Let’s just say you are a complete beginner. You have worn shoes your whole life, and you rarely go without shoes unless you are walking around your house at night on carpet. Or maybe you are someone who wears thinner shoes a lot, like flip-flops or sandals. Basically you are a person who has sedentary feet or, worse, completely inactive feet. If so, this is where you start. If you are beyond this point in your barefoot endeavors, keep reading anyway because this may still help you or help you to help others.
Step 1. Get to Know Your Feet
What I mean by this is take off your shoes and do some walking, standing, and just overall moving around. Rub your feet on the carpet while you sit at your desk, or walk around the house on all the different surfaces. Go bare to check the mail and see what concrete feels like. By doing things as simple as this you are letting your skin work its tactile sensory skills, and it will begin to communicate with your brain about what these feelings are. The brain can then begin to determine what to do with those feelings and adjust the way your foot interacts with the ground. You may notice that you suddenly shoot up on the balls of your feet, or you might feel that you are not walking as heavily as normal, even though you are still landing on your heels. It could be any of a million different adjustments, but the point is that you will feel and see a difference. This step is something you can do at any stage in your conversion or trial of barefooting, but it is necessary at the beginning. You may be able to begin the other stages in this section without doing this one for very long, but if you are a stone-cold beginner walking around in motion-control shoes, this should be a stage you stay in for a couple of weeks spending 15-20 minutes at a time getting to know your feet. You can do it as much as you want and as often, but be mindful of your feet and the messages they are sending you. If they hurt, get raw, or become overly tight in your arch then let them rest before putting your bare feet to the test again.
Step 2. Work the Muscles
The foot contains 20 different muscles, and odds are that you have not been using very many of them and in some extreme cases, none of them. I liken this to a person who has been sitting in a cubicle for years and doing nothing active outside of walking from home to the car and the car to the desk. Take that person and have him walk into a gym and go through a workout, and then see how he feels. No matter how easy or difficult the workout, that person will be sore for the next couple of days. Anyone would expect that outcome. The muscles in your feet are no different, and they too need to be exercised. Just walking or running on them in shoes is not enough. I learned that from a USA Track and Field coach when I was in high school. So how do you work the muscles in your feet? There are several options, and you can find a lot of advice on this subject by searching barefoot sites. Below are three of my favorites (stair climbing, squats, and arch curls) that I use with my beginner clients.
1. If you have stairs available all you have to do is go up and down them without shoes. You will be forced onto your toes, and that lifting and catching action will strengthen the muscles in your calves and your arches. Start by just going up and down three to five times, making sure to listen to your muscles both during the activity and in the days after. If you don’t have stairs around, then standing calf raises will be similar and useful. Just stand flatfooted with a shoulder width stance and press up onto the balls of your feet, focusing on contracting the calves and arches. Hold that for a three-count and slowly release. Repeat the same number of times as the stairs.
2. Next up are body-weight squats. This is just a good old-fashioned squat but without shoes or weight to begin. Standing with your feet shoulder width apart, bend at the knees and waist, keeping your torso upright and long. Do not lean far forward. Sit your rear backward as if there is a chair waiting to catch you. Reach your arms parallel to the floor and come back up. Resist the urge to let your heels leave the ground during this movement. Keeping the feet flat will engage secondary muscles in the calves, core, inner and outer thighs, and the glutes. Strengthening these muscles will come in very handy as you move into more and more activity without your shoes. Start with 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps, again listening to the muscles as you work.
3. This one is a personal favorite that I believe I made up. If you already do this exercise then we must be equally gifted mentally because I just kind of came up with it one day. Standing upright with your feet shoulder width apart, curl your toes under toward your heel. This motion will cause your arch to bend, and if done properly, your body will raise up slightly. Keep your knees straight, not locked, but straight during this movement and avoid rocking back and forth. This is an exercise that will directly strengthen the muscles in your arches and on the tops of your feet. For this one do as many as you can at a time working your way up to 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.
Step 3. Go for a Walk
The next step for a beginner is to walk. I am taking some of the following information from Jason Robillard, founder of Barefoot Running University. I also highly recommend picking up his book, The Barefoot Running Book, as it is also a great source of information on making the transition. In order to run, you must first know how to walk. Stick to hard surfaces, but make sure they are smooth. My biggest mistake when I went barefoot full time was that I just took off and ran. I had the muscular strength to handle this action, but I did not have skin suited for it. Check out the toe on my stories page and you will see why I say that walking is the best place to start. I set up courses outside my house and used the sidewalk. I have a course that is a half-mile out and back that I like to use. This is easy to do using www.mapmyrun.com by just putting in your address and tracing the course you want to run. Start with a short distance that keeps you close to home so that the minute you feel any hot spots, blisters, or pain in your foot you can make it back to base without causing any damage. I also recommend taking your shoes with you so that when you feel any problems coming on you can put your shoes back on and make it home without making your feet worse. I am currently working on building my distance abilities on pavement, and having my shoes nearby is something that comes in really handy. As you walk and build up your distance, you will notice differences in how the ground feels to your feet, and it will get easier because the skin is “toughening” up. Once you can easily walk a mile without shoes then you are probably ready for some running.
I know you may want to run much sooner than this plan allows, and if you are like me and could never follow a plan like the one I just laid out (I would have followed it had I known the pain I could have avoided) then I offer up this second option. Mark your route, walk it until you are about a minute or two from the finish and jog it in. Do this only after you can walk around without soreness in the muscles of your feet! If you can do that or complete your route walking without any problems then try a little jog just to feel the ultimate freedom and joy that running bare can offer. Once you have mastered these skills, then you will be ready for the next level….to be continued.