The Rapidian

Feet on the Ground: The Basics of Barefoot Running

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Barefoot Running on the Road

Barefoot Running on the Road /Jason Robillard

Jason Robillard Runs Barefoot in Michigan

Jason Robillard Runs Barefoot in Michigan

Running barefoot, in the competitive sense, isn't as new as some people might think. The movement is building among runners now, especially with minimalist foot covers, which make the sport easier on the feet. Ethiopian Abebe Bikila perhaps set the stage, running the marathon in the 1964 Rome Olympics barefoot. He won a gold medal. Four years later in Tokyo, he won another gold for the marathon, this time wearing shoes.

And maybe that's the best thing to keep in mind about barefoot running--sometimes it might be the right option; other times shoes might be better.

When Jason Robillard injured himself running he began looking up information on the internet about running injuries and prevention. "I was in grad school at GVSU at the time and in the found a paper online that hypothesized that barefoot running could strengthen your feet and reduce injuries," said Robillard. When he was in high school, he ran barefoot often and didn't have the kinds of injuries he was experiencing. "It made sense," he said. In the spring of 2006 he decided to give it a try. "I," he said. "I basically took my shoes off and tried doing the same things I did with my shoes on as far as technique," he said. "There wasn't a lot of information out there, there was a lot of trial and error." He trained through the spring and summer running a 15k race, then a 50 miler and he experienced no injuries. "I ran in aqua socks, I wasn't quite ready for racing totally barefoot," he said. Now he averages one race a month, most without any foot cover at all. He will be running the 100 mile Burning River Ultra Marathon in Ohio at the end of July without shoes or covers.

For people who might be considering running barefoot, there are a few things to consider as you explore.

  • Begin by getting used to being barefoot. Walk without shoes and become accustom to the feelings you experience. Robillard recommends doing calf stretching exercises and trying some barefoot hiking. He also recommends NOT transitioning to barefoot running by using a foot cover or thin shoe. "You'll miss important feedback from the soles of your feet," writes Robillard on the website Barefoot Running University.
  • After spending a few weeks getting used to walking barefoot, begin walking in place and then slowly start running. This up and down (rather than forward moving) motion will help strengthen your feet and prepare you to run. This is important--if you can't build up from 15 seconds of running in place barefoot for three minutes (all without pain) you might need to reconsider.
  • Once running in place is mastered, Robillard suggests finding a stretch of surface that is flat, clean and smooth. At this point, running slowly is important, as is running a short distance. He suggests 1/8-1/4 of a mile at most, three days a week. Days of rest off between barefoot runs are important. Increase distance only by an 1/8 of a mile at a time.
  • After about a month, adding incremental mileage, a runner should be around 1.5 miles in distance, but still running slowly. Staying at this level is important until you can run the distance without pain. At this point, new terrain can be added - grass, dirt or even sand. Some hills can be added, too.
  • Robillard emphasizes in his book and website that running relaxed is important to early success. He recommends progressive relaxation, where you tense, hold and then release all muscle groups in the body starting with the feet and moving up to the head. "Relaxation is fundamental to all barefoot runners. It gives the athlete the ability to run with little impact," said Robillard. Running softly, which is what barefoot runners do, requires relaxation.

Taking up barefoot running requires discipline and a long-term commitment to giving up shoes. It can take as long as six months for a runner to transition to barefoot running and return distances and speeds that were achieved in shoes. More details on getting started running barefoot are in Robillard's book, The Barefoot Running Book.


This is the second in a three-part series. Next up, the third article in the series: Talking with some Grand Rapids area barefoot runners.


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That explains why my Vibram Five Fingers are called Bikila!

Thanks for making the connection with the foot covers and the Bikila name. 

Wait a second here--are you telling me Jason runs barefoot in the winter???

Jason got me interested in barefoot running.  I can safely say the first time I saw him out running - last November - I told "no way can I do that..." 

Seven months later I have run numerous races and training runs barefoot.  Running has become more fun, included less injury, and I have become much stronger all around.