12 Step Program to Run Barefoot

12 Steps Program Header1 12 Step Program to Run Barefoot


This pro­gram is based upon the expe­ri­ence of bare­foot run­ners and coaches and my per­sonal expe­ri­ence. It has not been endorsed by any med­ical or sports pro­fes­sional. It is not designed to take the place of med­ical advice. As with any run­ning pro­gram, lis­ten to your body and stop and assess if you expe­ri­ence discomfort.

As part of my quest to become a run­ner once again, I decided I needed to learn to run bare­foot. The ben­e­fits to doing so are numer­ous (see Run­ning Bare­foot: Not just for bums and hip­pies). I began to read up on oth­ers’ expe­ri­ences with begin­ning to run bare­foot (see Resources at end of this post).

There are many tips out there on how to run bare­foot, with more being offered up on a daily basis. The grow­ing suc­cess of the book Born to Run is cer­tainly fuel­ing this, as are folks’ pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences with run­ning bare­foot. Some of these tips can be con­fus­ing or down­right con­tra­dic­tory to one another, though, which can kill curios­ity and inter­est in giv­ing it a try. Or worse yet, peo­ple end up injur­ing them­selves and giv­ing up. The con­fu­sion can make putting a bare­foot run­ning pro­gram together for your­self rather difficult.

After read­ing many of the tips and per­sonal expe­ri­ences out there and try­ing bare­foot run­ning myself, I real­ized noth­ing – at least what I saw – quite met my needs. I wanted a sim­ple, easy-to-follow pro­gram; a sys­tem of guide­lines based on the tips from the best bare­foot run­ners and per­sonal expe­ri­ences alike. So I decided to put together what I’ve learned into a bare­foot run­ning pro­gram of my own. I am shar­ing this pro­gram with you for two main reasons:

  1. Since I had the need for such a pro­gram I fig­ured oth­ers might as well. I want to help oth­ers enjoy the ben­e­fits of bare­foot run­ning while avoid­ing the pitfalls.
  2. As is the case with any activ­ity, if we share knowl­edge with one another around bare­foot run­ning, we all stand to ben­e­fit. I want to con­tinue to learn tips and tricks from fel­low run­ners so I can get bet­ter and pass them on at the same time.

Now, I’m no expert – not a doc­tor, a run­ning coach, or even an expe­ri­enced marathon run­ner. In fact, I’m a rel­a­tive new­bie when it comes to run­ning (I’ve had a num­ber of set­backs that has stopped me from run­ning my first marathon). What I offer here, though, comes from read­ing hun­dreds of posts, arti­cles, and research reports about run­ning barefoot.

In cre­at­ing a bare­foot run­ning pro­gram for myself, I chose a com­mon model for wean­ing our­selves off of a bad habit: a 12-step pro­gram. As has been out­lined in pre­vi­ous posts of mine and in a num­ber of arti­cles lately by the national media and in Born to Run, run­ning shoes can be quite addic­tive, and harmful.

But I’m not here to bitch, com­plain, or toss blame around (I’ll leave that for other posts!). My goal with this post is to help you begin to enjoy the ben­e­fits that come from at least includ­ing some bare­foot run­ning in your train­ing pro­gram. And who knows, in the process you might even be con­vinced that run­ning bare­foot is right for you like I’ve found. But  that’s a deci­sion you need to make for yourself.

A Note For Expe­ri­enced Runners

Run­ning bare­foot can be par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for expe­ri­enced run­ners. The usual feed­back of fatigue – aer­o­bic over­load – won’t work. Your foot and calf mus­cles will likely fatigue before you’ve even bro­ken a sweat. I’m sure this pro­gram will look incred­i­bly slow to you. How­ever, I’ve seen many run­ners try and run bare­foot too far too soon and suf­fer for it. Take it slowly and you’ll have the best expe­ri­ence over the long haul. For­tu­nately, you don’t have to stop your reg­u­lar run­ning to begin to prac­tice some bare­foot running.

12 Step Pro­gram to Run Barefoot

12 Step Overview Graphic2 12 Step Program to Run Barefoot

There is a print­able one-page sum­mary of the 12 Step Pro­gram at the end of this post for your con­ve­nience. It’s what I am using to guide myself.


  • Be patient and stay com­mit­ted. Your body will thank you.
  • Take a break for a day after every bare­foot run­ning expe­ri­ence. This will enable you to assess how you are doing and give your mus­cles a rest if you expe­ri­ence some soreness.
  • Each step builds on the work done in the pre­vi­ous one. Skip any step and you will risk hurt­ing yourself.
  • The pro­gram is on the long side. This is to help you avoid sore mus­cles or worse, injuries from over-worked calves and foot mus­cles. If you do feel sig­nif­i­cant pain, go back a step until the pain subsides.
  • The pro­gram is designed to help you tran­si­tion to bare­foot run­ning from reg­u­lar run­ning with­out mak­ing you stop. You can add this pro­gram on top of your exist­ing run­ning plan until you reach your desired bare­foot distance.
  • The pro­gram is designed for run­ners at every level, though it should not take the place of a begin­ner run­ning program.
  • These steps are designed to help you tran­si­tion from run­ning in shoes to bare­foot, but will also work to tran­si­tion to min­i­mal shoes, though it is rec­om­mended that you do some bare­foot run­ning to learn the right form.

WomanStretchingonBeachYogaMat thumb 12 Step Program to Run Barefoot

I. Pre­pare Your Body

Run­ning bare­foot is per­haps one of the most nat­ural things you can do. How­ever, it’s not some­thing you can start doing imme­di­ately (unless you’re a child or walk around bare­foot at least a few hours a day). You need to pre­pare your body. Run­ning bare­foot will require the use of a num­ber of mus­cles in your feet and legs that have been dor­mant for years – ever since you began wear­ing shoes. You will need to pre­pare by exer­cis­ing these mus­cles.
Please note that the fol­low­ing steps can be added to an exist­ing train­ing pro­gram – you do not need to stop run­ning in shoes all together, though that wouldn’t be a bad idea.

1.  Walk bare­foot in the house.

Take your shoes off (well, that was pretty obvi­ous!). Walk bare­foot in the house while you go about your nor­mal activ­i­ties.
2 hours every­day for 1 week

2.  Walk bare­foot outside.

Walk out­side on a soft sur­face like grass, soft dirt, or firm sand. This will start to get your foot used to dif­fer­ent sur­faces and work new mus­cles. It’s not unusual for your feet to feel quite sen­si­tive at this stage. There are thou­sands of nerve end­ings in your foot, and they’ve been cov­ered up for awhile. But you’d be sur­prised at how quickly your feet will once again become accus­tomed to a vari­ety of sur­faces.
30 min­utes every­day for 1 week

3.  Per­form feet, leg, and breath­ing exercises.

Ok, you don’t have to get quite as lim­ber as the woman in the pho­to­graph above, but you do need to stretch and work out your feet and leg mus­cles to pre­pare them for new use. Con­tinue to walk around bare­foot in the house and out­side. Add some spe­cific exer­cises into your work­outs. Choose exer­cises that tar­get your calves and feet. Squats, heel raises, and jump­ing lightly on the balls of your feet are par­tic­u­larly good for this. Jump­ing rope hits all the right mus­cles, too.

As is the case with any sort of run­ning, it is very impor­tant to run relaxed. If you are tense, you will expe­ri­ence pain and pos­si­ble injury. Prac­tice breath­ing with your abdom­i­nal mus­cles going out when you breathe in, and pulling in when you breathe out. Focus on relax­ation while you breathe.
30 min­utes each day for 1 week

BarefeetRunning thumb 12 Step Program to Run Barefoot

II.  Learn the Stride

You are now ready to try bare­foot run­ning. The key is to take it slowly. One of the biggest mis­takes peo­ple make when giv­ing bare­foot run­ning a try is to overdo it. Another fre­quent mis­take is think­ing that it’s all about the lack of shoes (or at least wear­ing min­i­mal shoes). In truth, the lack of shoes are  only a small part of what run­ning bare­foot is all about. When run­ning bare­foot, the biggest change is often in form. With most peo­ple, the whole body will need to move dif­fer­ently. To run suc­cess­fully, you will need to learn this form (see graphic below for more details).

ProperBarefootFormGraphic thumb 12 Step Program to Run BarefootProper form: Land on your fore­foot, below your cen­ter of grav­ity, then quickly bounce your heel down on the ground and up off again. Your foot should kick back high behind you. Lean for­ward slightly and keep both knees bent at all times. Your stride will be shorter and your cadence higher. Keep your body relaxed at all time.

The good news is that your body already knows how to run prop­erly – you just have to let it show the proper form to you. With a lit­tle prac­tice and patience, you’ll get it.

Note: while you can still run in a bare­foot man­ner with some min­i­mal shoes on (like Vivo Bare­foot, Vibram Five Fin­gers, or Feel­Max), you should first run com­pletely bare­foot to learn the proper form. Even 3mm of cov­er­ing under your foot and mere ounces of weight can block some nec­es­sary stim­u­la­tory feedback.

4.  Run 100 feet on grass.

Some peo­ple will tell you to only run bare­foot on a hard sur­face (Chris McDougall, the author of Born to Run, and Bare­foot Ted, for exam­ple). They rec­om­mend this not because they want you to hurt your feet, but because grass still pro­vides you with too much free­dom to run incor­rectly – heel first.

While this is true, I sug­gest that you start run­ning on grass because you need to strengthen your foot mus­cles. The mus­cles in your arch, among oth­ers, have prob­a­bly atro­phied con­sid­er­ably over the years in their “shoe casts.” Bare­foot is not just about proper form, it’s also about using all of your mus­cles. The prob­lem with telling folks to imme­di­ately go to con­crete or some other hard sur­face is that too often, peo­ple suf­fer from sore feet, then they give up. Spend­ing some time run­ning on the grass will help you strengthen these mus­cles first and enjoy some of the imme­di­ate ben­e­fits of run­ning barefoot.

Note: You should run at a much slower pace than you are used to dur­ing this phase.
3 days for 1 week

5.  Run 20 feet on a hard surface.

Your first run on a hard sur­face bare­foot should be very brief – think feet, not miles. Seek out a hard to semi-hard sur­face, like packed dirt or clay, or even asphalt. On grass, you might have got­ten away with land­ing on your heel. Do this just once on a hard sur­face and you’ll quickly learn not to do it! There’s no room for error when you’re on a hard sur­face. As Christo­pher McDougall, author of Born to Run, explains, “Run­ning bare­foot on a hard sur­face will make you run correctly.”

Focus on land­ing under your cen­ter of grav­ity, touch­ing your heel down briefly. Your cadence will be higher and your heels will likely kick up higher behind you as well.
3 days for 1 week

6.  Run 100 feet on a hard surface.

After you’ve included some bare­foot run­ning into your rou­tine, you can up the dis­tance to around 100 feet. I know, you are dying to go fur­ther. But your calves and feet will thank you for con­tin­ued patience.
3 days for 1 week

MountainTrail thumb 12 Step Program to Run Barefoot

III.  Increase the Distance

Now that your body has learned the cor­rect stride and can do it nat­u­rally on any sur­face, it’s time to slowly begin to intro­duce longer dis­tances to your bare­foot run­ning plan. If you want to run in min­i­mal footwear, now would be an ok time to try it. Make sure you read about the dif­fer­ent types of run­ning shoes out there first (post). If at any point you expe­ri­ence pain, and it does not sub­side dur­ing your rest day, go back a step for a week.

7.  Run 500 feet.

It’s now time to begin to increase your dis­tance with every run. Start by run­ning about 500 feet. If that goes well, con­tinue to increase your dis­tance each day by 500 feet or so.
3 days for 1 week

8.  Run 1 mile.

You have now reached an impor­tant mile­stone, quite lit­er­ally. Start by run­ning a mile. Remem­ber to take it slowly. Stay loose. Breathe. If 1 mile goes well, you can increase by a tenth to a quar­ter of a mile with every run.
3 days a week for 2 weeks

9.  Run 2 miles.

Start out by run­ning 2 miles, then increase your dis­tance by a quar­ter of a mile with each run.
3 days a week for 2 weeks

BarefootRunnerTrail thumb 12 Step Program to Run Barefoot

IV.  Main­tain Yourself

Con­grat­u­la­tions! You are run­ning bare­foot and no doubt reap­ing many ben­e­fits for it. These final three steps focus on help­ing you stay well and injury free while fur­ther build­ing up your strength. If at any point you expe­ri­ence pain, and it does not sub­side dur­ing your rest day, go back a step for a week.

10.  Run 5 miles.

Con­tinue to increase your dis­tance. Make sure that if you fatigue, your stride does not suf­fer. Keep focused on lift­ing your knees, tread­ing gen­tly, and land­ing beneath your cen­ter of grav­ity through­out your run.
3 days a week for 1 month

11.  Run 8+ miles.

Con­tinue to increase your dis­tance. And it’s ok to smile while you run – that’s the way it’s meant to be!
3 days a week for 1 month

12. Teach some­one else to run barefoot.

One of the best ways to learn some­thing well is to teach it. Find some­one who’s curi­ous about and inter­ested in try­ing out bare­foot run­ning. Pass on your learn­ings and cre­ate a plan with them. Com­mit to being their coach and cheer­leader for the next 12 weeks. You will not only find it enjoy­able and reward­ing, you will con­tinue to bet­ter your own stride by watch­ing and giv­ing feed­back to your new bare­foot run­ning buddy.
1 day a week forever!

Here’s a recap of the whole pro­gram on one page (print­able ver­sion below):
12 Step Overview Graphic3 12 Step Program to Run Barefoot

» Down­load and print out the 12 Step Pro­gram and Proper Form one-page cheat sheet.

Click here to down­load a cheat sheet to eas­ily remem­ber the proper form and 12 steps. Just click on the image below to open or down­load the PDF file, then cut along the dot­ted line to cre­ate two half-sheets.

12 Step and Proper form Cheat Sheet1 12 Step Program to Run Barefoot

Author’s Note: Spe­cial thanks to Aragorn Quinn for pro­vid­ing excel­lent feed­back and some of the ideas you see here. Aragorn is a marathon run­ner of over 10 years and a recent bare­foot run­ning convert.


Here are some of the blogs and web­sites that I have found help­ful in putting together my pro­gram. You can see more links in my Ever­note Run­ning Bare­foot folder.

Run­ning Bare­foot – Bare­foot Ken Bob’s site is filled with great infor­ma­tion, though it can be over­whelm­ing. He’s also not open to the idea of wear­ing any shoe, even if min­i­mal, so this can be off-putting for beginners.

Bare­foot Ted’s Adven­tures – Bare­foot Ted, per­haps not as wacky as Chris McDougall por­trays him to be in the book Born to Run, offers bare­foot instruc­tion classes start­ing at $65 per per­son. He talks a lot about bare­foot run­ning on his blog, but does not pro­vide much in the way of instruc­tion or guid­ance. I guess he keeps that for his pay­ing customers.

Runner’s World Forums – I just dis­cov­ered another good step-by-step plan to run­ning bare­foot on the bare­foot run­ners forum of Runner’s World’s web­site. It was cre­ated by Jason who is the author of the blog Bare­foot Chron­i­cles. I highly rec­om­mend you check his blog out, as there are some good videos, too.

Adven­ture In Progress – Damien put together an exten­sive series of posts and ulti­mately pre­sen­ta­tion titled, The Case for Min­i­mal Footwear. In this sixth install­ment you will find some good advice.

LA Times – Roy Wal­lack, author of Run­ning for Life, wrote one of the best arti­cles of recent about bare­foot run­ning and Born to Run. An accom­plished run­ner him­self, he pro­vides advice in his col­umn Tips on bare­foot running.

Wired – The arti­cle To run bare­foot, start by ditch­ing your Nikes by Dylan Tweney pro­vides advice based on per­sonal expe­ri­ence learn­ing to run with Vibram Five Fingers.

Bare­foot Run­ning –  Rob’s Shodless.com blog post How to start run­ning bare­foot has some good tips and tricks.

Bare­foot Run­ner – This site is loaded with infor­ma­tion per­tain­ing to bare­foot run­ning. In addi­tion to good foot exer­cises, the post Should You Toss Your Run­ning Shoes and Just Go Bare­foot? is help­ful for beginners.

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