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Getting started with barefoot running

Mar. 21, 2010 - 02:30PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 21, 2010 - 02:30PM  |  
"Barefoot" shoes such as the Vibram Five Fingers are adding momentum to a rise in minimalist and barefoot running.
"Barefoot" shoes such as the Vibram Five Fingers are adding momentum to a rise in minimalist and barefoot running. (COURTESY OF SPC. DEREK BROUSSARD)
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Ready to rip off your running shoes and give barefoot a try?

Not so fast, Speed Racer.

Everyone who's made the transition agrees that taking it slow and easy on the front end is critical. So Rule No. 1 is to listen to your body and obey the pain by scaling back. Here are some road-tested tips to help you find your feet:

Let those dogs out. Barefooters call shoes "foot coffins" because they lock your feet away from the living. Shoes and socks also trap moisture. That makes feet soft, which is why it hurts when you first roam shoeless. Start off by walking around barefoot as much as possible.

Toughen 'em up. Some suggest dumping your shoes and building up your mileage a little at a time as your feet and muscles adjust. The downside: Your workout will suffer until you get up to full speed. That's why others offer a mixed approach, running shoed while you gradually introduce barefoot either before or after your normal run.

How to land. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to exactly how your feet should strike when you're running barefoot, but generally you want to land toward the middle or front of the foot, says Dr. Daniel Lieberman but not on your toes unless you're doing sprints.

Try "barefoot" shoes. Purists insist that naked feet are the best way to go, but stronger feet and better form can also come from minimalist shoes such as the Nike Free, Vibram Five Fingers and Tera Plana's Vivo Barefoot. Be sure the shoe has a flexible sole, with no raised heel or arch support. "Basic water shoes work just fine," says John Hayden, a former Air Force staff sergeant. The downside for beginners, he says, is that any protection "allows you to do too much too soon."

Watch your lane. Barefooters insist that concerns over cuts and other foot dangers are overblown. "I've had very few issues," Maj. Victor Palma said. "I've hurt my hands a whole lot more than I have my feet." Once or twice a year, he said he gets a relatively minor cut or bruise from a stick or shard of glass.

Oh, poo! It's the question every barefooter gets. What about the poo? Most runners say they've been pretty successful at dodging, but it does happen. "I was running on an asphalt path at a local park and the sun was in my eyes," Hayden says. No biggie, though. "It was like running through a warm muddy spot. No big deal. And I bet it was a hell of a lot easier to wash it off my foot than to wash it off a pair of sneakers with the deep tread."

Your calves will scream. "Heel strikers have tiny, puny, pathetic calf muscles. All forefoot strikers have good, well-designed calf muscles because you need them. And it takes a while to develop them if you haven't been using them," Lieberman says. His advice: Stretch and massage the heck out of them, along with the Achilles tendon.

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