Being around other runners while wearing my most minimal running footwear—a pair of sandals consisting of nothing more than a six millimeter thick slab of rubber and a polyester lace—tends to spur curiosity, and subsequent questions and conversations about minimalist and barefoot running. I’ve put together a hypothetical conversation based on some of the questions and comments I’ve received in the past, those that I anticipate getting in the future, along with typical responses I’ve provided or might provide down the road. The questions and comments are in boldface type and my responses are in regular type.
Whenever I see you running by me in those thin sandals I feel pains shooting through my feet, ankles, and up my legs.
The next time I run past you, take a closer look at how my feet are relating to the ground. You’ll see that I’m running lightly and not landing on my heels. By landing under my center of gravity and utilizing the elastic qualities of my lower extremities, I’m sending significantly less impact shock up my legs than I used to when heel striking in thickly-soled conventional running shoes. Also, I pay attention to where I’m running and step around or over rocks or anything else that would cause me pain if I landed on it. I assure you, I wouldn’t be doing this if it were causing me to experience shooting pains.
Did you make those?
Sort of. I assembled them from a kit I ordered online. I selected the color, thickness (these are 6 mm thick soles) and the appropriate size after measuring the longest part of my foot. I also choose a lace color. The kit came with a hole punch for making the hole between the first and second toes where the knot goes, and the website has videos illustrating various ways to thread the laces. I actually came up with my own way of lacing these, and I made an instructional YouTube video. Finally, I trimmed some excess material off the front edge of the sole with heavy scissors, and then they were ready to go.
Do you stub your toes?
I haven’t yet after running close to 900 kilometers in them. Actually, I find that the less footwear I’m wearing, the more I naturally tend to be careful about where and how I place my feet.
Those things look like they’d be bad for your feet.
It’s not wise to suddenly switch to minimalist sandals or minimalist footwear in general after years of wearing very supportive, cushioned, elevated-heel shoes. But with proper transitioning, and learning and mastering proper running form, they allow your feet to function better and get stronger. And with your feet so close to the ground, the chance of turning your ankle is reduced.
Do you also run barefoot?
I try to do one or two miles a week, as both a training tool and a way to have fun. I have no desire to do most or all of my running barefoot. It just isn’t practical given the surface conditions where I typically run.
I assume that when you’re running barefoot you’re on grass.
Actually no. I wouldn’t feel safe running on grass because it can hide significant surface irregularities and sharp objects. My preferred surface for running barefoot is smooth and clean concrete sidewalk or bicycle path. Second best is a rubberized running track or asphalt that’s in good condition. Old asphalt that has lost much of its binding material can feel quite rough depending on the surface texture of the exposed aggregate.
Can anyone run barefoot?
Certainly people with diabetic neuropathy shouldn’t be running around barefoot. Since they lack normal sensation in their feet, they’re more prone to injuries. And they often also suffer from compromised circulation, which results in slower healing, and a higher risk of infection. Other conditions can also make barefoot running a bad idea. I think that being able to run barefoot for significant distances both requires and reflects a certain baseline level of good overall health. Just what that level is, I can’t say. I would talk to your doctor or other primary care professional for advice.
I can’t run like that. My feet need lots of support.
You might be surprised. For decades I ran in motion control shoes with rigid prescription orthotics. I was conditioned to think that I had “flat” feet and could run no other way. Yes, I needed all that support, but only because I was a heel striker. Podiatrists’ never looked at how I ran or discussed with me proper running form. They just cast and measured my feet for orthotics and billed my insurance provider. I don’t blame them. They didn’t know any better and were merely doing what they were trained to do. Hopefully that’s changing because quick fixes are rarely as effective in the long run as getting to the root of the problem.
How long did it take you to learn to run like that?
It’s been around five years since I changed my running form and began transitioning into minimalist footwear. I made some mistakes along the way and got injured. Even though I took a gradual approach, I didn’t have the form and technique quite right. I was still reaching forward too much with my lead foot, putting too much stress on my metatarsals. Running with a metronome to speed up my steps-per-minute, and mixing in some barefoot running, really helped fix my form problems. I find that taking off the shoes and running barefoot for a stretch has a way of resetting my running form, because when I’m barefoot I automatically take shorter, quicker steps. One of the reasons I started my Intrinsic Running website was to help people learn how to transition without getting injured like I did. Today I’m thoroughly comfortable with my running form and how it feels. I don’t get injured as often and my legs feel better. I could never go back to heel striking and landing way forward of my hips. Yet I still consider myself to be transitioning. There is always more to learn, always more to perfect.
There’s no way you could do trail running in those.
It really depends on the nature of the trail and on the individual runner. I frequently run on our local canal banks in my minimalist sandals, and I recently did a 5-K race in them over trails that were relatively smooth. Obviously you have to watch where you’re stepping. Footwear should provide the appropriate level of protection for the particular surface you’re running or walking on. If you’re traversing a rugged trail, it’s perfectly fine to wear something with a thicker, less flexible sole.
Ken, that’s just crazy. I don’t know how you run in those things.
I suggest that you check out my minimalist running website, Intrinsicrunning.com, to learn how I do it.