Sunday, October 18, 2009

Running Tip #24 - The Journey to Primal Running

Humans are designed to run barefoot, so the ideal training is easy; you're born, learn to crawl, learn to walk, learn to run. What could be easier? The problem comes when you've been wearing traditional shoes for years. The shoes act like a cast on a broken limb, supporting the limb, but also causing it to become weak and vulnerable. Running in traditional running shoes also trains us to run in an unnatural way, which has to be unlearned.

The primal running movement is a recent phenomenon in developed countries. This means that there is relatively little experience in moving from traditional shoes to primal or barefoot running. We do not have a well defined body of lore to call upon, or scientific studies to refer to. This post gives some general guidelines and advice based on the current body of knowledge.

Initially, I expect that many runners will move to primal running because they are forced to by injury. As the benefits of primal running become better understood and publicized, I expect this will spread. I am going to give suggestions for two types of people; those that are not currently running, and those that are running. I'll then add in some general suggestions, but remember that these suggestions should be taken as a starting point for your journey to primal running, not as rigid rules.

Primal Running for the non-runner

You may not be a runner at all, or you may be a runner who has been forced to stop running by injury. In either case, you should start primal running as a new runner. Running tip #6 goes into more depth on this subject, but I'll include a short summary here.

Start off by walking in your chosen primal footwear (or barefoot) for 30 minutes. This is a critical step to build up foot strength and get used to moving without cushioned shoes. Once you are happy doing 2 miles in 30 minutes, start introducing a little running. Do two one-minute runs in the 30 minutes - run 1, walk 14, run 1, walk 14 (2x1R:14W). Then gradually build up, doing 2x2R:13W, 2x3R:12W etc, until you are running the full 30 minutes.

Primal Running for the runner

It would be prudent to start off by doing some walking in your chosen primal footwear. Walking a few miles for a few days will give you a sense of how strong your feet are. If you have problems doing the walking, then you will need to be more cautious in your move to primal running.

After the walking stage, I would suggest that you add a little primal running to the end of each of your normal runs. For the first few times, just run a quarter of a mile, then walk for a bit and depending on how you feel, repeat once or twice. If, after a few days of this, you are comfortable with the quarter miles and have no problems, move on to primal running for the last mile or two of your normal runs.

From there, gradually move from traditional running to primal running by increasing the primal portion. I would avoid doing speed work or hill work in the primal section at this stage. When I got to 50/50 I then swapped to only primal running, but did not do any speed work or hill training for a week or so.

General Advice
  • Learn to run again. This means starting with short distances, with walking breaks and building up.
  • Doing too much too fast is counterproductive. Some people naturally go to extremes; if you are one of these people, expect some pain. If you don’t listen to the pain, the pain will get worse. You have been warned.
  • Listen to your feet. A loud slapping sound is a bad sign.
  • Find your own style. Most peoples' biomechanics are naturally much better with primal running than running in traditional shoes. When primal running, you can't land on your heel without it hurting. However, don't force yourself up on your toes. Let your body and mind try different things to find out what works for you. Some folks seem to run on their forefoot, but many land on their midfoot.
  • People who have a forefoot style for primal running will often find their calves become sore. It will take time for these muscles to build up.
  • Keep your cadence high. A short, rapid stride is the natural way of running. You'll probably do this naturally, so don't fight it.
  • Lean forward. One approach is to stand upright, then lean forward until you have to start running to prevent yourself landing on your face. A slight forward lean seems to work well.
  • Your feet may have grown weak in shoes. You may have to take time to regain the strength they need. Consider wearing minimal or no shoes as much as possible, not just when running. If you wear shoes that fully 'support' your arch, you may need to take time to rebuild your foot strength and wean yourself off this type of shoe.
  • Some 'foot soreness' seems very common. Icing the bottom of the foot can help alleviate this, but this soreness is a sign to back down the intensity a little.
  • Consider ChiRunning or the POSE method, which are running styles that are intended to be more natural. You will probably move towards this style of running naturally with primal running, but understanding these styles may help.

Further Reading
Chi Running ( and the Pose Method ( are natural styles of running that work well with barefoot running.

How to run barefoot -

Google group for barefoot/minimal running -

Barefoot Running has three plans for transitioning