So you want to run minimal?

I have no idea if you want to or not, but a colleague asked me if I could help him transition from the ultra-support/cushion models he current runs in. Thought I’d share an adapted version here.

My own course to minimal running started a couple of years back now – I’ve got Mike Hale to thank (again). I’ve gone from that collapsed ankle kid in plastic moulded orthotics, to an occasional runner in Brooks Beasts some years back, to where I am now – loving the barefoot.

Personal perspective

My view on shoes now is that they need to extend my brilliant in-built running apparatus, aka feet and legs, not inhibit them. This principally means grip and protection, not support and cushioning. The purported benefits to moving away from the big shoe (loads of cushioning/support) are: better running economy, less injury, increased comfort, and more fun. I say purported because it largely rests on theory and anecdote at the moment, formal studies are still coming in*. My personal experience has certainly been injury free, with improved comfort, and I smile more often while running now.

*Looking at it the other way, we’ve got 40 years of the development of the big feature shoe (more support, more cushioning). You’d expect a big body of evidence to back up the idea that more of these technical features are a good idea (you know, lower rates of injury, better performance, etc). Nope. So for all the heated debate, and entrenched opinion on either side we got nothing but marketing and ancedote. But I digress.

Note – racing Xterras and barefoot are not a sensible combination (some structure & cushioning are required for those nearly-in-control descents).

So what were the sage words offered to someone interested in starting down this path? Things have certainly changed a little to when I started, what with everyone now offering minimal models. Though there still remains two general schools to transitioning – both of which recognise the significant injury risk in transitioning, but from polar opposites.

School 1 “big shoe-to minimal shoe”. Philosophical underpinning: shoes are still desirable but minimal is better, ultimately we run to race

School 2 “big shoe-to barefoot-to minimal shoe”. Philosophical underpinning: shoes are sometimes a necessary evil of the modern world, we run for fun in the hot hot sun

Non-hysterical background on why minimal/barefoot running is back (and they are not selling anything)

Though these guys appear to ride both transition schools a bit, its possibly best not to ignore Harvard University’s Skeletal Biology Lab when considering the theory,  benefits and dangers of barefoot and minimal running. I’d start here for a rational, non-emotive background on the ‘why’ question.

The two transition approaches to running minimal

School 1 – Advocates of the gradual shoe transition (no barefoot required)

School 2 – Advocates of the big shoe to barefoot to minimal direction (its all about the form)

My non-sponsored product endorsement

In making a school 1 transition, the manufacturer I can recommend from personal experience, are locally available, and do the transition thing specifically (and now also do ultra minimal stuff).

Available locally from Shoe Science or

What not to do (aside from attempt to transition too quickly)

Seems the only approach that nobody endorses is going directly from a big shoe to an ultra minimal, aka ‘barefoot shoe’, say from the Brooks Beast to the Vibram Five Fingers (VFF). It seems you really do need that tactile feedback from ground to skin to safely make such a big shift (plus the fact that green feet are likely to give out before you blow something). I can attest to that, even now I need to do proper barefoot to stop any sloppy habits coming back into my VFF running.

Recommendation on the best school?

If I had to sum it up, I think school 2 gives the better ultimate outcome (ie. changed form/stride), but requires somewhat more time and dedication. Effectively you learn the correct form from the bottom up that you can then apply to any minimal shoe. School 1 is certainly the easier option, though is unlikely to completely overhaul (‘correct’) your stride to the point of being good in ultra-minimal footwear (eg. VFF).


One comment

  1. Nice post Ron, thanks for the many links. Its a complex issue which will be interesting to follow as research comes forth. Interesting too is the polarisation in the pro and anti camps; and as you point out, in the different approaches to barefoot/minimalism. While no one can yet claim that any running style or running shoe is proven to reduce injuries (so beware any group that boasts that), its great that the whole issue of form and of evidence-based (not marketing based) shoe selection is becoming part of running conversation.

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