the injuries, were also years in the making. It is not realistic to assume that in a few weeks you can reverse decades of problems. What has made sense to me and has proven successful is the use of the foot strengthening biofeedback insoles (see Barefoot Science as an example). So the times that I can not be barefoot or be doing my barefoot exercises my feet are at least exposed to a subconscious firing of the muscles. So as opposed to getting exposed to exercise 2-3 times a week for 40 minutes or so, my feet are exposed to exercise 24/7. In the big picture it makes sense and the underlying science seems pretty simple and straight forward.

    • MarkC says:

      nice comment and agree that feet should be uninhibited all day. wish i could wear ultra thin and open hurarches in the day job as a doc.
      Dr. Mark

  13. Rafi says:

    that’s good advice. I do want to ask if there is really such a big difference between running in Vibrams, which I do, and between running actual barefoot. I have tried real barefoot and found the asphalt of the road to be very painful for my skin and toes.. is there a much greater benefit over vibrams?

  14. Good article guys. Great comments. We wrote an article called The Naked Foot and it discussed all of the critical components from a neuromechanical perspective, many of which were eluded to here. We agree with this article. It is about small doses, 200 yards…..rest, recouperate, repeat. But doing it mindfully and with awareness. Practice 100 upps and be aware of your posture form, and how your foot is striking the ground. If you feel you are overpronating, shorten your steps, do some “Shuffle walks” to up the tolerance and skill of the anterior compartment of the lower leg…..and then repeat the challenge. It doesn’t take 2-3 years to get to barefoot. Well done gang. Love the work on the site Mark ! Thumbs up ! Shawn and Ivo….. the gait guys

  15. Cesar Kastoun says:

    Greetings!

    I would love to get some advice from Dr Mark or any of the site’s specialists! My apologies for posting this in probably the wrong forum.

    I came across your site after the NY Times article and I’ve devouring every part it. I would love to transition to bare feet running (or even VFF) but am not sure of how. Let me explain:

    During my training for the 2008 NY marathon, it seems I went up in mileage too fast and ended up with a tendinitis in my foot’s middle tendon (the one that runs from below the arch and up the side of the foot). This turned into a chronic tendinitis that I am still suffering from till now. I dramatically reduced my running and sometimes even don’t run for weeks.

    About a year ago, a doctor prescribed orthotics to maintain the arch. I’ve been using them since for city shoes and for running shoes. They seem to help but just barely. I still have pain after I run a few miles even though the pain subsides quickly now. (I always ice my feet after a run).

    I was getting quite desperate about never being able to run long distances again but the NY Times article and your site gave me some hope. Ultimately I would love to pay you a visit to your clinic but these days I live overseas with limited trips to the US.

    What I’ve read about barefoot running strongly convinced me this is the way to go but the big question for me is HOW and WHEN? I did change my stride recently, even while staying in my current (high heel) shoes + orthotics: I pay attention to never land on my heels anymore…

    WHEN: Do I wait until I am pain free from my tendinitis? (which might never happen, even if I stop running for a few months). Do I transition now, endure the pain and slowly build distance?

    HOW: If I run bare feet, do I leave my orthotics out of city shoes also?

    Any ideas or suggestions on how and where to get help would be highly appreciated.

    Best

    Cesar

  16. Sock Doc says:

    Hey Cesar, I’m very anti-orthotics, as I discuss here, http://sock-doc.com/2011/09/unnecessary-orthotics/, and I don’t think you’ll ever have a normal gait if you remain in them. I also don’t think you’ll correct your injury if you stay in your orthotics. The pain in your foot may go away with them in, but the orthotics will cause enough gait dysfunction and muscle imbalances (further weakening your feet too) that you’ll eventually end up with another injury, sooner or later. Orthotics definitely don’t “maintain” an arch. They do, however, weaken your arch by trying to push up on the arch and support it. But to support any arch, especially one in your foot, you must support the both ends – your heel and your toes. Orthotics do not accomplish this.

    It sounds like you have symptoms of plantar fasciitis, so my video on PF will hopefully help. Walking barefoot as much as you can now and doing the exercises and therapies I show in the video will help to strengthen the posterior tibialis muscle and support your arch, naturally. This will start to heal the foot. You should also make sure your street shoes are low-heel, not supportive, and flat too.

    Can you overcome ANY tendonitis? Definitely.

  17. Cesar Kastoun says:

    Doc,

    Thanks for your reply and Sock Doc’s. Good advice and food for thought. I am trying to transition but I seem to need guidance. Looking up material online helps but watching a recent video of me running still shows a heel strike, even though it doesn’t feel like to me though.

    I probably need to pay you a visit (do you consult?) when next in the US, probably this summer. I will check the website to figure out exact location and how to schedule a visit.

    Best,

    Cesar

  18. Jodie Taylor says:

    I too fell into the transition trap! I was wearing Addidas Adiprene’s which you could visually see a difference in my stance when wearing. I really wanted to try barefoot and the sports store associate told me I had to transition, so I bought NB Minimus shoes. LOVE THEM!! I have added the NB Minimus trail shoe now and when the snow melts I will be in need of some new gear so Vibrams it will be. I tried my addidas again for giggles and holy cow NEVER AGAIN! My legs, knees and ankles hurt so much in them. It was ike I could feel the bones in my feet compacting together. I rarely hurt in my minimus shoes, and I have some really nice calves developing. lol

    Cheers!

  19. ben says:

    exactly how it worked for me, short distances on hard surface was the way… and having not run well if at all for 20 years, barefoot got me back into running, i used to love running in minimal shoes when i was in my early 20′s… Then it didn’t matter how many times i got checked at special running shops and taught how to run in my new expensive shoes, i could never really run as i did before, it was just too painful on my knees and ankles… Barefoot brought me back in… I am not back fast yet, or fully fit, but my love is back and the spring is coming…

  20. Jose says:

    It’s actually “Do or do not, there is no try.”

  21. recine says:

    Interesting article but as someone who has never done any form of running since childhood (plenty of walking though) would BF running be suitable for me?


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