Running in Minimalist Shoes

Q I recently finished reading Born to Run. I don’t think I want to go all the way to “toe shoes,” but I am intrigued by the idea that less shoe leads to stronger feet and better form. Do you have any tips to share? What kind of minimalist shoes should I try at my local running store? – DANIEL


A That is a wonderful book, and it has redefined the running shoe world while raising the question of just how much support a runner needs underfoot. I don’t believe there’s one answer for this question, and here’s why.

As the book highlights, when you look back in human history far enough, we were able to run barefoot. It is part of our evolution of movement. As we continued to evolve, so did the level of support on our feet. Just as we learned to walk and run upright, we’ve also learned to walk and run in a highly supported shoe style. Enter Born to Run, which enticed us all to re-evaluate what we wore on our feet and how we moved through the world. For some, it meant making the transition to running fully bare (without shoes). For others, it meant going with toe shoes and other minimal shoes that offer only protection from the ground surface.

As a coach, I’ve been intrigued at the outcomes and have learned from the trial and error of thousands of runners I’ve connected with via email, at races and expos, on my running holidays, and more.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

There is no one answer that suits every runner’s needs. Some are blessed with the mechanics, strength, and lifestyle to support running bare, while it leaves others with torn Achilles and calf strains.

Making the transition to running in less shoe is dependent on many variables, including: age, weight, running efficiency, experience, mileage base, shoe lifestyle (what you wear every day), strength and mobility, balance and more. It’s for these very reasons that it works for some and hurts others.

The greatest success runners have had is when they invest the time it takes to relearn how to run. Learning to run in less shoe is less about the shoe, and more about the running. That is the golden message in Born to Run. In my opinion the greatest failure in the movement is the loss of that very message. It’s vital for the everyday mortal to make the transition to less shoe over a period of time. Many runners transitioned too quickly, and many quickly got hurt.

Talk to any foot or orthopedic doctor, and they will tell you long stories about the rise in foot and lower leg injuries over the past few years. I don’t think this is a coincidence, as I’ve seen and heard stories from runners all over the world. More often than not your stories have revealed that the injuries came on when a transition to less shoe was made or runners were training for an event that required running lots of kilometres. It’s easy to blame the “less shoe” movement, but truly it’s more about the lack of preparation and training before the transition was made.

It takes quite a while to develop the mechanics to run with less underfoot, and most runners want to get out and continue to run longer kilometres (5+). It’s almost like learning how to run all over again.

There are many runners that have successfully made the transition to running in less shoe; some bare, some very minimal, but most I find have found a real comfort in a shoe that is slightly less than their normal running shoe.

And finally, there are some runners that may never be able to make the transition, and that is okay. Not all of us wear Speedos and bikinis, either (at least I won’t be anytime soon).

Personally, I invested the better part of two years in strengthening my feet, lower legs, and core and have found that I do well to run in less shoe (Brooks Pure Grit) on trails, and slightly more shoe (but less than what I was running in before) with an 8mm drop, on the roads (Saucony Ride). I also have found I love to go bare around the house, wear zero-drop sandals around town (Birkenstock), and that has also helped improve my foot strength and mobility. These are all positive changes that are in line with the teachings in Born to Run and have made an improvement in my running and life performance.

There is now a trend in the running shoe industry towards shoes that lie somewhere in the middle of minimal and the standard supportive shoe, and funny enough, it’s where we started this journey when running shoes started to evolve.

I’d love to tell you exactly what shoe to try – wouldn’t that make things easy? However, the best way to find the right shoes for you is to head to your local running speciality store and communicate your goals to run in less shoe. Ask them to see the spectrum of shoes, from standard support to the most minimal, so you can get a sense of the right next step for you and how they all feel on your feet. Again, small transitions make the most sense to me. That may mean a lower-to-the-ground road shoe now, and then less shoe later.

My take on the bare and minimal movement is to decide what’s best for you. If you decide to move in a direction of less, the key is to think of it as starting from scratch rather than wearing a new pair of cool shoes.

Here are some other tips to consider on your way:

Start with a solid foot-, lower leg-, and core-strengthening program. If you don’t have the strength, balance and mobility, running with less can be a real trauma to your body. Our bodies atrophy with the supportive nature of the modern day shoe, and it will take time to rebuild strength to support the impact forces of running – especially running lots of kilometres. There are many products like a balance pad, folded towel, the AFX, and foot and ankle strength programs that can help you develop a stronger foundation and make all the difference in your journey to running with less underfoot.

Walk before you run. Try walking around the house barefoot before you try to run in less or no shoe. Start with minutes and build to longer over time. It’s an effective stepping stone in running with less.

Try running in a slightly minimal shoe and slowly make your way to less, if that is your goal. I know I will hear it from some folks on this point, however, going from a shoe that is 12 mm to 0-4 mm drop (the drop from heel to toe in a shoe) can cause all kinds of issues. Your calf muscles lengthen and stretch beyond their normal range of motion stride for stride in a lower-to-the-ground shoe, causing strains and tears. This is especially true for those that have tight calves from wearing high heels. Be cautious as you make this change.

Speaking of high heels, one of the key ingredients to running with less is having mobility in your ankle and muscles. Focussing on foam rolling and muscle release can be highly beneficial in improving your lower body mechanics and can release the tension often caused by transitioning to less shoe.

As you make your way into running with less underfoot, transition by weaving in pre- or post-run drills. For instance, running six to eight 30-second striders – start running with a quick turnover, then increase the length of your stride while maintaining the turnover (cadence). This is a great way learn the mechanics and stress the muscles just enough that you don’t fatigue and break down your form.

From there, weave in 5-10 minutes of continuous running at the beginning of your runs in your minimal shoes and then finish in your go-to normal training shoes. Slowly build your running time from there as your body will allow.

As you can see from my response, there isn’t one answer to your great question. It’s fun to see the running shoe world continue to evolve based on the runner’s needs and interests. Some companies are even starting to communicate the heel-to-toe offset (drop) like Saucony, which is helpful information in safely making transition. You may also find the Runner’s World shoe guides helpful (in our March, July and November issues).

Good luck on your journey.


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