Category Archives: transitioning

Hypothetical Conversation About Minimalist Running

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.

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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.

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Pre-Industrial Civilization Squat

Also known as the hunter-gatherer squat, this properly performed deep squat position which offers numerous fitness and health benefits is a prerequisite to minimalist running. Chairs, along with our modern conception of “sitting,” were rare in early human cultures where bare feet or minimalist footwear predominated. People instead spent considerable time in balanced deep squat positions while eating, working, or conversing.

Pre-Industial Civilization Squat

Pre-Industial Civilization Squat

The pre-industrial civilization squat promotes mobility in the ankles, knees, hips, and lower back. It strengthens core and lower body muscles used in jumping, which is relevant because running is essentially a series of small jumps. The plantar (sole of foot) pressure distribution is similar to proper running form with the center of mass balanced over the balls of the feet. And unlike sitting, the squat is healthy for the back, decompressing and opening the lumbar spine.

To perform the squat, stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Flare your feet out slightly. With a firm core, let your hips, knees, and ankles bend substantially as you lower yourself down. Maintain your feet flat on the floor. Most of your weight should be on the balls of your feet, but the heels should also be in contact with the floor. If you’re doing a static version of the squat, maintain this position for up to ten minutes (or even longer if you’re used to it). The dynamic version requires that you quickly rise back up to the start position and repeat, utilizing a light, bouncing motion. A weighted pole of at least 5 kg balanced horizontally across the collarbone with the arms stretched out forward, increases the effectiveness of the dynamic squat by forcing better form.

For many people, the pre-industrial civilization squat is initially difficult to achieve. Particularly for someone used to wearing high-heeled shoes, getting the heel down on the floor may not be possible due to tight calf muscles and shortening of the Achilles tendons. An assisted deep squat position, in which you hold on to a pole or other stationary object in front of you while gradually working into the position, may be helpful.

 

Study Looks at Muscle Adaptation of Transition to Minimalist Running

It is often assumed that running in minimalist footwear which provides significantly less support and control than conventional running shoes, will result in stronger feet. An ongoing study at the University of Virginia seeks to quantify changes in muscle tissue in the feet, ankles, and legs in a group of runners transitioning from standard running shoes to minimalist footwear.

The first phase of the study consisted of baseline mapping of the muscles in the runners, who had at that point run only in standard running shoes. The second phase, to begin shortly, will document changes to the muscles (volume and length) as the study subjects transition to minimalist footwear. Both phases utilize static and dynamic MRI technology. Stay tuned for the results.

Study Looks at Muscle Adaptation of Transition to Minimalist Running 

Newswise — For tens of thousands of years, humans ran on bare feet. Then we developed an assortment of specialized shoes, including – particularly since the 1960s – a seemingly limitless variety of running shoes. Despite the perceived advantages of foot protection, some runners in recent years have returned to barefoot running, believing it is a more natural way to run and therefore less injurious to the feet and legs.    Read More »

Transitioning to Minimalist Running

When I acquired my first pair of minimalist shoes (Vibram FiveFingers KSO’s), I knew little about proper barefoot running form. It was obvious to me that I couldn’t employ my usual heel-striking form with the thin-soled, zero-drop footwear, but I continued to over-extend my leading leg, putting extra stress on my calf muscles and feet. I was also landing too close to my toes and not letting my heel subsequently come down and lightly touch the ground. As I gradually did more of my running in the FiveFingers, the calf soreness I initially had went away. After a few months I was running exclusively in them and for a while things seemed fine.

Then one day I developed a pain on the top of one of my feet that turned out to be a metatarsal stress fracture. The metatarsals are the long bones of the foot that make up the longitudinal arch and connect the toe bones (phalanges) to the irregularly shaped tarsal bones that comprise the back of the foot. It would be about five weeks before I was able to run again.

Many months later I was again running exclusively in a pair of FiveFingers—this time in the running-specific Bikila model. I was confident that I would not get injured again because I had shortened my stride and sped up my steps-per-minute. My form had improved, but not as much as I thought. Like before, for a while my running had been going well when one morning during the later half of an eight-mile run that top-of-foot pain returned. I took a day off and then the next day ended up walking the second half of a three-mile run. The pain was just like my previous injury. An x-ray would later show a stress fracture of the distal third metatarsal in my left foot.

Discouraged, but determined to return to running, I briefly went back to heel‑striking in my conventional thick-soled running shoes following a six-week recuperation. However, heel‑striking felt awkward, and it was soon evident that I could not run that way indefinitely. At that point I was understandably reluctant to run in my FiveFingers, but instead I found that I could employ a forefoot landing in my 12 mm drop conventional shoes. I alternated running styles, gradually changing over to the midfoot-strike.

The tuning point for me was when I decided to take off my shoes in the middle of an eight-mile run, and run barefoot for several minutes on a smooth and clean stretch of concrete bike path. Instantly, my stride became quicker and my landings became softer. Barefoot running, by providing maximum sensory feedback, is an excellent training tool. If you run barefoot with incorrect form you will feel it right away. In contrast, when running even with the rather minimal protection of a FiveFingers shoe, the pain can be blocked until it’s too late; until, for example, a stress fracture occurs. Barefoot running remains a crucial training tool for me. I try to do a couple of miles each week. If my form is not quite right, a stretch of barefoot running serves to “reboot” my running form, and that effect carries over when I put my shoes back on for the rest of the run.

Another tool that has helped me improve my form and avoid another injury is a small metronome that I clip to my waistband and periodically turn on during a run. Increasing the number of steps‑per-minute makes it easier to land below the hips and avoid heel-striking. I match my foot landings to the metronome’s audible beeps for a few minutes, and then turn it off for a while. A cadence of 180 steps-per-minute is commonly recommended as a goal, but that may not work for everyone, so instead think in terms of a range of 174–185.

Particularly when transitioning both to more minimalist footwear and from heel‑striking to proper running form, a gradual approach cannot be overemphasized. Injuries often occur from transitioning faster than the body is able to adapt, not practicing proper form, or some combination of the two.

If you would like to change over to a “transitional” running shoe instead of a minimalist shoes, that is fine, but I would suggest doing little barefoot running at the beginning of your transition and every week thereafter to help sharpen your form. I would also suggest that you eventually phase in a minimalist shoe. There are no official standards, but generally a transitional shoe such as the Brooks PureFlow is somewhat lighter and less structured than a conventional running shoe. It has an overall thinner sole and a heel drop of around 4 mm versus the more typical 12 mm drop. Minimalist shoes are appreciably lighter and more flexible, have even less sole thickness, a heel drop of zero to just a few millimeters, and should allow the toes to naturally spread out.

The best running footwear will provide just enough protection for the type of surface being traversed, while interfering as little as possible with the natural functioning of the feet. Different conditions may require different kinds of footwear. When running on the very rocky trails found here in central Arizona, I appreciate the greater protection offered by my thicker‑soled PureFlows. But when running on pavement I prefer something that’s lighter, less structured, and transmits more feeling, like my FiveFinger Bikilas or my Xero Shoes sandals. On the smoothest pavement, I’m comfortable going barefoot.

If you’ve been heel-striking in thick-soled running shoes but have not been prone to injuries, you still ought to consider transitioning. While more studies need to be done in the area of running form and injury rates, the big impact spikes seen in heel-striking are a reason for concern. By the time knees and other joints become painful, significant and irreversible degenerative changes may have already occurred. Aside from the potential for injury reduction, I’ve also found that minimalist running is more enjoyable.

Transitioning will take time; much longer for some people than others. Don’t rush it, be prepared to take occasional unscheduled days off when something hurts, and most importantly, remember to have fun.

©2013 Kenneth Hopes