Preparation and patience are key to avoiding injury.
Minimalist running has been all the rage for a while now as research continues to emerge about its potential benefits. Furthermore, proponents of the “less is more” footwear philosophy have become more vocal about their success stories.
So what exactly constitutes minimalist running? In short, it involves wearing a running shoe that doesn’t impede upon the body’s natural biomechanics. Traditional running shoes, on the other hand, are well-cushioned, may have denser midsole materials and built-in support devices to prevent excess motion at the ankle, and usually have a high heel to toe ratio — meaning the heel is elevated (10-12 mm is common) above the toe. Recent literature indicates that these safeguards and inherent support can actually weaken the foot over time — nor have they been shown to reduce instances of injury.
Minimalist running on the other hand, promotes the natural motion of the foot. Over time, the foot gets stronger so that it can essentially support itself and act as a natural shock absorber by striking on the midfoot or forefoot. Theoretically, stronger foot muscles and lower impact rates will reduce the chance of injury.
It is not the goal of this article to persuade you one way or the other to try minimalist running. After 10 years of coaching and more than 15 years of running at an elite level, I’ve encountered scores of runners who’ve have been helped tremendously by traditional running shoes. I’ve also met numerous runners whose injury problems were seemingly cured by moving into minimalist running shoes. The decision on which shoes to wear is a personal one based on your own injury history as well as your goals.
This article will explain how to safely transition to running in minimalist shoes. In order to stay healthy, which is the number one goal, it is imperative that you properly prepare the muscles in your feet, improve your proprioception, and develop a solid foundation of strength and flexibility before transitioning to a minimalist shoe.
Building the Foundation
The first step in successfully transitioning to a minimalist running shoe is building a foundation of strength and balance in your feet, lower legs and hips. Think of this phase as pouring the foundation for your home. The stronger and larger you can build your foundation, the more resilient and sturdy your house will ultimately be. If your foundation is weak or has cracks, you’re in for a difficult and expensive remodel down the road. So, take the time now to ensure you have the proper foundation before you begin your transition.
If you’ve been accustomed to wearing traditional running shoes with lots of support, cushioning and a higher heel-toe drop, this process of reeducation and strengthening can take 8 to 10 weeks. Be patient. It will pay off in the long term.
Step 1: Developing flexibility
When transitioning to a more minimal shoe, it is critical that you have proper mobility and range of motion in both the ankle and the big toe, which can be weakened due to the “rocker effect” elicited by traditional running shoes. Without this flexibility in the ankle and big toe, your foot will roll excessively to the inside (overpronation) or the outside (underpronation, or supination), often causing a myriad of injury issues.
Begin with basic calf stretches. Next, move to dynamic stretches such as knee pointers, single leg pointers, and toe pointers.
To perform the knee pointer, stand with your toes 2 to 3 inches away from a wall. Keep your weight on your heels. With your heels on the ground, slowly bend your knees until they touch the wall, counting for 5 seconds on the way down. Without resting your knees against the wall, hold your knees in the bent position for two seconds and then return to the starting position. Repeat the process, but this time move your knees at a thirty degree angle to the right. The movement should come from the ankles and not by rotating your feet or twisting your hips. Repeat a third time moving your knees at a thirty degree angle to the left.
Once you’re comfortable with this basic knee pointer exercise, progress to performing the exercise on one leg. Finally, step further away from the wall and balance on one leg. Try to touch your outstretched foot to touch the wall, which will require a greater range of motion from the ankle.
Step 2: Strengthening your support muscles
Strengthening your support muscles and developing a better sense of balance will help your feet, lower legs and hips prepare for and absorb the slight changes in form and foot strike that occur during the transition to minimalist running.
First try the Toe Yoga exercise, which strengthens your big toe. The big toe provides nearly 85 percent of the support to your foot when you land while running. To perform Toe Yoga, stand barefoot and raise your big toe while keeping your other four toes on the ground. Hold this position for five seconds then relax. Next, raise your four other toes while keeping your big toe on the ground. Hold this position for five seconds and relax before repeating.
Next, implement some basic towel exercises to help strengthen the plantar fascia. the band of connective tissue that connects at the base of the heel and supports your arch. While sitting in a chair, put a towel on the ground (preferably a slippery surface like a hardwood floor) and scrunch the towel together using only your toes.
Finally, get started on hip and core stability exercises to help keep your posture strong and provide power through the running stride.
Step 3: Learning how to land
The last component in the minimalist transition is learning how to properly land on your feet without shoes. While landing might seem trivial, learning how to land properly helps develop your spring mechanism and movement patterns. Developing the ability to land and control your foot strike will help you land softly rather than pounding the pavement. Moreover, it’s essential to helping you develop the proper movement and proprioceptive patterns that help you land on your midfoot or forefoot as opposed to heel striking.
Begin by incorporating some basic sprinting drills into your post-run routine. My favorite is the A-skip, detailed here, but the rest of the drills outlined along with it are also effective.
Progressing Your Mileage
It should go without saying that you need to cautiously progress the amount of running you do when switching to minimalist running shoes. Begin with some short 20 to 30-second accelerations in your minimalist shoes after an easy run in traditional trainers. Once you’re comfortable in your new kicks, progress to 3 to 5 minutes of minimalist running every other day and slowly add 3-5 minutes each week, focusing on landing softly with an efficient midfoot strike.
When transitioning to less of a shoe, begin your run in your chosen minimalist model and after your allotted time is up for the day, switch to your regular training shoes. This will help transfer some of the feel and landing patterns to your stride when you return to traditional shoes.
Most importantly, listen to your body and be patient. I can’t stress this enough. Changing movement patterns takes time. If you feel a part of your lower leg or foot become excessively sore, back off from your minimalist shoes for a day or two, or take an extra day of rest. If you progress slowly and remain patient throughout the transition process, you’ll be running without worry in minimalist shoes before you know it.