The minimalist vs. traditional shoe debate shows no sign of slowing. Minimalists argue running with little cushioning and stability underfoot will encourage a more natural stride that lessens impact on the hips. Traditionalists counter that downsizing your shoes can lead to injury—broken metatarsals, in particular—and that some people will continue to heel strike anyway
Read: You Don't Know How to Run
So how do you know if minimalist running will work for you? Try it. Below, tips for making the transition injury-free.
Increase Your Mobility
“It’s not a shoe thing, it’s a movement thing,” says minimalist running evangelist Dr. Mike Cucuzzella. “You’re basically retraining your body.”
Your soleus, calves, Achilles tendons, and plantar fascia need to be loose to be effective at absorbing impact. If they’re stiff, Cucuzella recommends starting with exercises that will increase range of motion. Squats, foam rolling, and rolling on a lacrosse ball are all effective options.
Walk to Strengthen Muscles
“Almost all of the essential transitioning takes place while you’re walking,” Cucuzzella says. “Most people walk more than they run. You can do a lot of strengthening just by walking around in a minimal shoe.” That means ditching stilettos or other raised-heel work shoes for thin-soled dress shoes or sneakers. “Walking is also a great way to work on mobility,” Cucuzella says.
Another easy way to strengthen your feet: heel raises. Stand on the ball of one foot and hold your heel off of the ground for 20 to 30 seconds. If that’s hard, work your way up to 30 seconds before running in minimalist shoes. Another option: Do 20 heel raises slowly. “You’re assessing your strength and mobility,” Cucuzzella says. If you can’t complete these exercises yet, keep walking.
A recent study found that habitually shod runners who abruptly transition into barefoot running experience increased tibial shock, knee flexion, and inner calf engagement. “If you force yourself into this running style, and your body’s not used to it, you’re increasing your risk of injury,” says lead researcher Evan Olin.
His advice for runners looking to ditch their shoes all together applies equally to those making the minimalist switch. “Make the transition in stages,” Olin says. “Maybe do just the first quarter-mile of your run with the new technique, then put your shoes on to finish it. Then very gradually, very slowly increase your mileage so you’re not giving your body a crazy shock.”
Cucuzzella agrees. “If you go to the gym, and you do a new exercise that you haven’t done, even if you do it just right—the right amount—the next day you’ll feel a little bit sore.” Transitioning to minimalist shoes is just like trying a new exercise, he says. “You’re working things differently. You may have a little soreness in your calf area, and in the muscles of your feet.”
If you’ve been running and walking in motion control shoes, expect the change to be a relatively long process. It may take four weeks or more to transition without injuring yourself.
How long it will take you depends on your current biomechanics and form, but Cucuzzella has a few ideas on how to get started:
- Add 10 percent a week in a minimalist shoe
- Add five minutes every day or two in a minimalist shoe
- Add a mile every day or two in minimalist shoes
- Run slowly and pay attention to how you feel
The Bottom Line: Transitioning can be frustrating for runners who’ve already built up mileage in traditional shoes because they may have to start from scratch. But with the proper strength and flexibility training, and a gradual build-up, Cucuzzella believes everyone can make the switch—and that running will be more enjoyable after they do.
Click here for more of Cucuzzella’s tips on transitioning.