The boom in minimal cushioned running shoes has quietened but low heel drop running shoes continue to be a good choice for many runners.
Minimal or Barefoot Running, advocated by running form analysists such as Chi Running Instructors, lessens our dependency on highly cushioned, supportive running shoes. Training our bodies to run in lower profile, firmer cushioned and fully flexible running trainers.
Minimal running shoes vary from light and cushioned models with low heel drops to sock-fit barefoot shoes with a bit of rubber on the sole and little else. The shoes vary greatly and the good news for runners is that there are lots of options to pick from, allowing you to transition to a more natural running style in a way that suits your needs.
How do I choose the right Minimalist shoe for me?
There are several things to consider before you start to run in minimalist running trainers, such as: do you land on your heels, do you over-pronate, and just how minimal do you want to go? It's really a good idea to visit your local specialist running store, try on a variety of shoes, discuss your needs and get advice from qualified staff.
A key consideration is how firm and low profile. Running shoes used to be uniformly 12mm higher at the heel than the toes. Now brands tend to vary their heel drops; lighter models will often fall between 7mm and 10mm. A running shoe is classed as minimal if the heel drop falls lower than 8mm and usually sits closer to 4mm.
There are many low heel drop running shoes that have standard road running shoe levels of cushioning. They will feel a bit lighter, may not be as durable, but otherwise similar to your standard shoes. The Hoka range, Brooks Pure shoes, Saucony Kinvara & New Balance Vongo fall into this category, none with more than 4mm offset. Transitioning to these requires a little time to get used to the lower heel drop and can put a strain on calf muscles initially. However, transitioning tends to happen fairly quickly. Some of these shoes also provide modest guidance and support for over-pronation.
Next you have the Altra range – all zero drop – with firmer cushioned midsoles. Being zero drop they will take you longer to transition to. The firmer cushioning works well; you have to land more midfoot due to the zero drop, so a firmer cushioning system makes you more aware of how you’re moving and more likely to run lighter on your feet. This is where a session with a Chi running coach can really help to advance your technique and smooth the process.
Alternatively you’ve got the On Cloud and New Balance Minimus, both with 4mm offset and modest cushioning. These are also popular with running-form coaches. Again, they will require a significant time for transitioning.
If you like the idea of diving in at the deep end and going for a zero drop plus minimal cushioning then you’re looking at the Vibram FiveFingers. You need to put in a good amount of walking before you start running. Once you're ready for running in them, start with short runs, shorten your stride and aim at hovering over the ground rather than thumping it.
What if my feet over-pronate?
If you've had natural or video gait analysis from a specialist running store and been advised that you over-pronate, then you need to be aware that the transition is going to take longer and require a mixture of patience and listening to your body.
It is possible for most people to get used to running in lower profile shoes, but if your feet rotate inwards over the arch when you run, look to the more supportive models: Pure Cadence, New Balance Vongo, Hoka Arahi. Alternatively, the Vibram FiveFingers allow your feet to move completely naturally and as there’s no cushioned midsole, only a thin layer of rubber, there’s less over-pronation as there's nothing for the feet to collapse into.
If you work on core muscle strengthening, especially glutes, as part of your transitioning process, usually your rate of over-pronation will lessen. With the really minimal shoes, over time the muscles and tendons in your feet will strengthen, and as the calves strengthen they will work harder to support you.
Will my running style change if I use Minimalist running shoes?
How much your running style will change depends on how you're already landing and moving through your stride. These shoes are less built up at the heel so if you land heavily at the heel you'll find yourself knocking into a midfoot stance very suddenly, which will jar. The solution is to lessen the heavy heel impact and train yourself to land more towards the midfoot/forefoot. If you're already a forefoot runner then you're a step ahead of the game.
Do I need a training programme to transition into Minimal running shoes?
If you try to continue your training as usual with a new minimal running shoe, the chances are things won’t go well. The lower the heel drop / the more minimal in cushioning, the more time you’ll need for your body to readjust.
Transitioning to Minimalist running shoes
Start easy, be patient. Start by walking in the shoes, wear them for a few days and see how your feet and lower legs feel. If things feel normal then try a short run – about 30 mins max – try to focus on landing lightly and with more emphasis on the mid to forefoot, you may find it easier to shorten your stride, be aware of the propulsion that your toes are designed for and use it, if you're already a forefoot runner then this will come naturally.
If you’ve gone straight to the Vibram FiveFingers then we strongly advise you don’t try running for at least a month. Get used to walking in them, extend the time you wear them gradually. Then try short runs in a park or off concrete to start with.
You will start to strengthen your feet and lower legs, creating an awareness of and increasing proprioception. If you find your calves are tighter than normal, or your arches ache the next day, don't worry, this is quite normal, resulting from using muscles in your feet that are usually quite lazy. Just ease back, do plenty of stretching and gradually you'll build up the strength to run for longer.
Combining your change in training with some Pilates classes or Core muscle strengthening exercises is a really good idea. Presumably you’re transitioning to these shoes in order to run with a better posture, cut down on injuries, etc. So, working on the muscles that support balance in your body is going to fit in really well. If you live in London, come and try our taster Pilates sessions that run once a month.
Taking a Chi running course, or a session with a running technique coach can help considerably. It lessens the chances of you picking up an injury due to pushing things too quickly and will bring results quicker than if you figure it out by yourself. Balavan Thomas works out of our London branch and is very experienced. In Edinburgh, Matt Holland holds a drop in clinic every month.
How do I know if Barefoot / Minimalist running is it right for me?
Firstly everyone's different, what works for your mate won't necessarily work for you. Virtually everyone can benefit from using Barefoot / Minimalist shoes for walking, even if running proves too much of a challenge – feet will strengthen and become more flexible and that'll have a good effect on posture. How far you can take your minimalist running – that's something that you'll discover along the way. It largely depends on how minimal you go – most will be able to run long distances in the more cushioned models.
There's no right or wrong about traditional road running shoes versus Minimalist running shoes. If you like the idea of trying something different then give it a go, it can be fun and liven up your training.
Stretch, stretch and stretch again. Transitioning to Minimalist running shoes will test your calves, feet and Achilles. Make sure you prevent doing yourself damage by stretching.