The idea of natural running is to go back to the way humans have run for thousands of years, which is largely to run barefoot. Of course, in our modern environment, running barefoot can be hazardous, so many people try to get back to the basics with minimalist running shoes on their feet. Running in minimalist running shoes is usually very helpful with improving running form and efficiency...at first.
As I eventually found out through my experimentation with natural running, minimalist running shoes helped me eliminate many of my bad habits (especially heel striking), but the thin rubber soles on these shoes still allowed a few of my bad habits to stubbornly remain (mostly braking and jumping), prolonging one very annoying injury: Shin splints. Eventually, I was forced to go back to actual barefoot running.
In this post I will outline the natural running training program I developed to improve my running form and decrease my running times, while also allowing my running injuries to heal.
Natural Running PhilosophyIn the following video, the nuts and bolts of natural running training are concisely layed out by Dr. Mark Cucuzzella. Why do you care about Dr. Cucuzzella's opinion on running? Because he won the Air Force marathon in 2011 with a time of 2 hours and 38 minutes.
Natural Running Training ProgramSwitching from running in popular running trainers (which are heavily padded and supported) to barefoot running will force your legs and feet to work much more than they are used to. If you move into natural running too quickly, you can suffer from some pretty debilitating injuries (e.g., foot and tendon problems). The trick to successfully transitioning to natural running is to SLOWLY transition over a long period of time, giving your body enough time to adapt to a new running style.
The training program that I've created is 12 weeks long and is broken up into three stages:
- Stage One (Weeks 1-4)
- During this stage, you will SLOWLY get used to running barefoot. There will be two main places that this training will take place: On a relatively large and flat grass field and the treadmill at the gym.
- Run barefoot on a grassy field or treadmill three times each week for three to five minutes each training session. Do not run more than .25 to .5 miles per training session.
- Do not run for speed; pay attention to your altered running form.
- Stage Two (Weeks 5-6)
- For the second stage, you will start to transition over to running in shoes. This transition will be much easier if you use minimalist shoes (see more about these shoes in the next section of this post).
- Start running on a flat surface in shoes five days a week for 5-10 minutes each day.
- Run slowly and don’t run more than .25 to .5 miles each day. Try to replicate the barefoot running form you experienced in Stage One. If you forget how you ran, and your previous poor form starts to come back, take your shoes off and run barefoot for a couple of minutes. Put your shoes back on and complete your training session.
- Stage Three (Weeks 7-12)
- During the final stage you will start building up your running endurance while running in minimalist shoes.
- Starting on week 7, for five days, run no more than .25 miles each day.
- On week 8, add another .25 miles to your run (for a total of .5 miles).
- Keep adding another .25 miles with each additional week (e.g., week 8 run .5 miles, week 9 run .75 miles, week 10 run 1 mile, etc.) until you complete week 12.
Obviously, while running barefoot you won't need any special footwear. However, during the second and third parts of this training, I would highly recommend you get a pair of minimalist shoes.
Personally, I like the Vibram Bikila LS, New Balance Minimus 10v2 Trail, and Merrell Road Glove 3, but there are many minimalist shoes to choose from. For a more comprehensive review of these shoes, check out the Birthday Shoes website.
|The original modern minimalist running shoe, the Vibram "toe" shoes (Bikila LS pictured).|
Your Training Focus
While running on grass or the treadmill at the gym, pay close attention to how differently you run while barefoot. Specifically, notice how:
- Your feet make contact with the ground.
- Your hips move with each stride.
- Little impact your feet, legs, and hips actually receive.
- Much easier it is to maintain a faster pace.
- Much more enjoyable running is.
Training on Grass Fields
If the weather is nice and the ground is dry, find a 100-meter stretch of flat grass (I used the infield of the 400-meter track on base). Remove your shoes (and socks) and for five minutes run up and down the 100-meter grass field at a medium running pace (about 70-80 percent max heart rate). Be careful not to run too fast; the objective for this part of the barefoot training is for you to relearn your natural running form, not to get a good workout (that will come later).
Do this barefoot running three times a week for four weeks. On the fifth and sixth weeks, spend your five minutes running around a 400-meter track (or another flat surface) with your shoes on. Minimalist shoes are very helpful with this part of your training.
Again, run only at a medium running pace, trying to run the way you did when you were barefoot on the grass. If you forget how you ran while barefoot, and your old running habits start to reemerge, take off your shoes and run on the grass for a minute or two. After getting re-familiarized with your natural running form, put your shoes back on and run another couple of laps.
Here's a videos of what this training looks like on the grass:
Training at the Gym on a Treadmill
If the weather isn't very good, or you can't find any grass to run on, then you can run barefoot on the treadmill. The program is the same as it is for running on grass (four weeks of purely barefoot training followed by 2 weeks of trying to replicate your improved form while wearing shoes).
When running on a treadmill, keep your grade neutral (or 0 degrees) and start out SLOWLY. First walk on the treadmill until you feel comfortable, then increase the speed to a slow jog. When you feel comfortable running at this slower speed, slowly increase your pace until you are running quickly, but comfortably. This will be about 70 to 80 percent of your max heart rate. Do this for 5 minutes.
When it comes time to run in shoes, try to replicate your natural running form. If you forget, turn off the treadmill, remove your shoes, and run barefoot for a couple of minutes. After this time, stop the treadmill, put your shoes back on, and try to run naturally again. Do this until you can run naturally while wearing shoes.
Here is a video of a person running on a treadmill barefoot:
Final ThoughtsWhen I started running more naturally, I decided to simply use minimalist running shoes instead of running barefoot. Although I saw early improvement in my running form and 1.5-mile times, I wasn't able to get rid of all my injuries. Frustrated, I decided to try true barefoot running. Amazingly, my barefoot training program continued to improve my form and my lingering injuries (mostly shin splints) have started to heal. My takeaway from all this training is that if you want to learn how to run more naturally, you really do have to actually run barefoot.
If you are more interested in a more natural running style, check out these links: