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Over the last decade, minimalist running has become a popular alternative to running in traditionally cushioned shoes. But how do you safely make the minimalist switch?
In the debate of minimalist shoes vs. cushioned (or even maximalist) shoes, there are supporters and data to back both sides of the argument.
Proponents of minimalist running believe it represents a more natural form of running with a forefoot-first stride. They believe it prevents injuries related to the heel-first running form that often develops with cushioned running shoes.
The truth’s likely somewhere in the middle.
“While you may reduce some of the risks of traditional running shoes by using minimalist shoes, you still may be at risk for foot or leg injuries when wearing minimalist shoes, too,” says Mayo Clinic’s Edward Laskowski, M.D.
If you’ve decided to dip your feet in the minimalist running pool, here are 7 ways to make it easy on you, your body and your expectations. And good luck on that dusty trail.
Know That Your Body Must Adapt
“Minimalist shoes will change the way your feet strike the ground, resulting in minute but impactful changes in your running form,” says personal running coach Keith Wallace.
“There is no cushion to absorb the impact of your foot striking the ground,” he says. “All this energy now has to be absorbed by your body. Thus, your muscular and skeletal systems need to adapt to all these changes.”
Although you may be mentally ready to make the transition quickly, know that even the most seasoned runner should approach the change knowing his or her body has to catch up to the brain during training.
Walk Before You Run
If you’ve already purchased minimalist shoes, walk around your house and neighborhood with them before diving into your runs. Get familiar with how they conform to your feet and recognize any pain points that may become more glaring during a run.
Because there’s little cushion and support in minimalist footwear, walking at this stage is less about breaking your shoes in and more about feeling comfortable off the bat. You can also go hiking during the transition, though you’ll want to avoid trails that are too gnarly (hold off on that rim-to-rim hike).
Hit the Trailhead
“I advise trail running first with minimalist shoes until your body adapts,” says Wallace. “This is because minimalist shoes have little to no cushion. The earth helps provide a cushion much more than pavement would.”
On the flip side, you don’t want to go too soft with your running surfaces – you want to create enough pressure to understand how your running form is adapting. One mistakes beginning barefoot runners make is starting on soft surfaces likes grass.
“Because grass offers such a soft surface, it can be difficult to tell if you’re heel striking,” says Danny Dreyer of ChiRunning. “Running on a hard surface will give you immediate form feedback and ‘force’ you to land softly or suffer the pain.”
Dreyer also recommends staying on relatively flat running surfaces at first and avoiding steep hills that can aggravate your muscles and tendons. Extremely rocky trails are also best avoided at first.
Don’t Go All In (Just Yet)
The transition from traditional to minimalist running footwear doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
“Don’t try and transition to exclusively being a minimalist runner – at least not initially,” says Thomas Watson, UESCA-certified running coach and founder of Marathon Handbook.
“Use minimalist running as another arrow in your quiver when it comes to run training. Don’t do more than 30% of your runs in minimalist shoes, at least for the first few months.”
Slow it Down
Trying to match the pace and distance you run with cushioned shoes can lead to injury, Watson says, so don’t be afraid to decrease your mileage when you’re transitioning.
“When you begin running in minimalist shoes, dial back your speed and distance,” Watson says. “Go for a few ‘exploratory’ runs, where you pace around the neighborhood for 15-20 minutes. Forget about pace altogether, and instead, consciously dial things back and focus on how your running feels.”
Running in minimalist footwear puts more pressure and strain on your lower leg muscles, so you’ll want to train, exercise and stretch to build foot and ankle strength. Jenny Hadfield at Runner’s World recommends a routine of ankle and leg exercises to improve mobility and strength.
Your running form may also undergo small but noticeable changes. Where your foot strikes the ground may have to change, for example, which can be altered over time with intentional practice.
“Practice landing on your midfoot versus your heel,” says Yitka Winn at REI. “Don’t be afraid to let the heel contact the ground — but concentrate on striking with the midfoot first.”
She recommends setting a cadence of 180 strides per minute, but this is less of an exact science and more about keeping your strides shorter and avoiding the exertion that comes with overstriding and striking with your heel.
Listen to Your Body
Even subtle adjustments to your running form can take its toll on your body. Your muscles, tendons and joints may all suffer pains you didn’t have before, even as you’re working toward a more efficient stride.
Pay attention to the aches you have during and after your runs. Understand the different types of pains from running, training or injuries, and if something feels off, you may need to reduce your pace, distance or frequency of runs each week.
The effects of running pain can be more than physical, too. Mental or emotional stress may be a sign that your new running regimen is negatively affecting your health.
“Too much exercise can cause the body to limit the production of certain hormones that help regulate your mood,” says the Orthopedic Institute of Pennsylvania. “Without these hormones, you may find yourself more irritable or stressed than normal.”
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to know your body’s limits and create a running schedule that builds momentum and progress without resulting in unnecessary pain or injury.
Minimalist Footwear Rundown
Thomas Watson looks for 3 things in his minimalist running shoes: a modest heel drop, a sole that provides just enough (but not too much) cushion, and a great form-fitting shoe that feels comfortable right away.
For more recommendations, check out Runner’s World list of the best minimalist running shoes.
For an even more bare-bones approach, consider minimalist sandals for trail running or hiking. These sandals are as basic as they sound, typically using a thin, flat footbed and minimal support to get about as close to barefoot as possible.
Proper training and transition is important with any minimalist footwear, but especially so with minimalist sandals, where the lack of cushion and support can be a massive change for your feet.
“It’s important to be aware that many of the models — such as the Huarche-style sandals — provide a thin layer of protection, but little else,” says Watson. “While this is staying true to the barefoot ethos, the lack of any cushioning or support increases the probability of biomechanical issues and injury, if runners don’t adapt their style very gradually.”
Watson says those making the minimalist transition should start with a low-drop shoe that still offers some support, and to run in minimalist sandals sparingly at first.
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