The Journey to Minimalist Running

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While humans have traveled barefoot for millennia, transitioning from running in modern running shoes to barefoot or minimalist shoes is not trivial. There is good evidence that this transition time has an increased risk of injury. The minimalist running movement is a recent phenomenon in developed countries. This means that there is relatively little experience in moving from traditional Shoes to minimalist or barefoot running. There is no established body of lore to call upon, and few scientific studies to refer to.

1 The Danger of Too Much Too Soon

While minimalist running offers a more natural running style, the transition to minimalist running can cause serious injuries, especially stress fractures in the foot. Moving to minimalist running requires learning to run again from scratch. One useful analogy is that of taking of a cast from an injured leg; you have to slowly rehabilitate the leg to rebuild the strength. Doing Too Much Too Soon is such a common problem that the acronym TMTS is widely used on barefoot and minimalist running forums.

2 Minimalist Running for the Non-Runner

You may not be a runner at all, or you may be a runner who has been forced to stop running by injury. In either case, you should start minimalist running as a new runner. I'd recommend using the plan described in Starting to run, which is a gradual transition from walking to run/walk, and finally to continuous running. Start off by walking in your chosen minimalist footwear (or barefoot) for 30 minutes. This is a critical step to build up foot strength and get used to moving without cushioned Shoes. Once you are happy doing 2 miles in 30 minutes, start introducing a little running. Do two one-minute runs in the 30 minutes - run 1, walk 14, run 1, walk 14 (2x1R:14W). Then gradually build up, doing 2x2R:13W, 2x3R:12W etc., until you are running the full 30 minutes.

3 Minimalist Running for the Runner

Transitioning from traditional running shoes to a minimalist shoe or barefoot running should occur very gradually, and cautiously.

  • Consider transitioning from your current running shoes to increasingly minimalist shoes a step at a time. For instance, the Saucony Kinvara could be used as an interim step between a traditional and minimalist shoe. The difficulty in making the transition will largely depend on how minimalist your shoes are. For instance, I had a few problems in adapting to the Nike Free, but the FiveFingers were far more problematic.
  • It is be prudent to start off by doing some walking in your chosen minimalist footwear. Walking a few miles for a few days will give you a sense of how strong your feet are. If you have problems doing the walking, then you will need to be more cautious in your move to minimalist running. Spending as time walking minimalist shoes or barefoot will also help to build up your foot strength.
  • After the walking stage, I would suggest that you add a little minimalist running to the end of each of your normal runs. Initially, just run a quarter of a mile to get a sense of the new stresses. It may take a few days for the changes to manifest themselves as soreness or pain. After a few days increase this by repeating it once or twice. Do not do more than 10% of your daily distance.
  • Once you are comfortable with running 2-3x quarter miles, build up the distance gradually. Some people recommend increasing by 10% per week.
  • Avoid doing speed work or hill work in the minimalist shoes or barefoot until you are well established.

4 General Advice

  • Learn to run again. This means starting with short distances, with Walking Breaks and building up.
  • Doing Too Much Too Soon is counterproductive.
  • Pain is a warning sign that should not be ignored, especially pain in the bones of the foot which could indicate a stress fracture.
  • I have found that running in minimalist shoes requires a fundamental change in my biomechanics. If I swap from traditional to minimalist shoes, I find there is a period where I am landing harder, and this gradually gives way to a more gentle touch down.
  • In the minimalist shoes I still land midfoot, but the motion is more cautious and controlled. If you are swapping changing your foot strike from rear foot to completely forefoot, then the stress on your calves is likely to be dramatically higher, and you will need to allow much longer adaptation.
  • Listen to your feet. A loud slapping sound is a bad sign. Your feet should land so softly that it's hard to hear them.
  • Don't force yourself to land on your forefoot. Let your body and mind try different things to find out what works for you. Some folks seem to run on their forefoot, but many land on their midfoot.
  • Keep your Cadence high. A short, rapid stride is the natural way of running. You'll probably do this naturally, so don't fight it.
  • Lean forward. One approach is to stand upright, then lean forward until you have to start running to prevent yourself landing on your face. A slight forward lean seems to work well.
  • Some 'foot soreness' seems very common. Icing the bottom of the foot can help alleviate this, but this soreness is a sign to back down the intensity a little.
  • Consider ChiRunning or the POSE method, which are running styles that are intended to be more natural. However, these styles strongly encourage a 4 foot landing, which may not be appropriate.