Minimalist Shoes: Should I Be Wearing Them? And if Yes, How Should I Transition?
We get a lot of questions about the benefits of minimalist shoes, which can be divided into two main categories: 1) should I be transitioning to minimalist shoes? and 2) how should/can I transition to minimalist shoes without injuring myself?
Should I be transitioning to minimalist shoes?
The answer to the first question is “it depends”. Many people come to minimalist running for the same reason they try other new techniques and technologies: they’re looking to fix something, usually an injury.
But let’s be clear: minimalist shoes are not a silver bullet that will heal every injury. They are not for everyone, and not for every situation. And if you lace up a pair of minimalist shoes for the first time two days before a 100-miler, you’re almost certainly going to regret it.
What minimalist shoes are good for is reconnecting your feet and your legs to the ground. Many running, casual and business shoes (i.e. the shoes most of us wear all day, every day) are rigidly constructed around a “last”, which is a wood or plastic form shaped like a foot. Not your foot, but a generic foot that is near the same length as your foot.
And here’s the thing (answering another question we get all the time), every company uses different lasts. So if you’re “a size 9” in Nike, will you be a 9 in New Balance? In Altra? In Xero? Maybe, maybe not. That’s why it’s important to try shoes on. [The other huge factor in shoe fit is foot width – when you find a brand that fits, it probably fits because its width is better for your foot shape.]
According to industry research, around 60% of people are running in the wrong size shoes. And of course running in the wrong shoes can lead to injury. Which leads many people in search of a solution.
Are minimalist shoes that solution? Maybe, maybe not.
Minimalist shoes are designed to let your feet move more naturally while you walk/run, allowing your foot muscles to regain strength that may have been lost during the years you’ve been wearing more structured shoes. Minimalist shoes are also typically zero drop, which means the heel is no higher than the forefoot, again allowing you to walk more naturally.
Why should you think about walking/running more naturally? Well, if you’re injury-free right now and happy with your running form and results, you probably don’t want to make any changes, even if you’re training and racing in 6-inch patent leather stiletto heels. If you’re injured, or hoping to improve your performance, you may want to think about it.
I’m a HOKA wearer (I switched to HOKA a few years ago to try to fix an injury problem, and although I eventually had surgery for the issue, I still like the shoes), which are the opposite of minimalist (though they are much lower-profile than they used to be!), but after reading about the potential advantages of minimalist running I bought myself a pair of Xero Prios.
My original idea was to run in the Prios one or two days a week, switching back and forth with the HOKAs and using the Prios to rebuild strength in my feet and lower legs. As it turned out, though, I was injured (hammie) when I got the Prios and could not run. So I used them for walking around in, figuring I would get similar benefit.
Which turned out to be the case. When I started wearing the Prios I came home at the end of the day with tired feet and lower legs, and frankly after two weeks I was thinking, “These are not for me.” But after the third week, my tiredness disappeared as though someone had thrown a switch, and I realised my foot and lower leg muscles must have strengthened through use.
How should/can I transition to minimalist shoes without injuring myself?
Lacing up a pair of minimalist shoes will not undo years of muscle memory from running in “normal” running shoes. Which means if you are switching to minimalist shoes, your running form will change, and there will be different stresses on your muscles and tendons. You’re an experienced runner, so you know that stresses on your muscles and tendons can result in injury, if not managed properly.
Take a look at your Nike or New Balance or adidas running shoes. There’s cushioning in the front, and even more cushioning in the back. Minimalist shoes don’t have that cushioning, and almost all minimalist shoes are zero drop (again, that means the heel is no higher than the forefoot).
While minimalist shoes will provide you with immediate feedback about your running form – for example, if you are a heel striker – you need to be careful to avoid overuse injuries to muscles and tendons that have been underutilised for years.
In other words, don’t do too much, too quickly (advice that is valid in many areas of running and life).
While you may be tempted to start your transition by running on soft surfaces, you should in fact run on pavement or a running track. Running on a hard surface will give you feedback you can’t ignore and help you focus on any changes you may need to make to your form (e.g. landing more softly).
To avoid overstressing muscles and tendons, start by walking in your minimalist shoes, as I did. I guarantee you’ll feel a difference from your “regular” running shoes.
After a couple of weeks, start jogging. But don’t dive right into your “normal” training routine; start with a 5K jog in your minimalist shoes, and if your training calendar calls for longer distance on that day, switch to your old shoes to finish the session.
Continue with short runs for a week or two, and avoid speed work and hill running.
Some things to think about as you focus on your running form:
- If you shorten your stride, you will bounce up and down less and there will be less stress on your feet and legs
- If you are a heel striker, see if you can shift your foot’s point of impact farther forward toward the midfoot (leaning slightly forward rather than back as you run will help with this)
- Try to relax your legs throughout your stride cycle; think about elite runners’ strides and how smoothly/easily their legs are moving
Gradually, you should feel the muscles in your feet and lower legs getting stronger (as I wrote earlier, those muscles may feel especially tired for the first few weeks of your transition), allowing you to increase your training volume. Eventually, depending on how much you run and how diligent you are about retraining your foot/leg muscles, you will be able to throw the switch completely and dump your old shoes.
Or not. There’s no rule saying you have to run/walk in minimalist shoes all the time. My goal in buying a pair of minimalist shoes was to strengthen muscles I felt had probably been ignored for years, in the hope my overall running form would improve and I would be more resistant to injury.
And I feel I’ve done that. Good luck with your own transition! Slowly, slowly!