We want to go fast. It feels fun. We think we should go fast. Everyone is always comparing times and the fastest person “wins.” But for most of us, the race is really against ourselves. The pressure to accomplish a certain goal is only what we let it be. Being barefoot has it’s own special considerations when trying to engage in any speed training, as does age. I have come up with some rules for myself about trying to run faster as a developing barefoot runner. Hopefully they will encourage you and help you to have more fun!
1. Build a solid aerobic base by running a relatively comfortable paces for several months. This is what I started almost a year ago. There are different hypotheses about what is going on at a cellular level when we let the body gradually adapt to running, without constantly stressing it to maximum degrees, but the outcome is obvious. Fewer injuries and a steady increase in endurance.
2. Don’t do significant speed work if you are new to barefoot running. I have been running almost exclusively barefoot for a few years now. The difference in my soles and musculoskeletal structure from the first two years is important. The exact time period for this would depend on how many miles a person is able to run barefoot, but any seasoned barefoot runner will tell you that it is best to err on the side of caution when increasing miles as a new barefoot runner. My overall running form is more refined now, the soles of my are much tougher, and my lower leg and foot muscles are used to the new habits.
3. Do your speed work barefoot. I hear a lot of newer barefoot runners (including myself in the past) say they use minimalist shoes for speed training. This inhibits the very feedback mechanisms that are keeping you from injuring yourself. You might be discouraged because you can’t do your barefoot speed workouts as fast as you could in shoes at first, but you are probably going to be less at risk for hurting yourself and get a much better overall result than if you hammer yourself “because your feet are protected.” If your soles are not ready for speed, the rest of you probably isn’t really either. However, know that you can run fast while running barefoot. There are nonprofessional barefoot runners are placing well in their races of choice, usually without making the news.
4. Do your speed training on surfaces that you are used to running on and are familiar with. If you have already run comfortably on these surfaces your body will more intuitively know how to respond to them, plus you have less risk of hurting yourself from unexpected terrain. Even a little bit of speed makes it harder to watch the ground due to visual constraints, but also you have to concentrate more on the effort and don’t “see things” the same way.
5. Make sure you warm up really well first. I think this means a good mile or two at a comfortable pace. You will feel better and looser for your speed intervals, whatever form they take. You will be less likely to pull something, like an achilles tendon. You will be less likely to overdo your speed work out.
6. Cool down afterward. Walk or slow run to keep the blood flowing through the muscles, removing waste products and keeping you from ending up as stiff and sore. It is probably more important to massage and take a (comfortably) hot bath after any extra effort, whether it be distance or speed.
7. Only do speed workouts for fun. Really. There is NO reason this should be grueling for most of us. Our livelihood does not depend on it. We are more likely to get injured or have to miss a day of running from overdoing it if we push to extreme limits.
8. Make the speed work a way to add variety to your runs, not a workout in and of itself. Again, you are less likely to overdo it this way. Doing things this way also more closely resembles the situations when you will be wanting speed. Most of us are not competing in anything shorter than 3 miles. Even people who are running comparatively fast for that distance are not sprinting the whole way. Doing some speed intervals during a longer run is a good way to freshen up muscles that are getting tired from just keeping the same, unchanging pace for sooo long. Do fartleks or run every other mile just a touch faster in the middle of your run or do the last couple of miles at a faster clip to mimic a good race finish and avoid a plodding feeling.
9. Do not push for maximum speed. Run at a pace faster than average and exhilarating, leaving you anticipating the feeling again, not dreading the next interval or speed work out. This is a spin off of the idea of gradually building up your skill. Be patient.
10. Don’t try to do your speed workouts with your dog. Think leash, tripping (even if dog is loose), lack of good arm movement, etc. You probably shouldn’t do speed workouts with a stroller, either.
11. Don’t do much in the way of speed training during your longest runs, especially if you are charting new distances. A little pick-up-the-pace here and there maybe, but not much more.
I have been applying these “rules” to myself the last few months. I am slowly getting faster AND am having loads of fun AND am basically injury free, not counting the occasional scuffle with a sharp rock, which heals much more quickly than messed up knees, by the way.