How to Switch to Minimal Running Shoes

Lightweight and unsupportive, minimalist running shoes allow the foot to work the way nature intended. The “barefoot” running movement has grown in popularity with some users touting injury reduction, better endurance and faster paces.

Minimal running shoes provide an incredible amount of tactile sensation to the foot and force runners to use a stride that minimizes impacts on not only the foot but also the entire body. There are as many reasons runners chose minimal shoes as shoes to chose from. But when you crack that first box of paper-thin running shoes, a word of caution; the transition from traditional, supportive running shoes to a barefoot style shoe can lead to injury if not done slowly and cautiously. I transitioned to minimal running shoes about one year ago.

From the first days of throbbing calves after a half mile jog, I built up to running marathons and even the six-day, 120 mile TransRockies Run wearing minimal running shoes. These are some tips I found helpful during my own transition.

Start slow. Start short. Running in minimal shoes is meant to mimic running barefoot. If you haven’t spent a lot of time barefoot, the bones, tendons and fascia in your feet, ankles and lower legs will be underdeveloped and will take time to relearn their biological jobs.Begin by running short dashes in minimal shoes (or even barefoot) after warming up with an easy run in your old running shoes. During these short runs, focus on landing lightly on your mid and forefoot. Don’t be surprised by the soreness in your calves and Achilles tendon the next day! Build up to short runs of less than five minutes interspersed every few days between runs in traditional shoes. Gradually increase by five-minute increments over the course of weeks and months until you no longer feel the soreness in your calves and feet.

Get light. If you’ve spent years pounding along with thick-soled kicks you will quickly notice that heavy footfalls hurt in thin running shoes. Try to limit your up and down motion and scoot smoothly over the ground landing gently on your fore and mid-foot.

Use for keys to proper running. According to New Balance Good Form Running guru Grant Robison, the four keys to good form running are Posture, Midfoot Landing, Cadence and Lean. I used his advice as I improved my technique during the past year. Proper posture begins with an upright, elongated back and upright head easily found by stretching arms overhead and then dropping arms to the side while maintaining body alignment. A mid-foot landing reduces the braking effect of a heel landing as well as shock on knees and hips. Aim for a cadence of 180 beats per minute, or three steps per second. This will likely feel fast if you have run with a stretched out stride but will become more natural over time. Lean is the way I found to put it all together. Start standing on flat ground with your hands at your side. Allow yourself to fall forward. Begin running to catch yourself. Maintain that forward lean while running under yourself. Want to go faster? Lean forward more. Want to go slower? Stand more upright. Your body will naturally compensate.

Watch where you’re going. Minimal shoes protect skin from sharp objects and that is about all. A stubbed toe in barefoot style shoes hurts. A lot. I stubbed my toes four or five times during the TransRockies Run. I lost seven toenails. Ouch.

Try a trail. Minimal shoes really shine on trails. It just feels great blasting over boulders, zipping between trees and bounding downhill when you can actually sense the ground underfoot. Another advantage to barefoot style shoes is a thin sole, known as stack height. This equals great proprioception and can translate into less twisted ankles.