How I Switched to Barefoot / Minimal Running Shoes
My first run in Vibrams went 5.5 miles – and I hadn’t run that far in over a year.
If I had done any research about transitioning from typical running shoes to minimal shoes, I would have found that most shoe companies, running blogs and websites suggest running only 10% (or less) of your miles in barefoot / minimal shoes.
So how’d I switch and run so many miles?
I practiced for 3 years.
The 3 Year Transition to Minimal Running Shoes
Shortly after running the Twin Cities Marathon in 2005, I had arthroscopic surgery on my right knee. The marathon caused a small tear in the cartilage and it had to be removed.
Since the surgery, I’ve never had a year of injury-free running. Sore & swollen knee, stabbing pains in my foot and ankle were the usual suspects.
I suffered for a few years of feeling great, getting hurt, running easily, not running at all, etc.
The roller coaster was too frustrating. There had to be a better way. Tired of always getting hurt, I was open to and looking for new ideas on how to run injury-free.
Why Keep Running If You Always Get Hurt?
Friends, family and co-workers asked “You always get hurt. Why not switch to biking or something low-impact like an elliptical machine?”
Aside from the fact that doing cardio indoors, in a window-less gym, on an elliptical is my personal definition of hell… aside from that… I became a runner – and loved it.
The truth is, I had always preferred biking to running. But that changed while training for the marathon. The long, exhausting runs in the summer sun were glorious. It was during the training when I discovered the runner’s high and got infected with the unexplainable need to run.
Biking is great. I still do it and enjoy it. But it’s nothing compared to running. I like biking, but I have to run.
It’s the need to run that forced me to investigate and try to find a way to run without getting hurt. And if barefoot / minimal shoes don’t work, I’ll keep looking and testing other methods!
Chi Running by Danny Dreyer
About 3 years before I ran in Vibrams, I like to call it year 3 B.V. (3 years Before Vibrams), I read a book called Chi Running.
Ok, I didn’t read the whole book. The book has some awesome tips for running injury-free, changing your stride, etc. I mostly skimmed the book because it talks a lot about the “chi” side of running (how spiritual running can be).
That’s great and all, but at the time I was only interested in the stride, landing-type help – and I got great advice from this book.
This is where my transition to minimal running shoes began!
If you’re a runner, I highly recommend the book – even if you’re like me, and will skip the spirituality info. Here’s why…
The two main points I learned from Chi Running were:
- Point your toes forward!
- Land on whole foot (not your heel)
Let’s take a closer look at each…
Point your toes forward!
This sounds obvious, but it’s not. In the book, Danny shows how our feet are supposed to point forward, but they end up pointing slightly to the side. In the book, Danny describes this as “Foot Turnout” (see page 165).
Basically, your knees and toes should be pointing straight ahead when you run. If they’re not (mine were not), then work on correcting it.
To fix this issue, I worked on it every day whether I was running or walking down the hall at work. It was awkward and uncomfortable at first, but it got easier. Soon, I didn’t have to think about it.
Wanna have some fun? Watch people walk or run and look for knees and toes pointed out to the side. You’ll cringe because it looks painful.
Land on midfoot (not your heel)
From the book:
“Pickup your feet with each stride; and run with your upper body in front of your foot strike so you’re landing on your midfoot instead of your heel.”
At the time, I had never heard of this technique. Even though I played football, baseball and other sports with thin sole shoes & cleats, somehow I started landing on my heels when wearing running shoes.
Like the tip about knees & toes, I focused on midfoot strike when walking, then running.
My thought was, I’m walking most of the time – at work, at the grocery store, etc. If I work on this while walking, then it should be easer when running.
From that point, I always, always walked with my toes pointed forward and landing on my midfoot.
As I said earlier, I’ve been working on this for 3 years.
Introduction to Vibram FiveFinger Shoes by Tim Ferriss
Shortly after reading Chi Running, I found an enlightening blog post on Vibram FiveFinger shoes by Tim Ferriss. It’s a quick read and highly recommended.
In the post, Tim talks tells how shoes – specifically dress shoes – have deformed and weakened our feet. Also, this was the first time I heard of the term “persistence hunting”:
“The unadorned human foot is built for running. In fact, some researchers have proposed that bipedalism is an evolved trait related to “persistence hunting”, which is common among predators like wolves. Don’t think a human can run an antelope to death? Think again.”
So how did I use this new information? I bought my first pair of Vibrams! Luckily, we have a camping/outdoorsy kind of store locally who sells Vibrams. I purchased them in person because I wanted to try them on and make sure they fit properly.
At this point, I was working on the tips from Chi Running (pointing my toes forward & landing on my midfoot). Then I added the Vibrams to the mix. I didn’t ever run in them, I wore them around the house as slippers and would occasionally walk the dog in them.
Switching to any minimal footwear is painful! I wore the Vibrams for a couple hours after buying them – big mistake. My heels were sore for 2 days.
Obviously, I was still striking with my heels. Wearing the Vibrams helped me change to the midfoot because they gave me instant feedback. If I stepped on my heel, I could feel it, and it hurt like hell.
This was a slow, slow transition, but I have to credit the Vibrams for forcing me to improve my foot strike.
After my first run wearing Vibrams, I looked for other “transitional” shoes. I wanted something with less cushion than your typical running shoe, but more cushion than Vibrams. I looked at the New Balance Minimus and even tried them on at a shoe store.
The New Balance website describing the Minimus 20 running shoe:
“…provides additional stability when transitioning to a mid-foot strike.”
I’ve decided to stick with Vibrams and not buy another shoe for two reasons:
- As mentioned above, Vibrams (or any minimal footwear) will force you to change your strike. The pain of landing on your heel will be intense and you’ll adapt quickly – whether running or walking.
- I want to transition once! If I add an in-between shoe, I’ll lengthen the time it will take to get fully comfortable and adjusted to the Vibrams. Why not go straight to the goal and skip the unnecessary step?
Born To Run
Even after 3 years of learning to strike with my midfoot, pointing my toes, etc, I never considered running in my Vibrams. In fact, I was going the opposite direction.
In the last few months, I purchased two extra pairs of my stability running shoes AND additional orthotic, gel sole inserts. I ran in my Frankenstein running shoes a few times in the last month. Guess what? They didn’t stop the pain in my ankle. Shocking… I know.
Again, I was at the crossroads. My stability shoe worked some of the time. Adding the extra sole didn’t help. I wondered what I could do next. Add two cushion soles?
Soon I’d be duct taping pillows to the bottom of my shoes…
You can call it coincidence, fate, luck, or whatever you want, but this is exactly the time I started reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.
While reading the book, it seemed like everything I had been practicing for 3 years was leading to this point in time. Born to Run describes, in great detail, the reasons our feet need to feel the ground – and how thick-soled running shoes prevent that… and consequently, cause injury.
All of the pieces came together.
I don’t read very often, but I couldn’t take my hands off this book. I finished it in a few days and was so inspired, I ran in my Vibrams (for the first time) the very next day.
The first run was the easiest, most enjoyable run I’ve ever had. I couldn’t believe it. It was like running on pillows.
The crushing soreness came the day after the first run – and lasted 5 days! Of course, I wouldn’t have been as sore if I started with a shorter distance.
My next run in Vibrams (yesterday) was only half the distance of the first and it was terrible. I didn’t have the energy, every step was a chore… ish. The good news is, my calves aren’t sore today… Progress!
TIP: Like any running shoe, make sure your minimal shoes are slightly big in the toe. I got blisters on the tip of my toes because my Vibrams fit a little too snug. (They’re the perfect fit for walking, not great for running.)
So, for my second run, I got a new, black pair that are 1 size up. Now I’ll wear these running and keep the blue pair for walking & slippers indoors.
After two pain-free runs in Vibrams, I can’t image going back to my old, heavy, thick stability shoes.
And just so we’re on the same page – Even though my calves were painfully sore for almost a week, they weren’t injured.
Soreness is expected when starting a new workout program, changing your stride or shoes, etc. And soreness goes away quickly with ice and / or Advil. Eventually, I’ll be able to run in the Vibrams and not get sore.
Injuries however, don’t disappear without medical help.
Believe me, I know the difference between soreness and injuries. If I had hurt myself, I would have stopped running immediately because I’m in this for the long-haul.
If you plan on trying a minimal or barefoot shoe, be careful! Injuring yourself to get an extra quarter mile is not worth it. Remember you want to run for the rest of your life – don’t do anything to jeopardize that.
Now that I’ve completed 5.5 and 2.75 mile runs in Vibrams, I’m going to take a shot at a 10K race in a week. It’s a run/walk and I’m definitely stopping if anything hurts.
Hopefully, I’ll finish the 10K without any problems. Then it’s I’ll focus on the big one… The Marathon.
I’m registered for the Twin Cities Marathon this October. I’m a little nervous because I wasn’t running in Vibrams when I registered. Now, I’m sure if I run the marathon this year, I’ll be wearing Vibrams.
Speaking of the marathon, I should rap up this mile long blog post and get out for a run!