Barefoot for beginners: The beauty of soft knees and “literate” feet.

August 15th, 2011 by Phil Brown

Today I took a barefoot road run. It was the furthest I have been on road barefoot and the difference since the previous session a week ago was marked. I felt like a different runner.  The springiness that more experienced barefooters talk about was something I actually began to experience rather than desire.

Running on tarmac and concrete has as much pleasure as running on grass. The firmness of the surface means that you can really “wind up” as your forefoot falls followed by the light touchdown of the heel. The feedback from the surface – particularly on a sunny day like today – is warm and smooth and allows your feet to spread evenly. I found this even easier than running on the field, since the ground was not unstable and I could concentrate on enjoying the run without the added challenge of uneven ground for my lower leg muscles and ankles (although that uneven ground is essential training not to be missed).

Road running barefoot would not have been anything like as fulfilling and certainly not as pain free if I had not been practicing what is a central technique in this lighter, less impact-heavy running style: running with bent knees.

With a heel to toe running gait, most runners land on their leading heel with the knee almost fully extended. The shock from that impact through the heel travels without much interruption straight through a relatively unstable, “open” knee and into the hips and lower back.

The running shoe – clad, heel-striking foot seems not to be able to “read” the impact of a strike as effectively as a soft, sometimes even gingerly-placed , bare footfall can (at least in my experience so far). In naked, the incredibly sensitive plantar surface of the feet feel everything on a road. The response from the body is to automatically look for ways to run in a lighter, pain free, easier way. Our natural response is to avoid pain: running barefoot seems to have a fantastic effect on the way we instinctively deal with movement and impact: we make it easy on ourselves: we bend our knees and when our feet plant, they do so at the end of soft, shock absorbing, bent knees. It. Feels. Good!!

Have you ever stood on something hard with sharp corners on it in bare feet? If you have children, you will know exactly what I mean: a midnight visit to the loo and suddenly the whole left side of your body is collapsing as if it has been shut down, as you stand on a die-cast car or the plug from some eletrical toy. It is amazing how the nerves in your feet can cause such a tidal wave of response all the way through the body. It may hurt like heck, but in actual fact, our feet are saving us from worse pain or damage. Telling our body to give way immediately lets us fall “around” the object rather than keep pressing down onto it without any give……barefoot running, once we adapt to it, is like that:  it is back to instinct, back to our interface with the ground we walk on, with nothing in between except our feet, which are learning how to read for us like they did when we ran barefoot as children.

How to learn to run with soft knees

Think about how you run up stairs. If you can, do it. What are your knees doing? Are they ever straight?

Now run up and down on the spot. Bring your knees up to your belt line as you do it. What are you doing? You are forefoot striking and landing with bent knees. You are doing this to make the process comfortable. Nobody has taught you this. You just do it.

Now, go outside and start running on the spot on hard ground. Do it gently and try to make every footfall as silent and as light as you can. Focus on LIFTING the knees AS SOON as your heel has touched the ground (the order should be ball of foot first, then toes and heel at the same time). Keep the cadence high and the footfalls light. (When you run or walk up stairs, the focus is on the lift of your knees).

Once you have tried this for a couple of minutes, break into a gentle run and keep the footfalls as soft as you were just doing. In order to do this you will have to keep your knees bent and keep lifting almost at the same time as each foot strike. Imagine being a ninja, moving so lightly that you aren’t leaving footprints! Keep the cadence light and moderately fast, but don’t try to run fast. Try to find a feeling of light,bouncy ease and just enjoy.

If things start to tighten up and you feel pain in the calf area or the knees, stop and try getting back your form by running on the spot as you started again: focusing on light bounces and lifting the knees and landing softly. I find the running on the spot technique great for getting back “in the groove” before carrying on again. Any pain apart from some direct contact sole soreness from the road means you are tightening up and that you need to adjust something. Watch your stride length too – keep it short and easy.

A word about pain: your calves and knees should not hurt when you run. If they do, it is most likely because you are trying to run too fast when you have not yet found your specific form (it takes practice and patience), or you have been running for too long when your body is not yet ready for it.  Go for short, gentle runs to begin with.  Learn the easy and light first, then the duration and speed will come naturally with time.

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