How to Transition to Minimalist Footwear

Thinking of going barefoot? Here's how to transition to 'barefoot' running safely.

Transitioning to a minimalist shoe this season? Here are some great tips from our resident physio, Nancy Botting, on how to do it safely. 

Are you intrigued by the latest minimalist or barefoot running trend? Wondering how those low profile lightweight shoes or foot gloves may help to improve your running and lessen your risk of typical over use injuries? Making the transition is a question that I am often asked, and worthy of a thoughtful response.

Your feet are the foundation of your posture, your connection to the earth and the base that supports all movements of your body. Your feet must provide you with stability and strength, while allowing flexibility and mobility enabling you to propel yourself through space. You have grown up with your feet confined to shoes from the time that you learned to walk. Your feet have probably never had to adapt to anything other than the comfort of your soft and supportive running shoes. So here are a few guidelines to help in the transition to a minimalist shoe or a barefoot running style.

A good place to start is to walk around your house barefoot. Focus on a walk that incorporates a midfoot or fore foot strike rather than a heel strike. Your calves and feet may ache. This is a good sign and indicates that you are building strength in these weak muscles and developing a more efficient gait style that will be required for running with less supportive footwear. Make sure that your knee is slightly bent, not straight as when landing with a more traditional heel strike. Have a vertical trunk don't lean forward at the hips. Land with less impact on the forefoot or mid foot. Once you are comfortable indoors, try other surfaces such as sand, grass, gravel or concrete. Each surface requires neuromuscular adaptations that can only be perfected through practice. Try progressing gradually from a walk to jog on the spot and then to a short run.

If you have been wearing traditional motion control running shoes, you should consider gradually moving down the chain of lighter shoes that offer less heel-to-toe drop. Lowering to a 4-10mm drop will dramatically change the base on which you run. Visit your local running shop for advice on making the shoe transition. Slowly lengthen the time you run in your less supportive shoes. Add a minute or two a few times a week. Go slowly! Run lightly, working or your new form. Let your body slowly adapt to your new form and less supportive shoe. Your foot will slowly get stronger, your stride will naturally shorten and the pace that you run at will gradually increase. With a less supportive shoe, the recommended cadence is 170-190 foot contacts per minute. A shorter running stride lessens impact forces through the foot, knee and ankle often reducing the incidence of many overuse running injuries. 

Modern running shoes did not exist until the 1970's. Before that time running shoes were lightweight, low profile and had flexible soles much like the minimalist shoes that we are seeing on the market today. Over the last 30+ years our running style has adapted to the shoes that have been available to us. Mid foot motion control and cushioned heel cups are all that most of us have ever run or walked in. So it makes sense that there must be a significant transition period to allow our bodies to mechanically adapt to a less supportive shoe. These shoes are not for everyone. People with poor foot mechanics, poor running form or ankle or Achilles tendon trauma may need the support of a more traditional motion control running shoe. Many shoe manufacturers even recommend using minimalist shoes as a way to enhance your training in conjunction with your regular running shoes as opposed to running exclusively in a minimalist shoe. You may benefit from an assessment by a qualified sport medicine professional to determine if a minimalist shoe is right for you.

It is not unrealistic to plan on a 1 to 2 year transition period into a minimalist (or zero drop) shoe. It may require 3 to 4 pairs of declining heel to drop variations. Listen to your body and allow your body to adapt to the new mechanical demands that you are placing on it. There are many great online resources such as Chi Running, Pose Running or Evolution running.



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