Minimal Running Shoes: How to Get Started
You’ve finally done it. You’ve bought your first pair of minimal running shoes. After years of hearing your running buddies talk about their snazzy new Zero Drops with minimal sole, reading books about Barefoot running, and seeing an increasing number of Minimalist shoes out on trail, you’ve finally decided to join in with the “cool kids”.
After retying the laces five times as you get used to the new fit and feel, you excitedly head out on your first “minimal run”.
“Wow, this feels weird. My foot almost feels naked. So that’s what the ground feels like! Wow, this section is rockier than I remember.”
You return home inspired by these new sensations. But the following day, you’re sore in muscles you never knew you used in running. And parts of your foot just… hurt.
What are you supposed to do now? Did you just waste a lot of money just to have to go back to your old boring padded up go-to shoe?
Not necessarily. Sure, a minimal shoe puts different stressors on your body and works some new muscles. That’s kind of the point. To take away the unnatural support and encourage your body to run more innately… including all of those usually neglected muscles.
What makes a running shoe “Minimal”?
Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is a Minimal Running Shoe?
Here are a few characteristics:
Minimal heel padding
Small heel-to-toe drop (typically 10mm or less)
Minimal arch support
Flexible sole and shoe fabric (also known as the “uppers”)
Light in weight
Wide toe box
Unfortunately, the definition for this one can still remain pretty vague. And a lot of shoe companies take advantage of the buzzword.
In my eyes, “Minimal” means just what it sounds like. What’s the minimum amount of “shoe” you can put between your foot and the ground while still protecting your foot from rocks, sticks, and other possible hazards.
A shoe can be made minimal by reducing the overall cushion. The cushion not only affects how much you feel the ground beneath your feet, but also the overall impact of your foot strike that your body has to absorb instead of the shoe.
Barefoot Running vs. Minimal Shoe Running
If you wanted to run fully barefoot, you would run more how the body was biomechanically meant to run. There’s less mass on your foot (from your shoe), so you have less to speed up or slow down. In turn, you have more efficiency and you strengthen the arch of your foot.
However, studies show that running fully barefoot requires 2% more energy than when running with 10mm of EVA foam . Another study suggests that running barefoot offers no metabolic benefit compared to running in lightweight, cushioned running shoes .
What does this all mean? To mention that there is a drastic difference between barefoot running and “minimal shoe running”.
Highly Cushioned Shoes
On the opposite side of the spectrum are over cushioned shoes. The theory is that a max cushion shoe helps to absorb some of the impact so that your body doesn’t have to. But in reality, studies show that with a highly cushioned shoe, runners tend to land with a stiffer leg. This stiff legged foot strike leads to greater impact on your body with every foot strike .
A lot of shoes are also minimal in terms of the amount of “structure” that is in the shoe. That means all of that side support that usually makes a shoe stiff and stand the same on its own as it does on your foot. The purpose behind this structure is to provide stability for runners who tend to overpronate. A minimal shoe will tend to seem a bit more “fabric-y” than your traditional running shoe.
The Toe Box
Some minimal shoes even have a more naturally shaped toe box as well. They’re meant to allow for your toes to spread naturally as you push through your stride. According to Altra, whose claim to fame is the wide toe box, “Altra's FootShape™ toe box allows the toes to relax and spread out naturally and the big toe to remain in a straight position for maximum stability and power.”
Another thing to consider is the height of the toe box. When your shoe stands alone, is the toe box elevated? Or does it lay flat on the floor? Now look at your own feet. Do your toes lay raised up in the air when you’re at rest? Or do they rest flat on the floor? Now I’ll let you tell me which kind of toe elevation is found in a minimal running shoe.
Is “Minimal” the same as “Zero Drop”?
No! Most Minimal Running Shoes are also Zero Drop, but Zero Drop does not necessarily mean the shoe is minimal.
“Zero Drop” simply refers to how much elevation (or lack of elevation) there is from the heels to the toes of the shoe. A shoe can have maximum cushion, maximum support, and a compact and elevated toe box and still be considered “Zero Drop”.
Now, if that works for you, by all means, go for it! But if a Minimal Running Shoe is really what you’re after, you’ll want to look for something other than just “Zero Drop”.
What are the benefits of Minimal Running Shoes?
Improved Running Form:
Minimal Running Shoes have the potential to improve your running form. I’ve explained 11 Running Form Components that are essential to optimizing your running efficiency in a previous blog post. Check it out here.
Minimal running shoes have the potential to improve at least three of these components:
Lighter Foot Strike - Because of the fact that you’re feeling the ground more, you may naturally want to avoid heavy foot striking. Your body starts to feel every rock and crack in the sidewalk, and it wants to reduce the amount of pain you feel as a result of these naturally occurring objects.
Sweep the Feet - Similar to having a lighter foot strike, what will your body prefer… to pound the ground directly onto your feet, or to sweep your feet across the ground? You may naturally start sweeping in order to minimize the impact your feet, ankles, and legs have to take on.
Forward Energy - If you’re used to using your precious energy to propel yourself forward and upward, you may find yourself minimizing that upward motion. The further up you propel yourself, the harder down you’re going to land. It’s all about minimizing that impact.
With all of these put together, you’ll probably find yourself with a faster leg turnover and a shorter front stride as well… both are things you should be aiming for anyway when it comes to optimizing your running form.
One thing to keep in mind, though. Running in minimal shoes does not necessarily mean you’ll automatically start running with a midfoot strike. One study showed that some runners naturally changed their form, while others maintained their original running form .
The key here is to be mindful of your form as you transition to minimal shoes. Do this, and you can minimize your risk of injury.
Long-Term Injury Prevention:
A large concern over Minimal Running Shoes is that they’ll cause injuries. But I have a question for you. Have you ever had a running injury in more traditional running shoes? Most likely either you’ve experienced a running injury, or you know someone that has.
But safely transitioning to a Minimal Running Shoe can improve your foot strength, which in turn prevents injury. A minimal shoe encourages your body to develop muscles that are usually neglected and left to weaken when you’re wearing more supportive running shoes. The shoes are doing the work instead of your own muscles. Over time, they could cause certain imbalances that later lead to injury.
Are there injury risks with Minimal Running Shoes?
Yes! But it greatly depends on how you’re making the transition to Minimal Running Shoes. Most injuries will occur as your body is adjusting to the lack of support that it’s used to having. You’ll likely be retraining your gait and your form a bit (or a lot).
Your feet and ankles will also need the time to build up those neglected muscles. Would you recommend a new runner go out and immediately run a 10k? Of course not! They’ll need time to build up their strength slowly if they don’t want to get injured. The same is true for the muscles of the feet and ankles.
How to transition to a Minimal Running Shoe Safely
A lot of your transition from a traditional running shoe to a minimal running shoe will depend on your starting point.
How supportive or minimal is your current running shoe?
What kind of running are you doing? Trail? Road? Hill sprints? Slow jogs?
What distances are you running?
Can you afford to take it easy for a few weeks?
How minimal is your new shoe?
You will still transition in the same way, but some of these factors may impact how quickly your body becomes accustomed to your new minimal running shoe.
Take it Slow
Start with Walking - You may want to consider just walking in your shoes. Or even making an attempt to walk around your house barefoot more often. This will gradually start to build up those neglected muscles of your feet, ankles, and legs.
Implement Walk/Run’s - This is usually an approach used for those completely new to running, like in the popular Couch to 5k training program. The reason it works for beginners is because it builds up the muscles slowly. The new runners don’t overdo it too soon and get injured. The same concept can be applied to building up those new muscles in your feet, ankles, and legs as you transition to a minimal shoe.
I like to start with a 5 minute walking warm-up. Then I do a short run, alternating walking and running every five minutes. Then end with a 5 minute cool down. You can gradually extend the running times and the overall time of your workout.
Use the 10% Rule - Let’s say you have a steady weekly mileage of 20 miles. On week one, you run a total of 2 miles in your new shoes. The other 18 are in your old shoes. Week two, you’ll ideally run 2.2 miles in your new shoes. Week 3 will be 2.42 miles. And so on.
Keep in mind, that this is just a guideline. Always listen to your body first, not some arbitrary measurement that is only meant as a starting point.
Remember that you are building weak muscles in the same way that new runners are building up their quads, glutes, and calves. What would you tell them? To take it slow to prevent injury. Those small muscles of the feet need time to get in shape as well.
Try Different Surfaces
Grassy Surfaces - Running on the grass allows for the least amount of impact on your body from running. Grassy surfaces are uneven surfaces, though. So if you aren’t used to running on uneven surfaces, that’ll mean you’ll need time to build up those stability muscles of the feet and ankles in addition to the muscles you’ll be building from your new shoes.
Dirt - Dirt also allows for a lessening of the impact on your body with each foot strike. It can also be uneven, but you may find a well-packed track that could help to prevent some of the uneven surface that you get with grass.
Rubber Track - A bit more impactful on the body than both dirt and grass, but certainly more absorbent than harder surfaces, rubber track is pretty much guaranteed to be a flat surface. So it could be an easy place to start with your new shoes. Though if you’re used to running with the trees and getting lost in nature, this could be a mental challenge for you as well.
Asphalt or Cement - Finally, the surfaces that won’t really help to absorb impact from your stride at all. The benefit of these harder surfaces is that they will let you know when something is off with your form. If you start to feel some niggles along the way, adjust! Listen to your body right away to avoid these niggles turning into injury.
Adjust Your Stride
As we discussed earlier, minimal shoes may encourage you to run with better form. So if your body is telling you to increase your cadence, have a shorter front stride, or to paw the ground, listen to it! If you start to feel niggles and other discomforts, try easing back a bit or adjusting your stride.
Listen to Your Body
As with everything else in running training, it’s most important to listen to your body. Don’t push through niggles. Figure out what’s causing them and adjust.
Training is not always linear. If you’ve been increasing mileage by 10% in your new running shoes, but they’re starting to feel natural, try increasing by 15% next week. Conversely, if you’re starting to feel niggles in your feet, don’t increase at all the following week. You may even need to decrease mileage or rest. It all depends on you.
You know your body best, so don’t be afraid to make your own rules!
Jillian Beckham is wife to Brent and loves her minimal trail shoes. So much so that she’s worn through two pairs in the last few years. She’s also a health and wellness copywriter. If you’re looking for someone to help your business with blog posts, emails, or website copy, check out her website www.beckhamcopywriting.com.