Pitfalls of Transitioning from Shod to Barefoot: A Newbie’s Perspective By Barefoot Terry When a runner becomes aware of the concept of barefoot running and decides to make the switch, they should be aware that the decision is likely the easiest part.In reviewing various barefoot running forums, one will find listings of problems encountered by newbie barefoot runners.How is this possible?Isn’t barefoot running “better” than running shod?Why am I getting injured?These are a few of the questions one might ask. Choosing to run barefoot involves a new look at how you run.A runner needs to evaluate the strength of their feet, their form, and their cadence.Unfortunately, many people, myself included, cannot simply switch to barefooting without truly taking the time to transition. Minimalist or Barefoot? One question many runners have making the switch is whether to go with a minimalist shoe or true barefoot. Many runners on barefoot running forums state they are running in Vibram FiveFingers (VFFs) as they make the transition to barefoot. Others ask what is the best way to transition. According to experienced barefoot runners, including Barefoot Ken Bob and Barefoot Jason, a person looking to move to barefoot running should begin running barefoot on varied hard surfaces rather than a surface like grass or sand. According to Ken Bob’s website, running on softer surfaces may feel better, but does not do anything to condition one’s feet. My personal experience with VFFs showed me that it was easier to “cheat” on my form. I could hear the sound of scuffing as my foot came down with a forward shearing force as I ran. Running barefoot quickly teaches you to self-correct both pushing-off and scuffing. If you don’t, you will end up with blisters or other painful reminders of your poor form. Transitioning & Your Muscles Some people are fortunate enough, for whatever reason, that they can decide to go barefoot one day and start running 8 – 10 miles or more without a single issue. If you are like me, this is very much NOT the case. I had been running half marathons and marathons shod for a few years. I’ve also been shod most of my adult life. As a result, the muscles in my feet have atrophied. I was very eager to make the transition to barefoot. The end result was that in the 5 months following, I have had two fairly painful setbacks of over-use type injuries. A common experience among newbie barefoot runners is something referred to as “top of foot pain” or TOFP. Other over-use injuries may include tendon and ligament damage, stress fractures, and excessive blistering. If you spend enough time in the barefoot forums, you will see many references to these types of injuries from newbie barefoot runners. Barefoot Jason of Barefoot Running University attributes this pain as well as other injuries to doing too much too soon. Barefoot Ken Bob and Barefoot Ted suggest that people transitioning to barefoot should start out very slow and gradually increase their distances running barefoot. While some genetic freaks or runners who already run with a forefoot/mid-foot strike might avoid these gradual increases, most of us probably fall into this category. If you are like me, patience is a giant pill that is hard to swallow. Due to my TOFP issues, I was forced to scale back my running goals of running a half marathon to a 5k this May. Now that my race is over I’m forcing myself to take a few weeks of rest to heal properly. I’ll be taking the advice of those more knowledgeable and start again slower. Barefoot Form While learning to run barefoot is not a complicated task, it definitely can have its difficulties. For the most part, there is not one correct way to run barefoot. Each runner will find his or her own style of running barefoot. However, the elements of barefoot form are the same – foot strike, stride, and cadence. Shod runners tend to run with a heel-strike. Do this once barefoot, and you’ll probably never do it again. Barefoot runners land with a forefoot or mid-foot strike.The heel does touch, but at the last possible instant before it is immediately lifted back up. In order to facilitate a forefoot or mid-foot strike, a barefoot or minimalist runner needs to shorten their stride. Heel-strikes come from a longer stride where the foot is reaching out in front of the body. A shorter strike allows your foot to land flat and underneath your body. Lastly, a barefoot/minimalist runner should maintain a cadence of 180 or more steps per minute.This is a very quick pace, but keeps the runner very light on their feet, and reduces the likelihood of “pushing-off.” Muscles in Transition As mentioned earlier, people who have been shod most of their life have the likelihood of having atrophied foot muscles. Push it too hard too soon, and you are likely to injure yourself. As you are transitioning to barefoot by gradually increasing your barefoot mileage, you will notice your feet strengthening. Your feet may not have the “raw” feeling after a run. As your form improves, you may notice that you are no longer getting blisters. All of these things are evidence that your body has begun to make the transition to your new running style. A funny bit of evidence I found with my muscles strengthening was in my toes. My wife always teased me about my curled toes. Apparently, I had hammertoe. After I had been running barefoot for a few months, I noticed my toes weren’t so curled. Now my toes are virtually flat. Now she’ll have to find something else to tease me about. Moving Forward As a fairly new barefoot runner, I have experienced some problems in making my transition to barefoot. However, I’ve loved every bit of the experience of running down the street without my shoes on hot days, cold days, in the rain, and in a race. Keep in mind the pitfalls that can occur from over-exuberance in your newfound running style. Take the time to learn your art.Take the time to learn from those who have experience. If you LISTEN to their advice, then you may just make a smooth transition to barefoot running injury free. There is nothing quite like running barefoot.