Minimalist Running Shoes - Are They Right For You?

Vibram Five Fingers
Vibram Five Fingers

Trying to decide if minimalist running shoes are right for you? Have you ever wondered if those 'foot-glove' things or lightweight running shoes will really improve your running and make running injuries a thing of the past? Let's review the situation and see....

The barefoot or nearly-barefoot running movement exploded on the scene in 2009 soon after Christopher McDougall's best-selling book, 'Born To Run', hit bookstores and online booksellers around the globe.

'Born to Run' details the seemingly superhuman running exploits of Mexico's Tarahumara tribe whose members wear only sandals while running. The once-groundbreaking notion of 'less shoe is better' is the driving force behind minimalist running shoes.

Now that you know a little about the background of minimalist or lightweight running shoes and how they got so popular, let's cover the outline of this article:

  1. Advantages of Minimalist Running Shoes
  2. Disadvantages/Drawbacks
  3. Tips to Begin Using (How to Transition)
  4. Transition Training Plan
  5. Characteristics of Lightweight Running Shoes
  6. How to Pick the Right Shoe For You
  7. Final Thoughts and Recommendations

Advantages of Minimalist Running Shoes

So, what are the advantages of minimalist, barefoot or nearly barefoot running shoes? And, why in the world would anyone want to do something that looks a bit strange (by most people's view) and probably hurts? Well, I'm glad you asked! You'll be surprised at the benefits of running with less shoe or even, no shoes:

  1. A more efficient stride resulting from dramatically increased sensory information received by your feet.
  2. Promotes a transition to a mid- or forefoot landing pattern and away from painful heel striking.
  3. Wearing less on your feet can strengthen the muscles and support you better as you run. The body automatically adapts and gets stronger (i.e. core, leg, ankle and foot).
  4. A shorter running stride typically develops which can lessen impact forces.
To sum it all up, research suggests that by helping you mimic the stride of a barefoot runner (i.e. gently landing on your mid or forefoot) minimally padded shoes may make you:
  • Faster
  • More efficient
  • Improve your running form and
  • Theoretically, reduce injuries
Don't we all want to run faster and with fewer or no injuries?

Disadvantages/Drawbacks

Ready to make to make the switch from normal padded running shoes to lightly padded or barefoot running? Not so fast oh, impulsive one! There are a few things you need to consider before jumping full force on the minimalist running bandwagon:

  1. Rapid transition of going from padded running shoes to minimalist running shoes can quickly lead to injury. Our feet have been pampered by today's modern shoes and are ill prepared to suddenly 'switch'. Dormant muscles suddenly called into action will most likely scream for a 'Timeout'.

  2. Converting from a lifetime of running with a heel striking form isn't a snap to 'unlearn'. Many people are 'heel strikers'. The vast majority of running shoes today have built up heel pads and steep ramp angles which almost force you to land on your heels.

  3. Making the transition to mininimalist, lightweight or no running shoes is a lot more taxing on your feet, ankles, calves, and hamstrings. It isn't bad, but it is different and we've become dependent on the support of our shoes. It takes time to adapt to moving with less under your feet.

  4. Thick-soled shoes are much more forgiving when running over glass, sharp objects, ice and so on.

Tips to Begin Using (How to Transition)

You've considered both the advantages and disadvantages of running with less shoe and have decided to take the plunge. Now the question is, "How do I make the transition to a lightweight or minimalist running shoe safely, effectively and in the least amount of time?" The last thing you want is to change over too quickly, get injured and be forced out of running for several months. Listed below are several tips to help you make the transition to minimalist running shoes in the smartest way possible:

  1. Build a strong foundation. Focus on drills that develop strength, balance and stability. (See sample drill below).

    • Single leg standing balance for 30 to 60 seconds. Take the time to progress through the following levels:

      1. With normal running shoes on
      2. With a lighter weight shoe or socks
      3. Barefoot
      4. Barefoot on a BOSU ball or wobble board
      5. Same as D. above but with eyes closed

  2. Implement Short-Duration Barefoot/Minimalist Shoe Drills - Running in place for 30 to 60 seconds four to six times; Running short intervals (30 seconds) on a treadmill or a flat predictable surface (gym/track).

  3. Build up slowly by walking around barefoot frequently. First inside then outside on various surfaces. Use 10% rule to increase running distance per week.

  4. Slowly lengthen the time you run barefoot (or with lightweight shoes). Just a minute or two longer, a few times a week. Go slowly — don’t try to sprint or run hard. Continue to run lightly, working on not pounding. Try different surfaces — asphalt, concrete, grass, dirt. Let your body slowly adapt to this new running style, and your muscles slowly get stronger.

  5. Stretch your calves and hamstrings carefully and regularly as you make the transition. Massage your calf muscles and arches frequently to break down scar tissue. This will help your muscles to heal and get stronger.
Remember, it'll take time for your foot structures to adapt to the lack of external support. Think, Form first (fore to mid-foot striking), Slowly add distance and Speed will come later.

Transition Training Plan

The training plan detailed below is based on running 20-miles per week and slowly moving from traditional running shoes to lighter, minimalist running shoes. Take the principles and adapt the plan for your individual needs:

WEEK LIGHTER SHOE TRADITIONAL SHOE
1-2 2 Miles 18 Miles
3-4 4 Miles 16 Miles
5-6 6 Miles 14 Miles
7-8 8 Miles 12 Miles
19-20 20 Miles 0 Miles

Characteristics of Lightweight Running Shoes

Still not sure exactly what a minimalist or 'barefoot' running shoe is or what qualifies a shoe to be one? Listed below are a few things to look for in a lightweight running shoe:

  1. Range in weight from 6 ounces to 10 ounces (greater in weight, typically more padded).

  2. Heel-to-toe drop of approximately 4 to 10 millimeters (the higher the height, more characteristic of a 'traditional' running shoe).

  3. Less cushioning, lower to ground, less stride-controlling structure and lower heel-to-toe ramp angle (the greater the ramp angle, the greater propensity to cause 'heel' striking on foot impact).

How to Pick the Right Shoe For You

Basically, there are two schools of thought on how to pick the right minimalist running shoe:

1. Go direct to 'barefoot' running

The thought is that running shoes that have any level of padding and stride-controlling structure tends to continue enabling a heel-striking running form. Running barefoot or in 'barefoot' running shoes (i.e. Vibram FiveFingers) encourages learning to run on your forefoot.

It's recommended to run first completely on a hard flat surface. The reason for this is twofold: One, it forces you to run with a very light forefoot strike and two, it allows the sensory receptors of your skin and feet to keep you from going too hard too soon. As your running form and strength improve, begin to transition to 'barefoot' running shoes. You should slowly increase your mileage to allow your feet and legs to adapt to forefoot running (ex. Transition Training Plan above).

2. Gradually move down the chain of lighter shoes with less heel-to-toe drop.

Once again, build your mileage gradually (10% rule - see transtion training plan above) as you move from shoe-to-shoe (lightweight, minimalist, 'barefoot). The gradual transition will allow your body to adapt and strengthen which will minimize your chance of injury.

Final Thoughts and Recommendation

Are minimalist running shoes for everyone or just the latest fad? My thought is that anything that improves your running form is a positive but each person should take into consideration the following factors before making the switch:

  • Body weight and composition
  • Past injury history
  • Level of fitness
  • Running goals
  • Level of commitment (time and energy) to change a lifetime running form/gait.

If you've made the decision to give minimalist running a try, my recommendation is:

  1. Follow the transition tips and transition training plan listed above AND
  2. Begin your shoe shopping at a local running shoe specialty shop FIRST. Have a running shoe professional guide you in choosing the right shoe for you.

Finally, if you know what you want and are ready to buy online, Zappos has a great selection of minimalist/lightweight running shoes to choose from.

Listed below is my Top Recommendation:

  1. Zappos (Mens/Womens)
    Top notch selection of every kind of running shoe, great prices, FREE Shipping, FREE Return shipping, and 365-Day Return Policy.

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