A couple of weeks ago, I received the following query in a comment...
I'm a Physio based in Guildford. I've been looking into barefoot running for the last 6 months having had repetitive shin splints from running in expensive shoes-and finally found some fivefingers on sale. So I've taken the plunge and ordered some kso's to test the whole barefoot running out of both personal and professional interest. Can I ask, how did you start out? What sort of training plan would you advise?
I started to write a response to the comment in the comments section of that post and realised it was becoming a rather long response and should probably warrant it's own post so others can find it too. So here it is and sorry about the delay in writing it Joe, it's been a crazy few weeks.
It's been just over a year since I declared I wouldn't run in normal running shoes ever again. Since then I've transitioned to running completely barefoot and built up a fair bit of knowledge and experience and with hindsight on my side, I wouldn't recommend the route I took.
I came into barefoot running by going the minimalist route first, specifically in Vibram Five Fingers, and whilst I took things slowly (only after taking things too fast and feeling a bit tender at times), I still think I didn't spend enough time on working on my form in the early days when running in the Vibrams. As a result I've built up a good base for barefoot running, but I think I've still got some sort of form issues and hence the injury I'm currently sitting with. If I were to do things all over again, I would start completely barefoot, perfect my form and then transition to the Vibrams or other minimalist shoes and I recommend anyone else considering making the transition do the same thing. (Actually, I wouldn't go to the VFF now 😀)
The idea of transitioning to minimalist shoes by going completely barefoot may sound counter-intuitive, but it's not really. Starting out barefoot, rather than in Vibrams or other minimalist shoes, will ensure you have the perfect "coach" by your side, or more precisely under you. Your bare feet will start off very weak, very soft and very sensitive. This weakness and sensitivity will act as the perfect guide to ensuring you don't over do things and they'll allow you to very quickly and easily assess if you're going too far or too fast and if you have any form issues that need ironing out. By starting in the minimalist shoes, you'll have a thin layer of rubber between your soft sensitive feet and the ground. Whilst not significant, it's enough to dull some of the sensations your feet could be experiencing and thus reduce the feedback you get. This in turn will encourage you to go too far, too fast, too soon without ensuring good form and you will get hurt.
Now with that out of the way, I highly recommend you read through and action ALL of Ken Bob Saxton's "How to Run" and build yourself a good barefoot base before slipping on the Vibrams. Ken Bob is probably the most experienced barefoot runner in the western world and he's done a tremendous job of documenting the process of learning to run barefoot correctly. Any attempts I make would pale in comparison and I'm not confident I have enough experience just yet.
Only when you're easily and comfortably running 3 - 5 km completely barefoot do I think you should consider transitioning to the Vibrams or other minimalist shoes, if of course you still want to go this route 🙂 . This should give you a good base and should ensure your feet and lower legs are trained well for the task with your form as close to perfect as possible.
This may not play well into any racing plans or other short-term dreams you may have, but putting them on hold and starting from rock bottom and building up is absolutely the best thing to do to ensure a long and rewarding, and hopefully injury free, minimalist or barefoot running career.