I feel like it’s time to write a post about something that’s near and dear to my running heart: minimalist shoes. What do I mean by minimalist running shoes? Well, I don’t know the exact “definition,” but I’d describe them as having the following characteristics:
- zero drop: no difference in height between the heel and forefoot.
- thin-soled: 4-6 mm soles
- lightweight: 8 ounces or less
- flexible sole: can twist and bend very easily
- wide toe box (optional): allows toes to splay naturally
- lack of arch support or any cushioning
Before we proceed, a couple of disclaimers. First, I’m not, in any way, shape, or form, an expert on minimalist running. For that, I’d recommend you check out Barefoot Running University, Natural Running Center, or Runblogger. Second, I’m also not a biomechanics expert, so any comments I make about form, heel strike, etc. needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt. (See a trend here?) This is basically just a story of how I became a minimalist runner and why I think it’s worked for me.
The Supernova Days
I got my first pair of “real” running shoes in 2001, about 6 months after I had ACL reconstruction. I had never put a lot of thought into shoes, often prioritizing cost over everything else. However, recovering from ACL surgery showed me that a good pair of shoes was definitely worth the money. When my physical therapist urged me to start running in order to break up scar tissue, he also suggested that I get a decent pair of shoes. Of course, I wanted to get better, so I followed his advice and went to the local Fleet Feet Store. They were running shoe experts, right?
As advertised, the “expert” salesperson watched me run down a small stretch of sidewalk (in socks, I think), diagnosed me with pronation issues, then brought out several models for me to try. I decided to go with the Adidas Supernovas because they were the most comfortable. I opted to skip the SuperFeet insoles, even though the sales guy kept saying that I’d need them. Why would such expensive shoes need even more support? But just as the sales guy had warned, I started getting shin splints after a few short runs in my new shoes. I begrudgingly went back and bought the SuperFeet insoles.
The Adidas Supernovas, SuperFeet insoles, and I were a good combo for almost a decade. Every time I got the tell-tale sign of shin splints, I knew it was time to replace my shoes. Besides the eventual shin splints, I never had a problem with the Supernovas. My body seemed very happy in them, until….
In the fall of 2010, a few serendipitous things happened, though not necessarily in this order:
- I read Born to Run. Not only was it inspiring to me as a runner, it introduced to me the idea of natural running, which is an umbrella term for both barefoot and minimalist running. In particular, I was amazed by the thin-soled sandals worn by the ultra-running Tarahumara Indians.
- For the first time ever, I started getting knee pain while running. I knew it wasn’t the age of the shoe, since I had recently bought a new pair. The pain at my kneecap came on earlier and earlier in my run, so that eventually I couldn’t run more than a quarter-mile without having to stop due to the pain.
- I met the Gypsy Runner, who ran in Vibram Five Fingers and was an advocate of natural running.
I was not a fan of those “weird toe shoes,” but at the same time, I didn’t know how else to keep running without pain. Natural running seemed like a potential solution, so I decided to give myself a Christmas present that year: a pair of Vibram Bikilas. (FYI, those shoes will be reviewed in a future post.)
I had been forewarned that one should slowly transition into minimalist running, as it does a number on your calves. The reason? The more you wear shoes (or “foot coffins” as the barefoot movement likes to call them), the more your lower calf and foot muscles atrophy. So, when one begins to run in thinly-cushioned shoes, those atrophied muscles need time and exercise to strengthen. Running too much too soon can also result in foot fractures, since your foot muscles aren’t developed enough yet to support your body weight. Well, that, and you usually need to adapt your running form (more on that later).
To my surprise, I transitioned rather quickly to the Bikilas and was able to run 3 miles continuously in them after ~2-4 weeks time. I immediately fell in love with how light they were; it truly was “freeing” and a joy to run, for the first time in, uh, maybe forever? They also forced me to work on my form, something I had never ever really considered.
What is the relationship between shoes and form? My basic understanding is that ideal running form occurs with the body landing over the hip as the foot strikes the ground, ensuring that the shock of landing gets distributed across your body. This means that either your midfoot or forefoot should be the first parts of your feet to make contact with the ground. When you heel strike and/or overstride, this causes your knees and hip to absorb a tremendous amount of force as you land behind your ankle. Cushioned shoes indirectly encourage overstriding and heel-striking by absorbing some of that jolting shock. Your joints will be able to tolerate that impact to a certain extent, but over time, they may wear down, causing numerous issues with knee, ankle, and hip pain. Of course, there are many runners who are able to land on their midfoot or forefoot with a cushioned shoe, but I think it hinders most runners from achieving good form, which is essential to injury prevention. It doesn’t help that popular culture sees “good running” as this:
For a great video on running form (and barefoot at that!) check out this video:
Anyway, back to my story…
I eventually felt comfortable enough in Bikilas to run a trail 5K in July 2011. Despite my somewhat happy and successful transition, I was still unsure of how much I could run in them, as evidenced in this Facebook chat with Laura about minimalist running:
Four months later, I ate my words and began training for the Oakland Half Marathon in the Bikilas. This year, I’ve set PR’s in the 5K, 10K, and half marathon distances, all in my Bikilas. All this to say that minimalist running hasn’t slowed me down… which for some reason, is a rumor that persists in the running community. I’ve also gotten a pair of Merrell Pace Gloves recently to tackle the trails, and I’m loving those too.
In summary, here are the benefits to minimalist running, IMHO:
- Learn to improve running form, which hopefully translates into better efficiency and less injuries.
- Stronger calf and foot muscles. I used to have arch problems, which seem to have gone away with minimalist running.
- Lighter shoe, giving you a freeing sensation. Also, takes up less bulk in your suitcase/gym bag!
- More connected to the ground, which helps you adjust your landings, lowering impact, etc. Also makes you more in tune with your surroundings.
- Less shoe turnover = more value for your dollar, at least with the VFFs. I’ve run ~350 miles in them and they don’t show significant signs of wear and tear. Many others have reported running >1000 miles in VFFs.
- Indirect benefit: because the Bikilas stand out so much, I got stared at a lot in the beginning. I quickly got over it, and now I could care less what people think.
OK, so I know that minimalist running isn’t for everyone. Like the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Maybe next time you go for a run, try taking off your shoes and socks and running down the block (or the track, or the park) and see how it feels. And if you’re interested in pursuing natural running, I’d encourage you to look up some of the online resources and transition slowly. The minimalist shoe market has blown up since I bought my Bikilas, and there are now plenty of transition shoes (with 4mm drop and medium cushioning) to help you on your way.