How do I safely transition from running shoes to barefoot?
This post is designed to give you the most accurate answer to the big barefoot question
“How long does it take to transition?”
This question is a perennially challenging question to answer accurately as everyone has a different history, a different level of health and performance and a different goal.
The short (and responsible) answer is that it will take between 6-18 months for you to transition, as this is the reported duration for connective tissue adaptation to occur. However, for some people this journey will be a little longer, and for others it will be shorter; and of course, this can all change based on your diligence.
For simplicity, the foot can be described as having 3 primary components:
1) the passive system (bones / joints / ligaments / tendons / fascia)
2) the active system (muscles – intrinsic within the foot & extrinsic running down from the leg)
3) the neural system (the sensory nerves coming from the foot & motor nerves running to the foot)
When each of these components is functioning optimally and in harmony, then you will have a stable, healthy, fully functional foot.
In our experience – and based on research, for most people, the nervous (neural) system reacts almost instantaneously to a lack of cushioning (assuming the surface you’re running on is hard) to produce a forefoot strike.
The active system will typically take between 8-12 weeks for adaptation to the new running technique.
The passive system (bones/connective tissues) are, by their nature, passive; and therefore have a relatively limited blood supply compared to muscles. This means their ability to adapt is a lot slower, and will take between 6-18 months.
The Barefoot Transition Guide below (a downloadable Excel file) should give you a good basic insight into how long it will take you to transition, but first you must establish your goal. Is it to run a 5K barefoot? Is it to run a marathon? Is it to do resistance training in the gym in minimalist shoes? Or to play full round of golf in your minimalist golf shoes? There are as many possible goals as there are people (and probably more)! Please think about what your initial goal is as you wait for your computer to download the questionnaire. You can always revisit the process if your goal changes.
… take your time to transition (months rather than weeks)
… think you can run your normal distance at first
… remember, the more injured, fatigued, or deconditioned you are, the longer it will take
… assume because you’re already a forefoot striker you can adapt instantly
… listen to what your body is telling you; pain is an indicator to STOP!
… stop paying attention to the ground beneath your feet
… start at 10% of your normal distance / volume and progress by up to 10% per week-to-fortnight
… forget, delayed onset muscle soreness peaks 48 jours after your workout
… run as if you were barefoot – even in minimalist shoes
… run in Vibram Fivefingers before you’ve worn them daily for 2 weeks
… run silently
… run through pain
… consult an expert if you have any concerns about your transition
… leave tracks
To see this section discussed by Matt Wallden in video format in more detail, please click here.
We recommend to all runners to download a copy of barefoot audio’s album Towards Verticalhere.
If you scored high in Section B or you know you have a tendency to over-pronate conditioning tips, please visit here and scroll to the “Bonus Material” at the bottom of the page (here you will find a free video called “Overpronation – or inhibition & deconditioning”).
Look at your higher scoring responses (the blue and purple column scores in Section A / the responses to the right hand side in Section B) and address these issues first. If it’s easier, feel free to copy & print this section off:
Tick if you scored 2+
1) Injury history
(major or recurrent injuries)
A higher level of injuries in your medical history indicates either a susceptibility to injury and/or an increased likelihood of adoption of compensatory movement patterns. If you score high here, consider seeing a movement specialist such as a C.H.E.K. Practitioner, a higher-end personal trainer / strength & conditioning coach, or a manual therapist specialised in sports conditioning.
2) Current injury(ies)
If you have current injuries or niggles, these should be diagnosed and their causative path identified by a manual therapist or movement specialist (see above). Any niggle or pain you perceive will alter your muscle firing and coordination, decreasing efficiency and increasing risk of future injury.
3) Nutritional Status
Nutrition is not only key for fuel, but perhaps more importantly, for repair. Any new stressor the body isn’t yet conditioned for increases the damage rate and the requirement for repair. Compromised nutrition will result in compromised capacity to adapt to new stressors, such as a barefoot lifestyle. If you feel your nutrition is suboptimal, consider consulting a metabolic typing nutritional advisor, a holistic lifestyle coach, or a naturopath (see resources below).
4) Hydration Status
If your hydration may be a problem consider the following: drinking approximate 200ml for every 1 stone of bodyweight, 30ml for every kg, or in fluid ounces – half your bodyweight (in pounds). Be aware of diuretics, such as coffee, alcohol and high sugar / caffeinated drinks. Aside from this, consider that a high quality sea salt sprinkled to taste on your food may be important to facilitate hydration (it is sodium that actually holds fluids in the body, but is often excreted at high rates due to consumption of diuretics, such as coffee)
5) Sleep patterns
Like all organisms, human physiology is tightly tuned to the light-dark cycles of the planet. Primary repair occurs during sleep – and especially during the first half of the night (peaking between 22:00-2:00am). If you consistently miss this period of sleep and/or have disturbed sleep, consider the following measures: 1) minimize any stimulants after midday, 2) assess your metabolic type (eating the wrong food ratios, such as too many carb’s, in the evening can compromise sleep), 3) ensure you are sleeping in complete darkness, 4) get exposure to daylight (and exercise) early in the day, 5) minimize alcohol consumption, 6) try a dawn simulator / light alarm clock, 7) avoid exposure to computer screens / mobile phones / TV’s beyond 8pm, 8) dim your lights in the evening.
6) Breathing pattern
Breathing pattern reflects (and perpetuates) underlying physiological stressors. If you have challenges with stress, anxiety, panic attacks, asthma or breathing pattern, consider building a relaxation discipline into your routine; such as yoga, general stretching, T’ai chi, Xi gong, zone exercises, a hot bath, or simply a slow walk. Relaxing music, aromatherapy oils, such as lavender and teas, such as camomile, can be useful tools here.
7) Training Age (years)
Training age is the amount of time you have been training for this specific discipline, without any significant break. If your training age is low, it is an indicator that you are not likely to be as “adapted” to the kinds of loads that barefoot training will put through your system as someone who has already been training for a while. Consistency with training is key to positive adaptation; but equally important is to build in times when training is at lower intensity, lower volume, or when you have total rest. The body gets stronger when it rests, not when it’s training, so if you miss a training session, don’t see this as negative, but as an opportunity to be able to get stronger and to train harder next time.
8) Training History (years)
If training history is low, this tends to indicate it may take a longer period to adapt, however, this is not always the case, as it also means that you have probably not picked up bad technique habits. If you’re fortunate enough to have a low training age, consider getting a coach in your chosen sport to offer you advice at this early stage. If you cannot access a coach, we strongly recommend Barefoot Audio to runners who are considering starting out in the barefoot / minimalist running style. (See resources at end.)
If your lack of training history is due to a lack of desire to participate in sports, the necessity for a running coach is higher to ensure your body awareness of technique is optimized.
9) Barefoot / Minimalist History (years)
The longer you’ve spent in minimalist shoes or barefoot living, the more adept you will have already become at optimising awareness, footfall, and the adaptation the connective tissues will have undergone. If you score high here (little experience) have patience and pay attention; “listen” to each foot step as if it were a new language – asking a question of the ground, the ground responding, and you then selecting the correct response to what you perceive. For example, if the ground is telling you it is jagged, hard or pointed, you do not want to push down hard, but to switch your weight quickly to your other foot. This is easier said than done when mid-stride and fatigued toward the end of a run. If you can and are willing, going completely barefoot is a better learning experience than going minimally shod. This is best done in the warmer months, starting on well lit, clear concrete surfaces and progressing to
10) Running technique
Footstrike remains a controversial topic, but there is now plenty of evidence that a forefoot strike is more natural, often more efficient, and less likely to cause injury when running on firm to hard surfaces. If you know you tend to heel-strike and/or to over-pronate, there will be a greater adaptive requirement on your body when switching to minimalist or barefoot running. Bear in mind that you are most likely to feel this some time after you have run (usually between 24-48 hours after) and not during your run; therefore beware to take it easy in the first instance; do up to 10% of your normal distance, and see how your body reacts. Cadence (your step rate per minute) and awareness are key consideration in optimizing foot strike. Barefoot Audio, a free downloadable album (see resources) is a useful tool here.
11) Target use
It is a very different answer to the question “how long will it take to transition” if you are planning to run a 5K versus planning to run an UltraMarathon. If you are planning on running a longer distance (anything over 10K), it is advisable to allow a minimum of 6 months for adaptation of the connective tissues, as this is the shortest likely period within which they can adapt. Good hydration, nutrition and sleep are all key for effective connective tissue adaptation; as well as for heavier volume training, so ensure you are drinking enough fluids, consuming enough salts (to hold fluid in the tissues) and minimizing diuretic consumption (medications / caffeinated drinks / alcohol) in your diet. For optimal sleep, stimulants should not be consumed beyond midday, and you should aim to be in bed by around 10pm and up between 6-7am in the morning. For more detail, see the Primal Lifestyle Barefoot Conditioning Booklet
12) Max distance to date in training
A seasoned marathoner who wants to transition to minimalist or barefoot running is likely to be able to successfully transition for marathon distance quicker than someone who has only run 5K. This is because the seasoned marathoner will have, over time, developed stronger connective tissues as a result of their superior training volumes. The further you are from your goal, the greater patience you will need, but the rewards will be worth it!
13) Kinesthetic awareness
Kinesthetic awareness is your awareness or intelligence of your body. Typically those who are aware of their body have very good movement skills, hand-eye-coordination and foot-eye-coordination; they are sporty types who are agile and dexterous. In addition, these people tend to be very aware if something feels “tight” out of place or hypermobile in their body. If this sounds like you, this background may help you to transition more effectively with lower risk of injury, but if it doesn’t sound like you at all, it is just a warning sign that a) it may take you a little longer to safely transition and b) you may need more tools to facilitate a smooth transition. One of the key tools we recommend for those scoring high here is the Barefoot Audio (see resources section), which is great for anyone transitioning and helps to minimize technique faults, but the best option is to book in with a running coach.
Barefoot Audio: click here to get listen to the first album Towards Vertical.
CHEK Practitioner: click here to find a practitioner near you.
HLC Coach: click here to find an HLC Coach near you.
Metabolic Typing (Nutritional) Advisor: click here to find a Metabolic Typing Advisor near you.
If you are searching for any of the following, they should each be registered to their Governing Bodies:
Osteopath – General Osteopathic Council
Chiropractor – General Chiropractic Council
Physiotherapist – Royal Charter of Physiotherapists