Transitioning to minimalist running shoes

People often ask me what the transition to minimalist footwear was like. There are some common concerns/questions that I hear:

  • I have [insert joint pain here] and I’m worried about the lack of cushioning/support.
  • Will it hurt my feet?
  • Is the transition prone to injury and is there a “break in” period where I will have to reduce my mileage?
  • I don’t think my feet are the right shape/strength.
  • Should I transition with a shoe with a lower heel drop first?

Here are some key tips from my own experience

1. Get in touch with your body and running form

This is the most vital step. Regardless of what kind of shoes you wear now or in the future you should learn to run well and build awareness about your running form. If running is new to you or if you haven’t run for a long time it is easy to form habits and movement patterns that can hinder correct running form and put more strain on your body. Even experienced runners can benefit from self apprisal or running coaching.

Getting you running form right is a gradual process, like learning any skill that starts with awareness and exercises/drills. On your next run try and take stock of what your body is doing when you run. Is your foot landing out in front of your body? Are you bending at the hip? Are you striking your heel when your foot lands? How relaxed is your upper body? Are you standing nice and tall and feel like you have a nice springy stride? How many times do your feet touch the ground in a minute (your “cadence” can be worked out by counting the foot falls of one foot for 30seconds and then doubling it to get to a minute then doubling it again to account for both feet). You can also have someone video you as you run to get a more objective view of what you body is doing.

Once you start to become aware and mindful of your body and your form then you are better equipped to make any necessary changes. A large part of running injury free in any shoe or making the transition to barefoot or more minimal footware begins with correct running form. The more work you are prepared to do to improve your running form both now and into the future the more you will enjoy your running and in my experience the chances of running causing injuries are significantly reduced.

So what does good running form look like? Let the experts tell you. I have found YouTube to be an invaluable resource when it comes to running form. The best part is there is a fairly consistent message whether you follow the barefoot scene or professional athletes such as Sage Canady, who have competed at US Olympic trials for the marathon (and can run a 2:16 marathon pace).

I’ve included some of the videos that I think demonstrate the principles the best.

Learn to get lighter on the ground

This is very much related to learning to run better. I have found that I run better when I’m conscious of the impact my body has on the ground. If I can reduce the force that I strike the ground with I’m standing taller and running with more the effort coming from my tendons and large muscle. It’s easier on my body overall and it feels nicer on the environment.

I can tell you that in minimal shoes without the cushioning of normal running shoes, it sure feels nicer when you hit a rocky patch of trail when you’re accustomed to skimming over the ground as lightly as possible.

I play games with my children, who can run making as little noise as possible. Can you run up behind someone on the trail without them hearing your coming.

Do foot/leg strengthening excerices

There are plenty of excerices that can strengthen your feet, arches, ankles and leg stability. I’d advise finding what works for you and incorporating some of these into your excercise routines.

It helps a lot with the transition to minimal shoes as might find (as I did) that some of the tendons and supporting muscles in the ankles, feet and lower leg are weak after not being actived by a combination of running with poor form and overly supportive and cushioned shoes.

Consider wearing minimalist shoes in day to day life

One of the best things that you can do is wear your new minimal shoes to work, to the park. Go for a walk, see if you can wear them for a period of time each day. This will help your body understand the extra sensation that you feel and help you to build up the ligaments and tendons in your feet and ankle without the stress and impact of running.

Reduce the distance/effort level during a transition

One of the most common questions I hear is “should I reduce the mileage/effort level during the transition?”.

YES, abosultely. There are some key anatomical differences in a zero drop shoe (zero drop means that the heel is the same height as the toes, not higher as in most running shoes). Your Achillies tendon and the soleus muscle (the lower calf muscle that is connected to the Achillies tendon) are stretched out longer than in a shoe with a heel drop. If you have come from say a 10mm heel drop that might not sound like much but your Achillies is going to stretch out 1cm longer every step you take. If you go and straight away run 15km you are going to feel very sore or do yourself a major injury.

It’s normal to feel very tight in the soleus muscle during the early stages of the transition. The best way to deal with this is to reduce the length of you runs considerably for the first week or two and then build up from there. During my transition 10-12km were my long runs so I dropped my distance down to 2km per run and built up from there. I now have no issues with my calves over 30km or more.

Please bear in mind that the I found the soleus pain often presents after the run, not during. So you can run a longer distance but then feel very sore afterwards. In other words, go for a short run, see how your body feels later in the day and reassess from there.

Consider a transition shoe of minimal but not zero drop

If you have been running in very cushioned shoe or one with a large heel drop, consider trying a shoe with a lower heel drop rather than going straight to zero drop. There are plenty of good trail running shoes on the market in the 3mm – 6mm heel drop range. Any of these could be a good place to start if you want to get closer to the feel of a zero drop shoe but you don’t feel ready to fully transition.

Also Altra make zero drop but cushioned shoes. This is also a good way to introduce the zero drop platform into your running. The added protection underfoot may help you feel more comfortable during the time you are transitioning from old running habits.

Should you make the switch?

In the end follow your gut and listen to your body. You may have a medical professional in one ear telling you one thing and a barefoot running aficionado in the other ear telling you it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Just remember that neither party can feel exactly what you feel.

Be prepared to do the work on your running form. If you are not prepared to spend the time to learn to run better then I would suggest that now is not a good time to make this transition.

Consider having them as a tool in your running kit but not as an everyday or racing shoe. You may find that you like them for certain types of runs or that you benefit from having them in your shoe rotation but ultimately they are not the shoe you’d run a marathon in. That’s totally fine. Again it’s all about what works well for you not some high handed ideal that you have to aspire to.

I don’t believe that barefoot or minimalist shoes are the perfect cure for all running ills. However, they have been a great platform for me to learn more about my running form and encourage me to move in a more harmonious way that has reduced my own running niggles.

I’d love for you to share your experiences in the comments.


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