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 forefoot-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.

Pre-Industial Civilization Squat

Pre-Industial Civilization Squat. Click on the image for more information about this important transition exercise.

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 175–185.

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

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