How to Get the Benefits of Barefoot Running (Without Taking Off Your Shoes)

This is an excerpt from Marathon Roadmap, the Vegetarian Guide to Conquering Your First 26.2. Click here to learn more!

How to Run Like a Barefooter in Normal Shoes

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Put those shoes back on, lady!

It’s not that I think barefooting is bad.  Far from it, I think running barefoot (or at least in minimalist shoes), is a good thing for most runners to work into their training.

But for you, the anxious, soon-to-be first-time marathoner, running barefoot or in shoes like Vibram Five Fingers introduces more risk than it’s worth.  When you’ve been running the same way for 20 or 30 or 60 years, your bones and muscles are used to it.

To abruptly change that at the same time you’re ramping up your mileage is just asking for a stress fracture or other lower-leg injury.  So unless you’ve already been running barefoot or in minimalist shoes for some time, I don’t recommend it while you’re trying to train for your first marathon.

But here’s the kicker: You can still run like a barefooter without running barefoot or with Vibrams, and without the risks.  True, the hardcore barefooters won’t let you into their club (not that they would if you were wearing FiveFingers, either).  But the effect on your form is similar.

How?  Mainly, by taking smaller, quicker steps that help you land with your feet right beneath your body and make a midfoot strike more natural.  And that’s what I’m going to show how to do next.

A Simple Technique for Injury-Proofing Your Stride

As I’ve written before, I dealt with injuries ALL the time when I was a new runner.  From the time I trained for my first marathon to the time I ran my next, I suffered through four years of starts and stops due to injury. Mostly tibial stress fractures, but knee problems as well.

In my frustration, I tried all kinds of ways to prevent injuries.  Icing, running on softer surfaces, abstaining from speedwork, taking walk breaks, taking anti-inflammatories, changing my shoes, stretching religiously before and after every workout, walking around on my heels, even shaving my lower legs so I could tape them (really).  The list goes on.  Some of it seemed to help a little, but none of it solved my problem.

Until I discovered the answer.  I read a piece by running coach Jack Daniels, where he wrote that most of the world’s best marathoners have a leg turnover rate of about 180 steps per minute.

What this does, as I discovered upon trying it, is force you to take shorter, lighter steps.  Although there are more impacts, they’re significantly smaller than they are with a normal stride.  In addition, to step this quickly requires that your feet land directly underneath your body, which is exactly what you want, as opposed to landing on your heel with your foot way out in front of you, effectively slamming on the brakes with every step.

How to Increase Your Turnover Rate

Next time you’re running, do a quick test to figure out your own turnover rate: In a safe spot where you won’t fall or get hit by a car (ideally on a treadmill), record how many times your feet land on the ground in 15 seconds.  Multiply this number by 4, and you’ve got your leg turnover per minute.  (Note: You want to count impacts from both of your feet, not just one.  If you prefer to count the number of impacts by just one foot, then double the figure you get after multiplying by 4.)

Well, what’d you come up with?  If you’ve never consciously thought about this, then chances are you’re way under 180.  That’s ok – so was I, and with a little practice, 180 steps per minute can become second nature. And you won’t believe what it can do for your running and resistance to injury.

Here’s how to get yourself running at 180 steps per minute:

  1. Get on a treadmill.
  2. Set it to a brisk but comfortable speed (running really slow is actually harder than fast with this).
  3. Start running and line your steps up so that each time a second ticks, your third step impacts the ground.

For example, if your right foot lands when the clock shows one second (0:01), then it’ll be “left” then “right” before your left foot lands exactly when the clock hits 0:02. Then “right,” then “left” before your right foot hits on 0:03. And so on.

This is a lot easier than it sounds.  Once you get into the rhythm, you’ll find that it’s pretty easy to keep it going (it just feels like you’re a cartoon character and your legs are spinning like wheels, and you’re wondering what other people must think).

Now, you’ve got to condition it

All you need to do is keep running with this faster turnover rate until it feels natural, which I promise it eventually will.

If you normally run on a treadmill, this is no problem.  You can stare at that clock for 15 or 20 minutes and just lock in every third step with each second on the clock, and you’ll be used to it in no time at all.  (Okay, maybe not “no time,” but soon. Give it a few runs.)

If you don’t normally run on a treadmill, you have a problem – staring at your watch is a great way to get hit by a car or trip over your own feet.

What I recommend in this case is finding a song you can listen to that has a beat that matches up with your ideal 180 step-per-minute turnover.  The one I listened to literally hundreds of times, and still go back to every now and then to recondition my turnover rate, is an instrumental rock song called Cliffs of Dover, by Eric Johnson. (I think it’s about 178 BPM.  Close enough.)  It’s a good song too, but listen to it on iTunes to make sure you don’t hate it — and make sure you give it a minute to get started.  Keep in mind that even running with music in your ears can be dangerous on some roads or trails, so use your judgement here.

Plenty of other songs will work; that just happens to be the one I used.  Even slower songs will work, as long as you can take 2 or 3 steps in between each beat to get to around 180 per minute.

Some good mental images

The clock-and-music stuff works well for me, but not everyone always runs with either of these two things.  In that case, you can use the mental images of running on glass or eggshells, which causes you to take lighter, shorter, quicker steps.  Another good one is to think of lifting your feet off the ground just enough for the earth to move underneath you.  This will force you to take shorter steps, and the only way to keep up your running speed is to take more of them.

Once you’ve conditioned this so that you don’t even have to think about it, you’ll notice that running gets easier.  You might lose a little speed while your body is adjusting to the new form, but after a while, you’ll be able to run faster and farther than when you were taking big, lumbering steps and landing on your heel.  And you might just notice that your injury problems melt away.

Worried that I’m giving most of the the Marathon Roadmap away?  Not to worry, it’s well over 100 pages long and includes four hours of interviews with incredible vegetarian and vegan athletes.  Click here to download your copy now!

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Comments

  1. Hopefully this doesn’t come across as spam because it isn’t :D

    There’s a podcast called: Podrunner that is specifically designed for this type of thing. Every cast is about 60 minutes long and has a specific BPM designed into it. I think he’s got almost every tempo covered by now, so if you normally run at 150 – grab the 151 BPM song – then you can move up to 152 etc. Or – grab a 180BPM song and just go for it. There are also mixes that ramp and staircase that are cool too. :D

    • Very cool, I’ve seen some websites that offer different BPM songs, but that’s cool that it’s a whole 60 minutes of it. I’ll have to check that out. At an expo once there was this company selling a device (I think it was a few hundred dollars) that would take your existing playlist and shift the tempos of the songs to match your cadence. Or maybe you could tell it what tempo to do. I’ve never seen it again, so I don’t think it lasted. Wish I could remember the name.

    • I’ve used Podrunner for 2 years now and love it. I’ve got mixes ranging from 173 bpm to 180 bpm on my Ipod and I just set my pace and forget about it for an hour. And its free.

      RJ

  2. Interesting stuff! I have not leapt into the Vibram world, though I do remember running in my socks in the grass center of the track. I could certainly try some of these tips out. My step has been very heavy lately for some reason, and maybe increased turnover will help with that.

  3. Sean Kroah says:

    Another option is to get a watch with an accelerometer foot pod that measures cadence. The Garmin fr60 is one that can measure cadence and distance of course. It’s relatively cheap compared to the GPS watches.

  4. One of the best ways I’ve found to keep high cadence, is to use a digital metronome. Especially if you aren’t running indoors :)

    It’s quite cheap – I think I got mine for around 20$ or so, and you could probably get one for much cheaper. I set it for just over 90 bpm – each beat coincides with two steps.

  5. When you go to the treadmill section in the gym, it’s really easy to spot who runs properly and who doesn’t. Just close your eyes and listen for the ones who go “tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap” instead of “BUM….BUM….BUM”.

  6. I agree with the digital metronome comment above, you can easily pick one up for $20.

    New Balance has a 180bpm metronome mp3 track that you can easily put on your player:
    http://www.newbalance.com/mission_control/assets/creative/2010/11/180bpm.mp3

  7. Funny you should write this now as I am currently working on this very thing AND recently introduced the treadmill into my training regimen. I will definitely try the methods you suggested the next time I go to the gym. I also mentally imagine trying not to let my feet stay on the ground long. Somewhere on the web I came across the suggestion of constantly reminding yourself to – lift, lift, lift, lift, lift…

    BTW – I am a first time poster, and although not a vegetarian, I really enjoy your website and get lots of great info from it!

  8. Great article. Coincidentally, I just started doing the 180bpm thing 10 days ago. What is absolutely incredible is I have shaved about 40 seconds per mile off with seemingly less energy expended AND my typical small aches and pains are less than they used to be. There really is magic once you hit 180. Though I am new to it, I cannot recommend it enough.

  9. Clinton Morse says:

    if you run with an iPod touch or similar, you can download metronome apps. I used one for a while last year but fell out of the habit. Your post reminded me I should start training the high cadence again. Thanks

  10. For those who are beginning with this strategy: 180 steps/minute is supposed to be the lower bound. During speedwork sessions (800m repeats, mile repeats) I easily go north of 200 steps/minute, and so do elite short distance runners.

  11. So what pace would 180 steps per minute equate too?

    • Step frequency alone doesn’t equate any pace at all, because pace depends on both step frequency and stride length. Specifically, minutes-per-mile = (1606 / stride-length-in-meters) / steps-per-minute, and let’s ignore the fact that stride length varies a bit between steps. If your stride equals 1.2 meters, then a 180 steps/minute frequency will give you:

      min/mile = (1606 / 1.2 ) / 180 = 1.338.33 / 180 = 7.435 min/mile

      given that .435 minutes are 26.1 seconds (calculation left as an exercise to the reader), you’d be running a 7:26.1 mile.

    • This seems like an important point to me. If the end goal is to change the length of your stride, don’t you need pace-adjusted and height-adjusted cadences? If you always run at 180 bpm, the only way to speed up or slow down is to change your stride length, right? If the world’s best marathoners are running sub 5-minute miles at 180 bpm, I would think my ideal cadence would be considerably slower at 8-minute miles.

      • Tim, that is a great point and one that I’ve thought about too. The way it’s been presented, at least that I’ve seen, is “The people winning marathons take 180 steps (or more) per minute, so you should too.” But most of those marathon winners have a completely different body type than I do (they’re tall, I’m short). So maybe 180 is just the optimal for a tall, thin person, and it might be different for others? Then again, once I started doing it I noticed dramatic improvements in my resistance to injury, so at least 180 is better than whatever I was doing (much less than 180).

        More to your question, though: Yes, changing your stride length is the way to change your speed if your turnover rate is constant.

        • Thanks for the reply. So if my stride length is just right but I want to run faster, do I increase my turnover rate, my stride length, or some combination of the two? I’m also curious if it depends on the terrain. I can’t help but to increase my stride length on a steep downhill. Maybe trying to run at around 180 bpm is a good way to practice shortening your stride, but I’m curious if there’s a formula or rule-of-thumb that would account for pace, height, terrain, etc.

          • Think about it this way. The time between steps is your flight time, the amount of time you’re in the air. Once you’re in the air, your momentum and gravity are controlling your motion. Your stride length is irrelevant to the amount of time you’re in the air. A bullet shot level hits the ground at the same time as one dropped from the same height. The only thing influencing the amount of time you’re in the air is how high you’re “jumping”. When you’re running, vertical motion is just wasted energy. The faster you can get your back leg underneath you again, the less energy you have to waste on vertical motion to give you the hang time you need to bring it forward. Once you’re not wasting so much energy on bouncing (vertical motion, fighting gravity), you can start using more of your energy for thrust. You want to run like a cartoon character, with your body moving smoothly and your legs a blur, not like a bouncing ball.

  12. I practice this all the time on the treadmill. Another way to approach that 180 steps/minute turnover rate that may help some of your readers is to watch the timer on the treadmill and basically just get 3 steps in every second. (I’m a dorky musician, and like to think of it in terms of triplet rhythms.) It also makes it fairly easy to stay steady once you hit 180.

  13. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Great post! As a physical therapist and runner, for me the jury is still out on barefoot running. Regarding foot turnover, refer back to a guest post a while back and go to chirunning.com. Foot turnover is one of their focuses. I don’t run with music so I use a metronome. If you are tall, 160-170 steps/min may be a more appropriate goal. I’ve been practicing chirunning for 5-6 years and getting to the foot turnover goal can still be a challenge for me. When I hit it, my chronic achilles issues do improve and I’m not as sore the next day.
    Enough teasers Matt, when is the booking coming out?! I’m looking forward to reading it.

  14. Well not only is that a great article BUT you finished the book! Congrats Matt, that is marvelous, what a load lifted! Can’t wait to get a copy :)

  15. Great post! Check out chirunning.com for help in using the metronome, as foot turnover is one of their focuses. There was a guest article chirunning a while ago on the NMA site. I don’t run with music so I like the metronome. When I reach the 180 steps/min goal, my chronic achilles issues improve and overall I’m much less sore the next day. As a physical therapist, I’m not yet compleyely sold on abrefoot running for everyone.

  16. Ohhhh I ran my first marathon in October in Portland – and had the song Cliffs of Dover on my playlist. LOVE IT. Eric Johnson has several other songs that fit the bill. Great article and complimentary to the Chi Running technique I’m trying to master.

  17. Another plug for Podrunner; he’s got mixes for a whole range of BPMs, including some “ladder” mixes that help you build up to 180.

  18. I just wanted to add here, that if you have an iphone and can run with it (either via treadmill or I use shorts/pants with pockets above the butt) there is a free metronome app, by setting the beats you need to move your feet at you can develop your stride to the right cadence and then gradually get off it once you get the hang.

  19. Ah, this post is awesome. This is what I was trying to do during xc season! It’s definately easy to get a shorter stride without running barefoot, it’s just a change of habit. The fast paced songs certainly help.

  20. I have found that, even though it took some time getting use to running in more minimalist shoes, it feels so much more natural to land on the forefoot in shoes like VFF. When I switch to shoes with a high heel to toe ratio I have to concentrate so much on not heel striking that it ruins the run for me.

  21. Switching to barefoot is what got me from can’t-run-AT-ALL-because-knees-are-giving-out to back-in-love-with-running.

    But you can’t be a distance runner and just switch over. It’s like starting over. I really recommend going totally barefooted because your skin won’t be able to endure more than your muscles & tendons can.

    Now I live in a country where I can’t go barefoot, so I use my vibrams, but with caution. You can overdo it with those or get into the wrong stride just like tennis shoes, in a way you can’t do when you’re totally barefooted.

  22. I transitioned to barefoot running about a year ago. Even though I was a seasoned distance runner, I agree, it is just like starting all over again. You cannot resume your training where you left off while running “shod.” I experienced 6 weeks off due to overuse injuries. I switched between minimalist and padded running shoes to try and alleviate the transition, but it did more harm than good. Elevated heel running shoes invariably give me knee pain. Running barefoot/minimalist causes some sore muscles and possibly sore ankles if I overdo it. But no more knee pain. My Garmin-measured cadence is averaging 95 strides per minute (or 190 steps). I can’t imagine running any other way.

  23. scott cuyjet says:

    I use a metronome file I found on iTunes. Not much fun but it is 176bpm. It was the closest I could find. It is 2 min long so I keep it on repeat.

    • If I’d have known about metronome tracks on iTunes, I probably would have used that instead of music to groove my cadence. Although that really does sound mind-numbing.

  24. This may be a dumb question, but… If I am trying to move into a more slow burn type of running that burns fat instead of sugar for my endurance runs but I would also like to incorporate this new type of form with the 180 bpm, are those two changes to my routine going to clash? It seems like I would need to slow way down to switch to a slow burn. How would you recommend I go about changing my running routine to a fat burning, long distance workout while working towards and ideal form with a 180 bpm pace?

    • Hey Jenny, great question. And the answer is no, they won’t clash! They’ll actually go together really well, because as you start turning your legs over faster, you spend more time in the air and less on the ground, and your steps necessarily become shorter and “lighter.”

      One thing to be aware of is that when you’re first getting used to a higher leg turnover, it’s harder when you’re trying to run slow than it is when you’re running fast. But that’s okay; it just takes some getting used to.

      You might like the article I wrote about burning fat instead of carbohydrates: http://www.nomeatathlete.com/burning-fat-for-fuel/

  25. Thank you for this! I’m training for my first half and have been struggling with leg pain. After reading this I tried increasing my turnover rate and just set a new personal best, feeling great!

  26. Here is a list of songs with around 180 BPM:
    http://runningmusicmix.com/180-mix.html

  27. Sam Mansour says:

    Perhaps the wrong place to ask this: I live in southern Ontario, Canada – How does one run on a snow covered trail?

  28. Loved this article! I just started a new training method because I was getting lots of injuries, etc., and I have to say that this does work for me and I feel great…haven’t run this good in a looonnng time. I didn’t know about the 180 steps, so next time I’ll have to count and see if I’m close =)

  29. Actually, there is a SECRET benefit to walking barefoot and that is grounding or earthing. Meaning, for those who don’t know, an abundant supply of electrons and the #1 anti-oxidant! If you want instant proof of how awesome grounding is, try talking on a cell phone for like half an hour barefoot and you won’t feel any headache or any other side effect.

    There is a great book called “Earthing” from Clinton Ober, highly recommended!

    Other than that, great post, and I am on to trying your suggestion on the treadmill as of tomorrow!

  30. I totally agree that a 180 steps per minute is optimal and I try to achieve this pace for all of my runs, from slower long runs, tempo, and even track workouts. Metronomes work great, but I find my very favorite way to train this optimal turnover is to listen to songs that have 90 beats per minute (stepping twice per beat). I have started putting together my favorite playlists of songs on my own site. Hope it helps!

    http://www.best-running-songs.com

  31. Electrical grounding! Holy Cow, a whole new research topic! Dry skin has a very high resistance, but way lower than a slab of rubber! My mind is boggled… I don’t remember much about college electrochemistry, but I remember enough to realize that this hypothesis could be significant… or not. Anti-oxidation’s real name is reduction, which means reducing oxidation number, which means adding electrons, which come from the earth… moving through dry air… static build-up… nature’s adaptation for the optimal internal condition for electro-chemical neuromuscular activity… balance of electrolytic salts… Hmmm…

  32. I bought an $18 Casio running watch on Amazon that can sound an alarm for 30 seconds at a time to the bpm of your choice. I set it at 180 and when you hit start on the stopwatch setting, it sounds out the the alarm at 180 for 30 seconds. After that you have to hit a button on the watch face to sound it again. I love it even though I barely use it anymore. That pace is second nature now and for the first time I am truly loving running. I don’t think it’s a coincidence! Thanks for all your tips by the way!

    • Back in the 80′s, Casio had a running watch that had a metronome setting that you could set to your minutes/mile ,stride and time… you set the length of your stride, min/mile and could increase the min/mile by holding down one button to increase your pace. Your feet naturally increase the pace to match the sound of the beat of the watch. I used it to train for the Boston Marathon. I wish they would bring a watch like that back.

  33. Does anyone have a recommendation for a BPM detector that will scan an entire music library and add BPM tags to each mp3? I found one (abyssmedia) that will detect the BPMs but it has two flaws:
    1. It only does 1 folder at a time. If you have hundreds or thousands of folders of music, this is impractical.
    2. The BPM doesn’t display in iTunes until you play the song for the first time after its BPM has been detected. Once again, impractical if you have lots of songs.

    Thanks

  34. Hello!

    I know this post is older bit I’ve been researching steps per minute and this is the best info I’ve found. I’ve been reading your blog for a LONG time.

    I’m already a minimalist shod trail runner. I’ve been playing around with 170-180 bpm songs for the last few weeks and my aches and pains have been reduced greatly! My question is about hills. I run a lot of hills. Is it ideal to push through and keep this pace but shorten my stride? I look like I’m on a stair stepper! What’s the best form/steps per minute for running uphill?

  35. abner lico says:

    Greetings Matt and All!
    Read your book and using the recipes… thanks! I have been attempting to change my running (mid-foot strike, 180 bpm, etc) as i have been encountering multiple calf injuries. My calves feel great however I have been experiencing slight pain along my metatarsals (possible metatarsalgia?). Have you heard of others experiencing the same predicament when making this change. thanks A.L.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Grok VVIX (10,009th) and Matt Frazier, Stephanie Flynn. Stephanie Flynn said: RT @NoMeatAthlete: How to Benefit from Barefoot Running (Without Taking Off Your Shoes) –> http://bit.ly/f3zACa Huge excerpt from my … [...]

  2. [...] also tried one other new running strategy this morning. I read a blog post yesterday about how the ideal running cadence is 180 foot strikes per minute, and most [...]

  3. [...] drops into some sweet beets. It’s great to run to. I don’t know that I was running at 180 steps per minute. But I had [...]

  4. [...] winter is one of them. To prevent boredom, use the opportunity to work on your cadence (shoot for 180 steps per minute) by lining yours step up with the clock on the [...]

  5. [...] read in a few places (most notably in this entry on No Meat Athlete) that the optimum turnover rate for running is 180 steps per minute. I [...]

  6. [...] Matt Frazier of “No Meat Athlete” blog does a great job of explaining how to train your legs to turn-over faster http://www.nomeatathlete.com/180-steps-per-minute/. [...]

  7. [...] start counting my armswings and footsteps prolifically now… I happened upon an AWESOME site by a vegan athlete (I’m in love!), Matt Frazier, who also has some great instructions as to how to make your cadence quicker and lighter.  While [...]

  8. [...] from shorter, lighter steps. If you want to read more about his philosophy behind this theory – visit his website. He has done A LOT of research and is very [...]

  9. [...] Matt Frazier of “No Meat Athlete” blog does a great job of explaining how to train your legs to turn-over faster http://www.nomeatathlete.com/180-steps-per-minute/. [...]

  10. [...] thing that helps is that you make your steps quick. Which means by necessity taking smaller steps. There’s an excellent description of this technique at No Meat Athlete (thanks Chelsea for turning me on to that) and I encourage you to give it a read. This also helps [...]

  11. [...] learned about the importance of taking the right number of steps per minute when you run – 180 steps per minute REGARDLESS of your pace. This is 90 steps per foot, so I usually just count one foot. This theory of [...]

  12. […] No Meat Athlete – Increase Your Turnover to Injury-Proof Your Stride […]

  13. […] a real challenge. This is where altering my stride last year during marathon training to a more high cadence tempo came in handy and in looking at the post-race data, I averaged 178 steps / min, higher than normal […]

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