Speed and Barefoot Running – the unmentionable.

I like to race. I belong to a very competitive running group where racing is an integral part of our mindset. I understand that there are people who “say” they don’t race, enter a 5k race, and immediately search the results afterwards to see how they did. Yes they were racing.

In order to race you need to train, and that means running fast. Training is not just about running a zillion miles a week. It is about mixing mileage with interval training. You are trying to condition yourself to run faster and to push your anaerobic/aerobic threshold down the road. You have to train faster than your aerobic threshold and that can only be done with interval training.

So what about barefoot running? I would say 95% of forum posts, blogs, articles , YouTubes, whatever, talk about barefoot running as if it was a state by itself. I think a lot of these individuals are true “fun runners” who have never run faster than a 12min mile in their entire life. They think of running as “not walking”. Speed is never mentioned. So learning to run barefoot is just a matter of translating your 12min mile pace to a barefoot 12min mile pace and that is that. Barefoot running is some sort of Yoga-like transcendental experience designed to get in touch with your inner being (whatever that is.) Here is a great YouTube that epitomizes that mindset. I understand it is meant to be a “training” class in barefoot running but it looks really funny to me. The instructor is teaching the people to run like hamsters with itty-bitty strides and then talks about how sensual barefoot running is. Yes – a true fun runner. My guess is that he has never run a 5k faster than about 30min.

The difference between running 12min per mile and 6 min per mile is huge. The loads exerted on the ground by your body are several magnitudes greater as you go faster. If we translate that into a barefoot running scenario there are added challenges to adaptation. The barefoot “fun runner” may feel they have totally mastered the art of barefoot running and can do their 12min mile pace on many varied surfaces, but when pushed to run faster find that they are no longer adapted.

I have been running barefoot about 5 months now. Before that I ran with Vibrams for a couple of years. If I had it to do over again I would have reversed the process (see my other post). The one thing I have noticed is that running barefoot over my usual route is typically just as uncomfortable as it was 3 or 4 months ago. Why? Well I am doing it faster. My usual shod jogging pace is about 8:30min per mile. Barefoot I started about 11-12min per mile but have been steadily increasing the speed. I am now ok at about 9:30 pace which is nowhere near my 8:30 “normal” pace.

So let’s say that in a few more months I can get to a comfortable 8:30 mile pace on the varied (I purposefully pick prickly) surfaces. How much faster can I go? We have races that actually are on those surfaces. They are worn weather beaten sidewalks and asphalt torn up, cracked and very tough to run on. Racing with shoes you don’t even notice. Barefoot I am ouching through it if I get very fast.

Frankly I don’t see ever being able to match the pace of my shod-self racing on these surfaces. For an old guy – 55 – I am pretty fast. I run 5ks in 18min high. I did a marathon a few years ago at age 52 and ran it in 2:57 – which is about 6:40min mile average. It is unimaginable for me to be running barefoot over any sort of prickly terrain at those speeds.

What about really fast runners? I think most of them are limited too. Check out this guy. He is supposedly an expert barefoot runner. On flat dirt / trail terrain he is absolutely flying. Now watch him as he goes into the rocky terrain. Big difference. Our club has XC races on this sort of terrain. On that rocky terrain I can unequivocally say that even though he is 30 years younger and a lot fitter, if I were wearing shoes I would pass his barefoot tiptoe act like he was standing still.

Finally, I have a theory about our bipedal hominid inability to run barefoot very fast. I will share it in another post…..

About monsenrm

Runner and pilot.
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19 Responses to Speed and Barefoot Running – the unmentionable.

  1. If we want to pick and choose, it’s easy to find barefoot runners to support the claim that it’s difficult to race fast while barefoot. However, there are plenty of shod runners we could point out who will never run 6 minute miles as well. You just need to start at the back of any race, or better yet, go out to any popular running path, and look for people, like Owen (in the video) who don’t race any more. (By the way, Owen raced when he was younger, long before he discovered barefoot running a decade ago, and I’m pretty sure he has run a sub-12 mile)

    Anyway, with good technique, where the foot is matching the speed of the terrain underneath, the forces aren’t going to be significantly greater while our bodies move forward faster, than when we run slower… It could even be argued that many of the slow runners are putting more force on their bodies, because most are hitting the brakes with each step (skidding), or trying to push their body up into the air, instead of letting it move forward. In fact, as we run faster, our cadence will be faster, our steps will be shorter (shorter time, not distance), and we will be moving mostly forward, so there will be less force required to push the body up (to stay in the air for a “longer” stride), and less force on landing, since we aren’t falling as long (shorter stride time, means shorter time to accelerate toward the earth = less impact).

    I am 57, and I’m not as fast as you are now. With practice, we can improve our skill, but not innate talent. However, I have run that fast, But it was only through barefoot running that I was able to develop the skill to reach my peak level of performance. Skills developed by running barefoot on those rough terrains you mention (and worse) as slowing you down. It was terrains like that which helped me learn how to run more gently, and use more of my energy to move my body forward, faster, much faster than I could have when I raced in shoes.

    Even most elite athletes use barefoot running in practice, to help keep their technique honed (even if they don’t realize that’s what’s happening). Then they race in shoes, because that’s who pays the bills.

    Of course, for most of us, we’re not going to get sponsorship running even moderately fast in shoes, and I was moderately fast in shoes, I could run a 10K in about 40 minutes at age 31. However, I was able to run a 10K 3 minutes faster while barefoot when I was 12 years older!

    When I was at my peak, I was the most unreliable person to ask if a course was “barefoot friendly” because they all seemed pretty comfortable at the speeds I was running back then. Now that I’m older and slower, I’ve been noticing more rough terrain wherever I run … But that is not because I’m running faster – it’s because I’m running slower!

    Ken Bob’s Barefoot personal records: http://barefootrunning.com/?page_id=1060#Totals

    • monsenrm says:

      All great points – thanks. I have finally “chosen” barefoot running because at age 55 I want to be running at age 75. Shod running and the self destructive running style I had developed was not going to do it. I am slowing down but I do like to point out that I run at many different speeds. I am like everyone else, – a nice 9 min mile pace for a long run – but then a 6 min run for a session. It just doesn’t seem to come up much when talking about barefoot running.

      One interesting “change” I noticed is that my downhill speed has dropped. For example I did a morning session today of 6x1k (one minute recovery) on a hilly road course. In the “old” days I would be flying down the hills at sub 3:30 /k pace. Today it was 3:45. Uphill is about the same at about 3:55 per km. I did it in Vibrams. The “old” days were long striding and heel striking all the way down those hills. Yep I was going faster then. Now I am doing it with shorter strides and a forefoot strike all the way. My Achilles never felt better. I used to have horrible Achilles tendinitis but now my calves are stronger and it has taken the load off the Achilles. So even though I am “slower” I am faster because I am running!

      • I have trouble (though I don’t consider it “trouble”) slowing down on downhills, because my body is accelerating very quickly, and I really don’t want to put on the brakes going that fast in bare feet! So, my fastest running is definitely downhill. And that over-striding you were doing in shoes, was hitting the brakes, even if you were going faster. In Vibrams, it is more comfortable to slow yourself down, and during one hill session of my Running Barefoot Workshops, we practiced on a short hill. The only person who was landing with any kind of a “strike” was the fellow wearing the Vibrams. As soon as he went barefoot, he was as quiet as the rest of us on the downhill.

        The idea is to get your feet moving faster, so you can let gravity pull you down the hill. Or as the Borg would say, “Resistance is futile!”

        Letting yourself fly downhill while barefoot does take some skill, which can be developed through practice. One option is to start on short hills which empty onto a “safe” surface, like soft sand, or grass. The hill can be as rough as you want, in fact, the more sharp pointy stones, the more quickly we’ll learn to run gently, while running fast.

        A second option is to start on a gentle slope, and gradually build up to steeper slopes.

        If it hurts your feet while you’re running, then you’re running too hard (not necessarily too fast). If it hurts after you finish, then you just pushed your limits, and you should take some time to recover.

        Preventing the second, is only desirable most of the time. We should push our limits, at least occasionally (think of the 10% rule). Avoiding pain in the first case, is a matter of making changes or adjustments to our technique. If it isn’t comfortable to run barefoot on most any terrain, then we’re not running the way we are naturally designed to run.


  2. monsenrm says:

    I know what you mean about “trouble” slowing down on the hills while barefoot. I did notice I could get better “control” by picking up my knees going down the steeper hills. It gets you free “air” time since the gravity vector is a few degrees in front of you (yes I am an engineer). You maintain the shorter barefoot stride and forefoot strike but stay in the air longer for speed.

    One thing about speed and running though. The nature of running fast is as simple as “air time”. Faster runners do not necessarily have a faster cadence or longer stride than their slower counterparts. The difference is the amount of time both feet are in the air. The faster runner propel themselves upwards with greater force and fly through the air a longer distance per stride. So yes there is a lot more force imparted on the ground when running faster. That additional force is what we train to produce and is why it is harder to run faster! If there was no additional forces needed to run faster than we would all be 4 min mile runners!

    I still consider myself a “beginner” barefoot runner. My max continuous miles is about 10 and do that at least once a week on my early morning runs. The other two barefoot runs are either 6 or 5 miles or so although I do anywhere between 4-7 miles depending on the day. Again the big difference is speed. i keep getting faster over tougher terrain. Since runners are all masochists to some degree, I maintain a fairly constant level of discomfort. But I will say that over the last month or so I have had long stretches – many miles – of total relaxation without even a thought given to my feet on the terrain. Very nice.

    Finally I train and run in Dhahran Saudi Arabia. A bit different place on the planet. Right now the temps are perfect for running – about 50 deg in the morning and 70’s during the day. In the summer -well – I don’t want to think about it right now. It is awful. 120 deg and later in the summer massive humidity. In fact Dhahran had the highest recorded humidity on the planet in 2003!

    A few more pics here:

    Recent barefoot running pose!

    • It’s not quite as simple as “air time”. it matter to a great degree how far FORWARD one travels while in the air. After all one can run in place, or worse yet leap in place, and in the second case one gets much more air time, greatly increasing impact, but speed stays exactly the same (zero in both cases)…

      I think of it less as “picking up my knees” and more as letting my body go down. It may see the same thing, but what we observe, and how we feel, can make a huge different in what we end up doing. The important thing from my point of view as a runner, is not what it looks like to an observer, but how it feels to me.

      Heat? One day I was sitting in my office and some students from Kuwait we’re asking me about running barefoot. One of them asked me about the heat. His friends looked at him with disbelief… until one finally said, “Dude we used to play football [soccer] barefoot in the desert when it was 120 degrees!”

      The body is very adaptable, if we treat each new activity (and running barefoot on hot terrain is new, even if you have been running barefoot for years, it’s new each summer) as something we need to start short and build gradually.


      • monsenrm says:

        I agree about the FORWARD part. Of course to fire a projectile from a cannon the optimum angle is 45 deg. That gives you maximum range. Higher and you waste energy going up. Lower and you don’t get as much “air time” and your shot falls short. So it is a balance. The human stride is more complicated because the vectors are changing.constantly. As your foot is on the ground it pushes you forward but also needs to launch you upwards so that our “shot” does not fall short.

        I will also write a heat running blog. We run in 120 heat out here. I have been in Saudi since 1993 and ran hard the whole time. I have NEVER seen anyone in our club have a problem with heat – other than performance. There is a very simple trick: drink water. It is amazing how much we humans can endure with a good supply of water around….

      • Water is one of the most important “supplement” for a runner, or anyone who wants to be healthy.. Have fun

  3. P.S. there are other differences to consider between firing a cannonball and running. With a cannon you may be trying to get the maximum distance out of each shot, because you only get one shot per cannonball. In running, each step is followed by another step, and they kind of melt together into a continuous motion rather than individual steps. So it may not be as economical to get the maximum distance out of each step.

  4. monsenrm says:

    Thanks Ken Bob. You are right – the continuous motion is different than the individual steps…but… I am sure you have had your picture taken while running. Me too. It seem that “most” of the time the picture catches me with both feet are in the air. It doesn’t feel that way when we run but we spend lots of time airborne and not touching the ground. We are projectiles at that point – just like the cannonball.

    PS. Just finished a 9 mile barefoot run very early morning here in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Finished up just as the cacophony of prayer call began. Twas a wonderful quiet morning – light wind – very dark (started at 4:15am) and cool – low 50s. Great stuff. Now for some eggs and toast and a cup of Java. Heaven!

    • You must be spending much more time in the air than I do. I have to go through a lot of pictures to find one with both feet off the ground, even when I was running “fast”. Keep in mind, that the only time you can accelerate is while one foot is on the ground, behind the body – so it pays to keep the foot on the ground as long as it is springing us forward (a natural reaction to the loading of that spring when we landed on that same leg.

      Likewise, the proverbial cannonball is only accelerating while it’s still in the barrel of the cannon. Time in the air is necessarily all forward deceleration (as well as upward deceleration and downward acceleration- thanks to gravity).

      Of course, when we look for pictures to share with the public, we will naturally choose as many as practical with both feet off the ground, because that does look cool!

  5. monsenrm says:

    Man my legs look fat...

    First pic I found! About a year ago. A relay event here.

  6. Mulder Fox says:

    I have been training BF running for 3 months. (after learning about KEN BOB book and had a class with Yoshi the Japanese BF master) I run 10.5k in 42-43min with my shoes on. Now with BF I run 10.5k in 45-55mins depends on the surface. Last weekend I ran 16.8k in 1hr20min on asphalt(It’s hurt). For a long run base on my experience our body and our foot don’t suit a faster than 4mins/Km pace with out getting hurt. Why? Even-though the down force still the same no matter how fast I run but the friction is increasing . I can’t only use the gravity to fall forward at that speed I need to trust myself forward also and that increase the friction between my foot and the ground. Only if the skin of my feet can withstand the heat of the friction or I can mastering using low knee absorbing technique. I can’t see how my BF would be faster than shoes.

    • monsenrm says:

      Good points! I am still getting faster BF – but over shorter distance. I did a 6 mile pace run the other day at around 6:45/mile pace and by the time I had jogged to the start and jogged home (did it in a group) I had 10.5 miles total. My feet were really tired and “raw”. If I just jog easy that same distance would be fine.

  7. Thanks for sharing this write up. I just started training barefoot running again. I’m training in hopes that it will ease the pressure and help me heal with spinal injury🙂 I’m curious but how fast do you run barefoot?

    Your friend,

    • monsenrm says:

      Hey Lucas, I am happy to say I keep getting faster – and can run on flat asphalt or concrete at a pretty good clip. I have run some BF interval training sessions – like 8x800m with one min recovery at sub 6 min mile pace. Two weeks ago I did a 6 mile pace run and while it was a hilly course I managed several miles at low 6 min pace – like 6:05, 6:10, 6:30 for three of them. The other 3 up hill were over 7 min mile. So going down is getting better. I can’t come crashing down on my heel anymore and over stride – and that is actually faster than BF running but murder on your Achilles!

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  10. NB says:

    I can run a sub 19 all asphalt 5K barefoot and I’m only up to 25 miles a week, started running for the first time in my life 5 months ago and I’m 177lb. I even sprint at the end of the 5K for 400 meters on roughish asphalt and I don’t have a scratch on my soles. I have a very high cadence and my feet have just gotten used to it. I haven’t ever owned a pair of running shoes. First week I had bad blisters but now it’s cool, I ran a 6 miler on asphalt no blisters.

    Bikila ran the Rome Marathon 1960 barefoot in 2:15:16.2. That’s 5:08 pace barefoot, so it is possible.

    • monsenrm says:

      Wow – excellent. I too have increased my speed and distance BF. I now routinely run sub 6min mile pace on both races and interval training sessions. I must admit though I can run at a jog for 15 miles BF but racing <10. So there is additional stress with hard running.

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