Starting to run with minimalist shoes?
May 27, 2013 3:14 PM   Subscribe

I want to get started running, and learn to run with minimalist shoes. Am I going to just hurt myself? How should I start?

I'm not (currently) a runner - more of a walker, with my dog (who currently has knee problems, so not even much of that at the moment). I'd like to become a runner., though Maybe not of marathons or anything crazy, but I think it would be cool to be able to do a 5k. And I have 10lbs or so that isn't going to lose itself before my wedding next year (I've tried that, with no luck).

I read "Born to Run" over the winter, and since then have gotten interested in the idea of "minimalist" running shoes - not completely barefoot, but flexible and thin enough to let you feel the ground and use your foot muscles, without letting each pebble stab you. There are options - so many options - and it seems like everyone who gets into this already started out as a runner, and has a half dozen different shoes that they try out.

It looks like the New Balance Minimus Hi-Rez and the Merrell Vapor Glove are both well reviewed minimal shoes, but a lot of the reviews say that they're for "advanced" runners, and that you need to get used to the style. But can I get used to the style and to running at the same time?

Where should I start with this?
posted by ADoubtfulTrout to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Have you been to a running store? That's the first stop. They will look at your gait and how you run, and suggest shoes for you based on your pronation. A lot of runners can do well in minimalist shoes, but very few runners start in those kind of shoes. If you can run in neutral shoes or shoes with less support to begin with, that's great, but let your body get used to running before you put more demands on it.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:31 PM on May 27, 2013

Well, the thing is that you need to have well trained foot muscles for running in minimalist shoes and most people simply don't train those muscles at all. Most people always wear shoes - shoes that are padded and soft, shoes at home etc and they end up not using their foot muscles.

Running in regular sports shoes means you hit the ground with your heel first, running with a minimalist shoe means stepping on ground with the front part of your foot first - completely different running style and different use of muscles.

Do you walk around barefoot at home? That helps as preparation. If you have a yard try walking around barefoot. Also standing on one leg while brushing ones teeth helps to strengthen the foot muscles.

Advanced runners simply went through a lot of training for their foot muscles and therefore have an easier time adjusting to minimalist shoes. And not even everyone who tries them likes them. For people who are used to sports shoes that offer a lot of support getting injuries while running in minimalist shoes happens pretty frequently. Start slow.
posted by travelwithcats at 3:39 PM on May 27, 2013

I disagree with one comment above: if you are interested in minimalist shoes, start with them and NOT with "regular" padded shoes. Start by alternating running and walking, and make sure you do not overdo it. Your body will find the best way to cushion the impact.
posted by aroberge at 3:44 PM on May 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

There is no good reason not to just begin with a minimalist running style. Realize though that the style is more about your stride than your shoe. A mid to forefoot strike (as opposed to landing on your heels) is what makes the minimalist style work, and it feels more like prancing than running at first. You do need a shoe with about the same lift in the heel as in the toe. Flat is best. A 4mm drop from heel to toe is considered a "transition shoe." Anything more than that and it's going to start to get difficult to avoid landing on your heels.

I'm a big fan of Altra shoes. They are ugly as sin, but they have a nice selection of cushioned and supportive shoes with a zero-drop platform, which would be ideal for learning to run with a minimalist style while building up the stamina to run longer distances. I'd probably advise starting in something like that, then advancing to a true minimalist shoe as you build up more strength and stamina.

The thing about transitioning to a minimalist style after you've been running a while in "regular" shoes is that you find it uses a whole new set of muscles. Your arches hurt, your achilles tendon gets sore. Your calves hate you. But then it clicks, and it feels great, and you laugh at how silly you felt trying to learn it. I really can't think of a good reason not to just start out that way. Just listen to your body and take it easy at first, just like you would if you were starting out without thinking about your stride at all.
posted by Balonious Assault at 3:48 PM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, do it! I'm one of those 'very few' who has only ever run minimal style.

Minimal shoe advice comprises two things. Flat, flexible sole; room for the toes to spread. That's it.

Buy a cheap, used copy of ChiRunning. Read. Run.

(before I'd read ChiRunning, my calves hurt a lot; after, I knew what 'midfoot strike' actually means in practice, everything clicked into place, and nothing much hurts)

The idea is that you focus on technique, so that you don't need to turn to any equipment to alleviate your discomfort or avoid injury. You'll be running very, very manageable amounts to begin with if you use a programme like Couch to 5k, so this is perfect for having space and time to pay attention to the feedback coming from your body as you run. If it hurts, do it more gently. You'll get stronger.

From your post I reckon you have the curiosity and relaxed scepticism for running orthodoxy ('you need these really expensive shoes!') to make this work and have fun doing it. Take care, keep learning, be gentle.

PS: running makes you hungry! I'm a fan of it for its own sake, but do work around that to shift the 10lbs you'd like to.

Background: I don't wear shoes at home, prefer very thin-soled flat, wide shoes anyway, learnt dance for 15 years, so I may have something of a head start, but 'Born to Run' inspires me too - we are just humans, we do running, it doesn't have to be fancy.
posted by lokta at 3:54 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would start with the minimalist shoes if you want to run in the minimalist technique. Why re-learn a new running style? I have been a non-runner for the majority of my adult life, but I've been running 5 days a week (15-25 minutes per day) since January in the Merell Barefoot Run Pace. I run on the forefoot. The first week was excruciating. My calves went on strike. I waddled or shuffled under loud protest everywhere. But by the end of the first week it felt normal, fine, awesome. If I had the time to run for longer each day, I probably would because it takes me 8-12 minutes to get my rhythm aligned. But by then, running feels like flying.
posted by smuna at 4:30 PM on May 27, 2013

I started running barefoot a few weeks into couch to 5k. I am not a small person. It went very well, actually. My shins/calves were very sore (not shin splints sore, just muscle sore) the first week or so and then everything clicked into place.

Mostly, I just concentrated on taking shorter strides so that I hit the ground mid-foot rather than long strides with heel strike.
posted by zug at 5:07 PM on May 27, 2013

Am I going to just hurt myself?
Well, a little, but everyone starting to run is going to run through some significant shin pain. It's going to hurt. It sucks, frankly.

How should I start?
With cushiony, technical shoes, especially if you are a heavier runner. Especially if you are looking to put on the miles to lose 10 lbs (nominally, 350 miles, all else being the same, although of course all else won't be the same).
posted by ftm at 5:13 PM on May 27, 2013

Yes, just start with a minimalist shoe. I was under the mistaken impression for a while that there was such a thing as a "transitional" shoe that would help move from regular running shoes to minimalist running shoes. But any shoe that is too stiff/padded/has too much of a difference between heal and toes will not allow your foot to do what it wants to do.

That said, I've found that the Nike Free is a very good "starter" minimalist shoe. Good luck - -and have fun!
posted by AwkwardPause at 5:42 PM on May 27, 2013

I'm starting to sound like a salesman - I recommended this website just the other day for another running question. I promise I'm not trying to spam or sell anything, but this blogger is a good friend who is extremely knowledgeable about running and is quite passionate about minimalist running. He's just left his position as an anatomy and physiology professor to focus on his passion: running. Anyway, there's lots of good info on his site, Runblogger, about minimalist running shoes, safety, form, etc.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 5:56 PM on May 27, 2013

There is very little credible research to support the minimalist running claims and many proponents use tautological reasoning - if you get injured it isn't because of the minimalist shoes but because of your fitness - which pretty much renders the minimalist shoe philosophy immune from any criticism. That's never a good sign in my book.

Despite that I tried minimalist shoes. I started out pretty gradually by mixing minimalist and traditional for a while and gradually increasing my distance. I got injured. Fast. I took time off and then I reverted to conventional shoes. No injuries since.

Couch to 5K is a great way to start. It feels dumb at first, running what seems like very short durations but it keeps you from overdoing things and killing your progress with shin splints, muscle aches and injuries.
posted by srboisvert at 6:38 PM on May 27, 2013

I would give the minimalist thing a try if you're interested, but I'd do it with a little skepticism about the 'born to run'/minimalist movement. It's worth noting that although people running in built-up shoes tend to get injured at a somewhat high rate, podiatrists/orthopedists/sports medicine people have seen a pretty substantial jump in running-related injuries since the barefoot/minimalist craze started. Now, maybe everyone switching (or a substantial number) are doing it in the wrong way, but maybe it just isn't for everyone.

Anecdote time--I had been running for 4-5 years with a pretty low rate of injury (one suspected stress fracture, off-and-on runners' knee that would go away with a week or two of reduced mileage) when I tried the barefoot thing. I tried to transition very slowly but developed some worrisome, localized shin pain. I was training for an important (to me) race at the time, so, fearing an oncoming stress fracture, I switched back to my conventional shoes. I have been more or less injury-free since. Throughout that whole period I was striking midfoot (wear pattern on my shoes confirms this) but I just needed a bit more padding than the minimalist shoes were providing. Might or might not be relevant that I'm not a particularly light runner, and I overpronate-- I suspect that lighter runners who don't either overpronate or supinate are more likely to be successful in minimalist shoes.

I don't ultimately have an answer for the 'start minimalist or start with normal shoes and transition' question, but here's a bunch of food for thought on the minimalist debate in general:

Running Times had an article this month on the different types of injuries barefoot runners are prone to vs. those who are traditionally shod (tl,dr: if you're prone to knee injuries you may be better off running in minimalist shoes/barefoot; if you're prone to achilles injuries, plantar fasciitis, or stress fractures in your shins, you may be better off in traditional shoes)

The whole 'barefoot running' section on Running Times is quite good, and more pro-minimalism than the same section on Runner's World, even though they have the same parent company-- Running Times tends to be geared towards more serious, lighter runners who are probably more efficient, and less likely to be hurt by running in minimalist-style shoes.
posted by matcha action at 6:44 PM on May 27, 2013

Seconding Runblogger (and I don't know him personally at all, so this is a dispassionate referral).

You can run with a midfoot strike in any shoe. Some might make that easier than others, but form is about more than the shoe (or lack thereof). I agree that your best bet is to be fitted at a running store, a good one with people who can expertly assess your gait. In my case, the sexy shoes aren't going to work because I need more cushioning and support. There are 4mm and 0mm drop shoes that do provide cushioning, though, like the Saucony Kinvara and Virrata. (Still not enough support for me and my overpronating problem, but if you can do a more neutral shoe, those might be good options.)

I do like the principles of Chi Running. I attended a clinic this weekend that worked on form, and although it didn't use the brand name, the basic principles were the same: cadence, midfoot strike, hip position, arms, lean. If you have a store near you that offers Chi Running or Good Form Running clinics (these are usually free or very inexpensive), I highly recommend it. The instructor typically videotapes your form in the beginning, runs some drills to cover the basic principles, then goes over where you need improvement. That will help you learn good habits from the beginning, whatever shoes you end up purchasing to start out with.
posted by Superplin at 6:56 PM on May 27, 2013

I'd honestly just start with Vibrams or something ridiculously minimalist. Never ever start running right away in these. Just start by walking your dog in them for a 2-3 weeks, get used to how they feel, and then start running incrementally. I actually just started straight into my Vibrams when I first started running...period. You really just have to listen to what your body thinks about what you're doing. Sore calves are probably the only pain that's ok to feel when you first start. It also won't be a bad idea to invest in a foam roller either.
posted by astapasta24 at 7:35 PM on May 27, 2013

Start small (around the block); build up gradually; "listen" closely for inflammatory/tendonitis type pain (which happens when a muscle you didn't need for trad. running is now wiped out b/c you built up the distance too fast. Without the muscle in the game, you put strain on the tendon instead). And if/when you do get an -itis, (a minor one because you were "listening" and quickly stopped pushing), back way off and be patient to let it heal for a while, plus ice, and find out the right stretches for it.

e.g., roll-stretch the arch over a cold soda can for plantar fasciitis.

That said, have fun! I feel like I'm a much more efficient runner now, and I enjoy running more.
I run with no shoes, but it's close to the same deal.
posted by spbmp at 7:58 PM on May 27, 2013

I would recommend having your gait checked out at the local running store before making up your mind. I didn't, bought some minimalist shoes, and ended up hurting my calf after a couple of months.

After taking 5+ years off from running in normal running shoes, I started from scratch with couch-to-5k. I read a few blogs and decided to ease myself into minimalist running at the same time.

It felt ok at first, but as the mileage crept up I started hurting. Eventually I limped to the physiotherapist. Apparently my over-pronating left foot doomed my right calf to failure.

My physio said she sees lots of people get injured with barefoot shoes (and others seem to do well). The ones who succeed have good form and "a light step." (Could be code for "are not overweight.") She suggested training for a year in regular shoes and working on my form and foot strength, and then trying again.

Just my experience. I didn't do any drills or read any books; that might have helped.
posted by blue grama at 8:32 PM on May 27, 2013

Just a side point, but if your main motivation is losing weight then you should read around about those expectations. As far as I know from reading mainly media (i.e., about research but not the actual research) from the last few years, cardio exercise is supposed to be quite good for maintaining weight, but not very good at all for losing small amounts of weight. This seems to be because it causes a larger increase in appetite than the calories you burn. Therefore you'd have to have a strictly calorie controlled diet at the same time, and I tend to find that intense exercise like running for an hour makes me ravenous for days afterwards. It's still a good thing but I only lose weight if I can be strict with my food.

If you had a larger amount of weight to lose, it's easier because you're able to have more food per day while still maintaining a calorie deficit. If you only have that last 10 pounds then you already have to eat pretty minimally and feeling ravenous all the time is no fun.
posted by kadia_a at 11:05 PM on May 27, 2013

Start small...even more so if you want to do minimalist running. If you think you can run for 2 minutes, stop at 1 minute. Your muscles and bones take longer to adapt than your cardiovascular system. C25K is an excellent idea - lean towards the conservative/easy side. Repeat weeks if needed.

And I second Lokta. People tend to forget and concentrate on shoes. But shoes don't really matter - the idea is technique and form. Minimalist shoes help you gain that by giving you more feedback (not masked by the padding of regular shoes). As such you need to pay special attention to what your body is telling you. i.e. it might be a good idea to lay off headphone and pain killers. Listen to your body.
posted by 7life at 8:37 AM on May 28, 2013

I'm a lifelong toe-walker who came to running late and now I run and hike in zero-drop shoes of varying levels of minimalness and wear minimal shoes (or no shoes) whenever I can. My main tip: start slow. If you think you want to do minimalist running, get some minimal shoes and walk in them. Ideally on a dirt path or running track surface. If you find you can regularly walk a couple of miles in them comfortably, then start doing Couch-to-5K in them.

I don't think minimal shoes are for everyone, but I freaking love them, so I encourage everyone to (carefully) check them out. If it doesn't work out, try a different kind of shoe.

(Even though I'm a natural forefoot striker and I've always gone barefoot around the house/yard, I still had a lot of foot and calf tiredness and soreness when I first went minimal. It's been totally worth it for me - I always got blisters and foot cramps before, and I never do now.)
posted by mskyle at 10:25 AM on May 28, 2013

My husband wears minimalist shoes for everyday life, and he says they took a bit to get used to, but not terribly long, for walking. He runs on occasion, and he tends to suffer from muscle aches in his calves when he hasn't done any running in a long time, and it takes a few weeks to get from lots-of-pain to no pain when he's in a running mood (it might take less time if he ran more often).

Funny story: when we moved to a house from an apartment, my husband was thrilled because, he said, he didn't have to "walk like a dancer" (toe-striking) anymore to keep from making pounding noises in the apartment below. Of course, six months later he discovers minimalist shoes and now he walks like a dancer all the time.
posted by telophase at 10:54 AM on May 28, 2013

I'm another runner who started with minimalist shoes right from the beginning, and I think if you're doing a program like Couch to 5K (like I did), the schedule is designed to ease you into running so by its nature will help make sure you don't overdo it in the new shoes. I had no shoe-related problems doing Couch to 5K in my Merrell Lithe Gloves, which look really similar to the Vapor Gloves you mentioned.

As long as you're starting yourself off in a way that is easing yourself into running anyway, go ahead and start with the minimalist shoes if you're curious about them!
posted by jessypie at 11:14 AM on May 28, 2013

I've been hiking with FiveFingers for about 5 years, love them to bits. It takes about 2 weeks or so as your muscles/tendons adapt, then it's fine and you can build endurance. Just picked up a pair of Merrell Vapour GLoves, love them too. Will see if they last as well as my FiveFingers, build quality seems better than the Merrell of old. Picking up running again and as I've been easing into it, I've had no issues with barefoot running in the Vibrams or the Merrells. As others say, just listen to what your body tells you.
posted by arcticseal at 6:53 AM on October 10, 2013

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