Phase Two has a few parts so be on the look out for the other sections as I post them. For Phase Two I will discuss some of the different levels that people may be at when they get to this phase but first it is necessary to discuss barefoot running form. Barefoot form has been greatly debated but for the most part there are a lot of points that are commonly agreed upon. I am of the mindset of to each his own. I have long since coached my runners that their form is entirely their own and as a coach it is merely my job to get the most out of it. Michael Johnson was widely known for his speed and “unorthodox” form. I put that in quotations because I do not believe in a single ideal form for running. I do believe that there are things no one should do while running and these are what I will cover here.
1. Foot Strike
I do not believe that anyone should use a heel strike. I never have. Even before I decided to completely toss out my shoes I did all I could to avoid my heels and keep my runners from doing it as well. The reason has always been the design of the human body. The average person has some padding in their fore and mid foot but usually never have padding in their heel. That has always been enough reason for me to say, “get off your heels”. Beyond that the muscle and skeletal structure of the foot is set up to function from the front to the back so landing on your heel when running is in direct disagreement with the way your foot is supposed to work. With all that said I do not try and dictate how anyone lands on the rest of his or her foot. It is debated that a forefoot (on the toes) landing is better and others will say a mid-foot (just behind the balls of the foot) is the best way to go. You will hear arguments about the heel as well. Should it ever hit the ground? Should it just barely touch on the way down? Should it actually be what hits first as long as it is a very soft landing? I would say the last one is entirely up to you but I recommend against it because that means you are essentially over striding and not landing heavily on your heel will be hard. For me the answer is to listen to your body as you find your own ideal form. If after your first few runs you are getting blisters, bruises, or strong muscle pains then you should probably look at your form and see if there are holes in it somewhere. This will be a feeling out period that can be frustrating but also a good teaching tool. By having to feel your way through you will become very aware of your muscles and how they are activating. Having that knowledge can come in handy as you progress to longer runs where your muscles may tire and your form change. Having a cognitive recognition of those changes because you can feel your muscles activation changing will help keep you from sustaining any injuries. If I were pressed I would say that your foot should come straight down towards the ground in a vertical drop. The balls of the foot will softly hit first, the musculature of the arch will accept the load bringing the heel down behind it. The heel will either gently kiss, or land firmly but with no force. It is not against the law for the heel to touch the ground, just don’t let it hit first. For me my heel lands softly and fully before I pick my foot up for the next step.
2. Leg Motion
The last thing I said about the foot strike is that I pick my foot up for the next step. Note that I did not say push off. Pushing off is something you do in conventional shoes because the foam in them typically offers springing energy in return for your footfall. The arch does not do that quite the same way. The foot’s muscles will accept your weight and let you land gently but those muscles are not designed to offer so a large amount of return energy. So instead of pushing off with the foot you should lift your foot off the ground by contracting the glutes and hamstrings. The legs should look like a piston pumping, not a wheel turning. In conventional shoes you will have a tendency to move your foot in a big circle from the ground, back behind you in a long stride, then swinging it forward in front of you before extending your leg and landing back down. The motion is a large circle where barefoot form uses a much smaller up and down motion. You will not be pushing off the ground and reach out in front or behind you. Instead you take small controlled steps that start by raising the foot up off the ground and then putting it right back down. The lifting motion will cause you to bend at the knee and that forward motion will assist in the forward propulsion of your body. It does not take much to make you go forward so a little will do. You do not have to bring your foot all the way up to your rear. In fact I recommend small steps that keep the foot close to the ground.
Your torso should look like those toys where the clown is hanging on a string. When you pull the string the clown straightens up and when you let it go it falls in a lump of limbs. Your body should be on a string when you run. You should be upright and straight, your head up and looking forward, your chest up but not out, your shoulders down hanging your arms loose at your side. Some will say your arms should be up high and tight. I personally feel that your arms should be comfortable but not flailing out away from your body. Your forearms should feel like they are on two rails connected to your sides. They should just pump forward and backward with all their motion coming from your shoulders. You want your body to be moving at the shoulder and the hips. Beyond that there really should be very little of you making big movements. Some use a slight forward lean to help in the forward propulsion area. If this feels comfortable to you or you want to try it, the movement should come at the ankles. You should still be straight and upright, not bending at the waist. You should also not lean very far into it, maybe a 30-degree kind of angle at most. Once you have all that worked out you should be upright, possibly leaning slightly forward, picking your feet up, not reaching our in front of you, and staying loose. The main and first rule of running is to stay relaxed and comfortable.
Now you know how to run with a good relaxed, barefoot form. Practice these tips and you will feel your form come together. I practice these up and down the hallways of the clinics I work at. I get some interesting looks and questions but I wear my Five Fingers at work so I can practice my barefoot form anywhere and those little jogs through the halls have taught me a lot about my foot fall. You can practice picking your foot up just walking or jogging in place. The point is that you can work on these form techniques anywhere and anytime, and doing do so will make your transition that much easier and faster.