Hitting your next big running breakthrough might not require a complicated strategy. These simple rules can take you far, fast:
1. Losing the shoes? Switch slowly.
Doesn't matter who says it's great and who says it's not; chances are that plenty of you will try barefoot running or Vibram 5-Fingers shoes this year because you think it will make you more injury-proof, more efficient, faster, or—you know who you are—because it's just plain trendy. Running barefoot naturally causes you to take shorter strides and land with a midfoot or forefoot strike, which reduces a certain amount of impact.
Ironically, in an effort to prevent injury, you can create some if you chuck your shoes without a plan. "Certain people can go out and run 6 miles barefoot, and nothing will happen," says Jay Dicharry, MPT, CSCS, Director of the Center for Endurance Sport at the University of Virginia. "But for every 100 people who do it, one will have an injury right off. The middle group can get out there, but need to do some things first." In the best of all worlds, you'd get evaluated by a doctor or physical therapist to see if you're a good or bad candidate for running barefoot.
In lieu of that, Dicharry says, try this at-home test: Stand on a flat surface with your hands on your hips and your weight on one foot. Get a friend to watch you as you hold that position for 30 seconds. Have them see if you can maintain that with all your toes on the ground, and without raising the inside of the foot. Test the other leg. Then take a break, and do it again with your eyes closed.
If the inside of your foot and big toe come up off the ground, you use your trunk a lot to maintain balance, or you fall, that suggests that you don't have good control of the muscles in your feet (yet), and need to do some work before you remove your shoes.
"The easy thing is that if you fail the test, the test becomes the exercise," Dicharry says. Do it as often as you can—while you're brushing your teeth, while you're barbecuing, while you're drinking a beer. When that gets easy, do it with your eyes closed. It's better to do it 20 times a day for 30 seconds than for 5 minutes once a week."
Of course, when you ace that, it still doesn't mean it's the best idea to go run today's miles without shoes. In Dicharry's view, "Running barefoot can be a great, drill. A very functional drill."
2. Train movements, not muscles.
Part of what you'll notice about some of the people who pass you (when you take your ego out of it and learn from them) is that they know how to put things together. "They have flow, agility, rhythm and connections," explains Vern Gambetta, athletic development coach (www.gambetta.com) and author of Athletic Development: The Art and Science of Functional Sports Conditioning.
A hugely untapped place to train that is in your strength workouts. To make those sessions work for you, Gambetta says, stop thinking of them as "strength" or "weight" training. "It's really coordination training with appropriate resistance," Gambetta says.