Using Minimalism as a Tool Not a Way of Life

The minimalist debate is all wrong these days.  You have one side arguing that shoes are evil and Nike is out to profit from your ignorance.  The other side is saying we need to protect our feet and correct biomechanical imbalances.  Who do you listen to when you want to switch to minimalist running?

I say neither.  Both camps ignore the simple fact that minimalist running is a spectrum.  People love to label others – “She’s a barefoot runner,” “He runs 100 miles a week,” or “She trains too hard.”  Rarely are these judgments true all the time.

It’s important to understand how the body functions and the biomechanics behind running.  Shoes do change how we run.  By running barefoot, you are forced to run how your body is designed to by landing on your mid-foot directly underneath your body.  A $250 running shoe with built-in microchips is going to let you over-stride, land on your heel, and slouch considerably.  Hardly worth the price tag if you ask me.

If your goal is to improve upon your 5k PR or train consistently six days a week for the next 4 months, there’s no need to “pick a side” and go barefoot or stay in your $250 “intelligent” running shoes.  Ignore the hype.  You can have your cake and eat it, too.

Minimalism as a Tool

If you want to start incorporating some aspects of minimalism in your training toolbox, that’s probably in your best interest.  First things first: the vast majority of runners do not need expensive, motion control shoes.  Check with a really good running shoe store first (or do the wet foot test to see how high your arch is – if you have an arch, you’re good to go!), but downgrade your clunky trainers for a neutral pair.  There is no need to spend $130 on the latest pair of Kayano’s.

That’s only the beginning.  The best way to transition into doing more barefoot work is to spend more time without shoes when you’re not running.  When you come into the house, take your shoes off.  Ditch the slippers and just wear socks.  If it’s warm enough, go outside to get the paper in bare feet.  Whenever you can avoid shoes, do it.

After about a month of spending more time barefoot around the house and running your new neutral trainers, start adding barefoot strides to the end of your easy runs.  Start with 2-3 and build to 6-8 over a few weeks.  Keep your stride smooth, short, and light.  My favorite place to run barefoot strides is an artificial turf field.  If that’s not available, choose a well manicured grass field but be careful for rocks or glass.

Advanced Techniques

If you’re ready for more and feeling incredible, increase your use of minimalism in your training.  It may not be necessary to increase your barefoot running, but if you’re enjoying it then why not?

Start doing one workout per week in flats, or spikes if you use a track.  Try using minimalist shoes for the second half of the workout then progress to wearing them for the entire thing.  This will put a lot of stress on your lower legs, so be careful.  Only wear spikes or flats if you’ve been doing barefoot strides for at least a month and spend a good chunk of time barefoot in your house.

You can also take off your shoes for the last 5-10 minutes of your easy runs.  Start at just a few minutes and progress to a mile or two.  You will run slower when barefoot. Don’t worry about it.  Remember the basics: land on your mid-foot, take at least 170-180 steps per minute, and keep your back tall and hips pointing forward.  Running barefoot for 1-2 miles at a time is very advanced so don’t attempt this without a few months of preparation.

It’s not necessary to ditch the shoes altogether or stick with your Brooks Beast for the rest of your life.  You can use different aspects of minimalist running and barefooting to your advantage, while still wearing shoes for the majority of your training.

Just like you wouldn’t run all of your volume at interval effort on the track – or slow recovery pace – you can use small amounts of barefoot running and minimalism to your advantage.  By easing into it slowly, you will dramatically reduce your chances of injury while strengthening your feet, arches, and lower legs.

Let the extremists stick to running 2 hours in their Vibram FiveFingers.

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  1. Once you take a stab at minimalist running though, there is the chance that you’ll find it more comfortable and efficient than running in your old shoes. At that point, I see no reason why switching to a minimalist shoe like Vibram Five Fingers would make you an “extremist”, just someone who has found something that works for them 🙂 Maybe you meant “let the (expert minimalist runners) stick to running 2 hours in their Vibram FiveFingers.”

    • Brandon,

      I totally agree. If you take the necessary precautions and find yourself enjoying minimalist shoes, by all means transition to VFF’s (I own a pair myself). But the VFF’s are the bare minimum in terms of a shoe and should be used judiciously for somebody training at a high volume/intensity. When you throw in that extra stress, you may have to cut down on intensity/volume that could make you a slower runner. But if you love barefooting or Vibrams and you’re ready, then of course go for it!

      • Good point, I can’t really speak from the point of view of an elite runner or anything. I was running in Nike’s for a while, but was never competitive in races or anything. After completing my first half-marathon, I read Born to Run and figured why not give barefoot/minimalist running a shot! It can’t hurt right, since I wasn’t going to win anything anyways 🙂 The process was pretty slow and painful at points (VERY sore calves in the first couple weeks) but now, about a half year later, my endurance is way up and now my speed is just reaching what it was with the Nike’s and starting to surpass that as well! It might just be a case of me training better these days, but I think a lot of it has to do with my new style of running.

        That being said, if you’re winning marathons in running shoes, I’m not one to tell you to make changes!

      • Your reply is apt but missing a very very important few words:

        “When you throw in that extra stress, you may have to cut down on intensity/volume that could make you a slower runner.” …for a while.

        Once you’ve adapted then you’re off to the races (pun intended). I have now significantly exceeded all of my pre-minimal mileage and am PBing races with half the effort. It took me 6 months to tranisition as I was a strong heel striker. My wife transitioned in about 15 minutes as she was a natural forefoot striker.

        Also, Vibrams are not the most minimal shoe on the market. Vivobarefoot has a lower total stack height and even inov8 have some super minimal options- both of which look like shoes without the weird toe holder thingies.

  2. Nice! Thanks! Been going barefoot in the house for a year now and with laminate floors this was pretty uncomfortable at first. Was eying the five fingers but after reading your article I think I may go with something a tad more traditional. FYI – Putting a link to your article on my site

    • It’s a spectrum – the majority of people probably aren’t ready for barefoot or VFF running. Keep progressing to a point where you feel comfortable and have fun!

    • I wouldn’t make a decision based on what you’ve read here. Make a decision based on your own goals and do so conservatively to protect yourself from injury.

  3. Great article about easing into minimal shoes though I take issue with the main conclusion of the article. I agree that you don’t HAVE to run in minimal shoes all the time, but to say not to run in minimal shoes for anything other than training is just as extreme.

    “Let the extremists stick to running 2 hours in their Vibram FiveFingers.”
    – I just don’t agree that doing long runs in minimal shoes is “extreme.” In my case running in big padded shoes causes me hip problems, IT band pain, shin splints, PF (for 9 years!) and knee pain. The cure for these issues? running in 0 drops. If I run in padded shoes at all, PF comes back immediately as does the shin pain. So in order to avoid being “extreme” I should do my long runs in a pair of Brooks Ghosts and possibly miss the next 3 weeks of training? That sounds pretty extreme (and foolish) to me.

    I think footwear is highly personal and a conclusion either way as to how much or how little one should be in either type of shoe is damaging. I am a running coach and wear only super minimal shoes and regularly tell people not to go the minimal route while I tell others to throw their shoes in the garbage and never wear them again. There is no right view on this that will work for everyone and I certainly don’t promote one way of running over another…even if I am an “extremist” by the author’s definition.

  4. I just started running completely barefoot yesterday. Well, I walk for a while with my sneakers on. Then, I go to the Astroturf field and start running. I ran yesterday barefoot for about 15 minutes. Today, I ran barefoot for about 40 minutes. Man, I love it!

    I will not run barefoot on the regular street or off road, only on the Astroturf. Do you think I can keep this up, or do my feet need a break from even the Astroturf? They feel just fine now. But I do feel a new muscle being worked in the back of my lower leg. A bit sore there, but not too bad.


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  3. […] When it comes to barefoot running for those training for a race, should you kick off your shoes permanently? Absolutely not! Despite the overwhelming research that running barefoot can help you tremendously, I still very much believe that it has to be used wisely. Like I’ve mentioned before, barefoot running is a tool. […]

  4. […] or other motion control shoes.  Pick a fairly neutral trainer with a low heel and implement barefoot running as a tool: wear flats or spikes for workouts and do some barefoot strides a few times per week.  Most of the […]

  5. […] your lower legs with barefoot strides, slow barefoot running (not too much!) on a soft surface, and avoiding shoes with a very high […]

  6. […] goal should not be to run in less and less shoe until you’re barefoot. The goal is to wear minimalist shoes as a tool to help you develop a more economical stride and prevent injuries by increasing your lower leg and […]