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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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