Unless you are a Kenyan or a Tarahumaran from Mexico, you’ve probably been running and walking in shoes for your whole life. So before you ditch your shoes and jump in feet-first to the minimalist running craze, you need to learn about the risks and how to approach this new style of running with patience and care. Doing it the right way can improve your practice and your overall health—doing it the wrong way could have painful consequences. Here, three athletes share the benefits, the downsides, and the cold, hard facts about minimalist and barefoot running.
Ultimate Direction athlete, Michele Yates stepped into the ultrarunning world from a personal training and marathon background. The two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier eventually became a four-time National Champion in the ultra trail events. This past December, Michele became The North Face 50 Mile Champion. “I am not a minimalist runner,” Michele says, “but, as a coach, I believe in including minimalist training to help strengthen ankle ligaments and tendons.” blog.ultimatedirection.com
Since 2000, Stacey Lei Krauss has taught thousands of people how to strengthen and smarten their feet, eliminate foot pain, and enhance function and performance. She is the Lead Fitness Advisor for Vibram FiveFingers®, the creator of globally recognized barefoot fusion program The willPower Method®, a Reiki practitioner, and owner of The willPower FIT STUDIO in Denver, CO. She began minimalist running when the Nike Free was launched in 2004 and has been teaching barefoot movement for 15 years. “I’ve been in the fitness business for over 20 years, and I write educational courses to teach personal trainers and instructors how and why to train barefoot and minimal,” Stacey says. “I run minimal because it was the way our bodies were intended to run—functionally, like a primal animal.” willpowermethod.com
Patagonia and Patagonia Footwear ultrarunner and trail running ambassador Jeff Browning (a.k.a. “Bronco Billy”) started dabbling with minimalist running concepts in 2006. He originally studied and worked to develop proper running technique to prevent IT band and plantar fasciitis issues but soon found that running with a barefoot technique is paramount for people in minimalist footwear. “I soon embarked on a six-season-long ‘baby steps’ journey to wean myself off hard plastic orthotics and strengthen my feet,” Jeff explains, adding that he was also motivated to explore minimalist running so he could take advantage of lighter footwear for mountain trail running, and race faster. “Shedding two ounces off a pair of shoes means a lot less weight to pick up over the course of a 100-mile race. I did the rough math and found if I could shed two ounces off my shoes, that’s approximately 27,000 fewer pounds I have to pick up during a 20-hour, 100-mile race!”
What is minimalist running?
Minimalist running is running without cushioning, motion control, or stability in a shoe, Stacey says. “It is a relaxed yet powerful form of primal movement.”
“Using your body’s natural running gait by running barefoot-like, minimalist running rewards the runner with a low-impact, mid- to forefoot strike and a quick cadence,” Jeff says, “allowing the runner to transition and move to less supportive, lighter footwear—or even no footwear at all once the runner’s feet are strong enough—if they so choose.”
Some like to call it “natural running” because of the proper running gait (see “Pointers on minimalist running form”) necessary when running without supportive shoes.
Why should women run barefoot or minimalist?
To build strength and stability: “I don’t feel women particularly should barefoot or minimalist run on a regular basis,” Michele says. “However, I do feel that they can include it in their training to build strength in their lower body and feet.”
To help your body better depend on its own natural suspension system: “There is still no evidence proving athletic shoes prevent injury. And, the traditional athletic shoe does not enhance our function,” Stacey says, citing research conducted by Dr. Daniel Lieberman, Harvard University that compares the foot strike patterns of shod vs. unshod runners. “With a mid-foot or forefoot strike [as part of good minimal or barefoot running form], the foot is able to more properly disperse ground reaction forces.”
To improve your natural running gait to prevent injuries and develop longevity in your running: “When you add those two things together, you get consistency,” Jeff says, “and those three things are the synergy to life-long fitness.”
Since 75% of runners are heel strikers, transitioning to barefoot (or minimal) running means learning a new skill altogether.
When shouldn’t women run minimalist-style?
“I feel the risk of injury outweighs the benefits of minimalist running in most cases. Especially because a majority of individuals have pronation, supination, or overall issues that will affect their running gait cycle,” Michele says. “In my opinion, [minimalist running] is best once a week on a soft grassy area, such as a football field.”
Stacey disagrees. She thinks minimalist running will improve overall foot fitness and reduce the risk of—and maybe even alleviate some of—those conditions. “Type-A hard core heel-striking runners are a pain in my neck,” she remarks. “Those of you who are addicted to speed and distance: transitioning will be challenging, because it’s going to take patience… and possibly a season off of your favorite sport while you learn.” Still, if you are suffering from plantar fasciitis, neuroma, metatarsalgia, or other acute foot injuries, you get those under control before you start running.
Jeff says everyone can work toward minimalist running. “If you’ve been in very supportive shoes and have rarely been barefoot for most of your life, you can still transition. It will just be slow. You’ll have to be patient and think in terms of years in order to shed your supportive footwear. There is hope,” Jeff reminds. “I did it. It only took me six years!”
Pros and cons of minimalist running
—Your Body Might Be Better
Minimalist running advocates say that the ligaments and tendons below your hips will be healthier, your foot muscles will be stronger, your balance will improve.
—Natural Shock Absorption
With proper form, running will be easier on your joints, and there is the potential for less torque on your knees.
—Lighter Shoes, Heavier Wallet
Minimalist shoes last longer, so you’ll spend less money replacing your kicks.
It’s a freeing feeling to be liberated from your old-school running shoes, and you’ll have more of a connection to the various surfaces you experience during a run.
Overall, barefoot or minimalist running helps harness the body’s innate suspension system so you will be better able to manage the impact of your footfalls. You can embrace your inner child and enjoy softer, more natural running and footwear.
Without taking the time to adjust to minimalist running or going shoeless, you can experience common injuries like plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, or sprains. Barefoot runners are subject to debris and infections. And perhaps the worst pain comes from adjusting to shorter runs and less satisfying workouts while you’re trying to acclimatize your body to minimalist running—it’s a slow transition.
No more zoning out while you’re running, no texting or answering the phone in the middle of your workout—you’ll need to pay a lot more attention to exactly what you’re stepping on and where your foot is falling.
—Who’s That Girl?
People will look, and even stare, at your feet. They will ask you questions about your shoes, or your lack of shoes, and you might even get a nickname like “that barefoot chick.”
—So Long To Style
You will probably start to despise those hard, narrow-toed, cute shoes you once loved. And don’t get us started on high-heels!
The only real con of running in minimalist shoes is major and serious concern—the risk of injury is real and should be heavily weighed as you consider whether to transition. If you have the patience and mental commitment to make the transition, you probably won’t care what other people think about your shoes or your bare feet, and you certainly won’t mind ditching the slingbacks that no longer feel good, even for a special occasion.
Understanding and preventing common injuries
The potential for injury exists whether running in extra supportive and cushioned shoes or in very minimal shoes, but the causes and prevention methods are different. The majority of runners endure both chronic and acute sports specific injuries. Typically, these injuries—faulty alignment and gait patterns that lead to joint issues, shin splints, and so on—are a result over-use and overtraining. However, many of the barefoot running-related injuries are a result of improper acclimation. “When we take an existing runner and tell her that she needs to cut back to only one slow mile a day to begin, of course the runner is not interested, so she jumps in faster than she should,” Stacey explains. “Plus, since the perceived exertion is so low, she runs faster and much farther than her body is able to manage in the beginning.”
The most typical injuries are extreme delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), specifically in the calves and foot bone edema. “You’ll be using all those small muscles and tendons of the lower leg and foot in new ways. Give it time,” Jeff says. “Doing too much too fast results in injuries.”
Because you’ve been wearing shoes most of your life and your feet are weak, this will take years—not months—of diligence in transitioning and strengthening. “We also know that most runners are type-A personality, they are competitive, they like repetition, and they and become slightly addicted to the runners’ high. Therefore, even with impending injury, they don’t give themselves adequate rest and recovery,” Stacey adds.
To support recovery, roll your bare feet over a golf ball or foot massage ball several times daily. “Common issues are plantar fasciitis, sore tendons in the lower leg and ankles, sore and tight calves and achilles that, if not rested and stretched, can lead to tendonitis,” Jeff warns.
Also roll out your lower legs, your upper legs, and even your glut muscles, if you have time. “I use a lacrosse ball to roll my legs and butt,” says Michelle, who suggests stretching after every run and taking ice baths occasionally.
“Each foot has 33 joints. This offers the human body tremendous potential for mobility! The amazing foot is designed to articulate on variable surfaces and textures. Keeping our feet confined to a shoe has essentially stunted the foot’s true functionality. Like any joint system in the body, continually working towards articulation and full-range of motion protects us from movement dysfunction and physical issues, such as arthritis.” —Stacey
Tips for transitioning to a minimalist shoe
“If your arm was in a cast, and one day you had the cast removed, would you go home and directly perform push-ups?” Stacey asks. “No. You know that you need to strengthen the atrophied muscles and mobilize the stiff joints. Feet are the same. You need to strengthen your feet.”
If you’re minimalist running once a week for training, like Michele suggests, follow these tips:
a. Go barefoot or wear your minimalist shoes around the house for a few hours at a time first.
b. Once that gets comfortable, go barefoot or wear minimalist shoes walking around for the entire day.
c. From there, try easy running on a grassy field, first for 15 minutes. Repeat this a few weeks in a row, once a week.
d. Gradually add volume (5-10 minutes more every few weeks if your body hasn’t protested) and run up to 60 minutes at a time.
e. If you are still feeling good, and stronger than ever, attempt to include some intervals (30 seconds off, 30 seconds on) for 60 minutes. Do this every few weeks or every other week.
f. Ultimately, you could work up to doing a tempo run in minimalist shoes or barefoot. Example: easy 5 minutes, 30 minutes hard and steady, 5 minutes easy.
e. Then alternate between an interval workout and a tempo run.
“At all times, closely monitor yourself for any tightness, blisters, and aggravations,” Michele says.
Jeff suggests this pattern when transitioning: little stress, then rest, recover, repeat, repeat, repeat. But that’s pretty general, he says, and everyone’s transition is different. “It really depends on your running background and other factors. For example, if you grew up running around a beach barefoot your whole life, the odds are that you have strong feet,” Jeff explains. “I wore shoes most of my life. So my feet were rather weak, especially after years of running in hard plastic orthotics. If you decide to make the jump—or rather the crawl—to minimalist running, be ready for a few little setbacks, even if you’re careful.”
When he started barefoot running, Jeff was unwilling to back off on weekly training miles since he was racing up to eight ultra-distance trail races per year. So, he spent six years transitioning. “And, I got a little over-zealous a few times,” he admits, “ramping up one or two easy runs a week in order to dial in barefoot running form and also strengthen my feet. I soon was experiencing sore overuse injuries in my feet.”
Barefoot-mimicking footwear is better used as a tool to passively strengthen feet when not actually running, says Jeff who very carefully weaned his weak feet from orthotics to out-of-the-box minimalist footbeds over the course of several seasons.
Which brings us to another point: Cross train. Cross train. Cross train. “I know you love running. I understand,” Stacey says. “But please stretch, twist, bend. Your body was designed to move on three functional planes.”
The bottom line is to give yourself plenty of time to practice running minimal.
For a more in-depth and visual approach, check out Vibram’s a step-by-step guide with a number of foot strengthening techniques (vibramfivefingers.com/education).
Pointers on minimalist running form
Running naturally is easier said than done. Minimalist running is a long-term practice, and Stacey offers these tips for natural running form that’ll keep you healthily striding through the years:
• Foot strike should be mid-foot or forefoot
• Land gently and upright with your feet directly below your hips.
• Foot turnover should be approximately 180 strikes per minute, which is relatively fast
• Body should stay relaxed and all the joints and muscles should work together, rather than oppose one another
“There are so many good tools for natural running form since the minimalist movement hit the scene,” Jeff says. A few he personally studied and encourages others to check out include ChiRunning (chirunning.com), Pose Method (posemethod.com), and Good Form Running (goodformrunning.com).
How minimalist running affects the body
“They will encounter some beautiful toning to their lower legs,” Michele says with a smile.
And runners could potentially have increased toning in their gluteus muscles, too, Stacey adds. There’s also the potential of reduced knee or back pain and weight loss.
“You should be able to run more consistently with less injury and less impact. So, running should not beat you up as much as it used to,” Jeff explains. “The other benefit of less injury is consistency in your running, which means no major breaks in your running. Therefore, it will help you stay fit year-round.”
What is a minimalist shoe?
Some of the problems with traditional athletic shoes which are designed to help make exercise easier and more comfortable, according to Stacey, include:
• The small toebox de-forms the foot over time, leading to hammertoe conditions, bunions, neuromas
• The arch support has allowed the muscles in our feet to atrophy and become disconnected, which makes them dependent on the man-made interface of many shoes
• The motion control feature in shoes has also allowed the foot to become dependent—weak, stiff, unstable; when smaller muscles in the foot are weak, it leads to inefficient movement
• The cushioning feature in shoes has dampened the foot’s ability to understand grade of force as it strikes the ground
• The cushioning feature raises the heel higher than the forefoot, which leads to a shortened calf-Achilles complex and decreased natural ankle dorsi-flexion, hindering efficient movement also, the heel lift has changed our running gait and now people land on their heels, causing a force ranging from 1.5 – 3 times their body weight to be transferred up the skeleton as many as 1,000 times per mile
A true minimal shoe has:
-no stabilizing features
-no heel lift
-no motion control
-a wide toe box or toe pockets
-a straighter, flat arch area
-a soft and flexible upper with a lacing or Velcro system
-a low “drop” (This is the height difference of the heel compared to the forefoot of the shoe, which is also called the shoe’s offset.)
“MOST toes are not smart enough to spread on their own, since they’ve been squished together for twenty or thirty or forty years,” Stacey says, explaining the benefits of Vibram FiveFinger-like minimalist shoes. “The separate toe pockets actually teach neural pathways, essentially training the toes to spread apart—for better balance and stronger push-off.”
“A wider toe box allows your toes to splay,” Jeff says. “Traditional road shoes are relatively high with a 10- or 12-millimeter drop from heel to toe, while more minimalist footwear will be a 0- to 6-milimeter drop.”
“Be free and run long. It’s good for the soul. Giddyup.” —Jeff
This article was originally published in Women’s Adventure magazine‘s Summer 2014 issue.