Categorized | New to Minimalism?

How I Became a Minimalist and Went from Average Runner to Elite Marathoner (2:37)

Posted on 02 February 2012

Camille Heron has an impressive racing record.

Camille Herron, who placed 26th at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with a PR of  2:37, has an interesting personal story. Years ago, she was a self-described “hobby jogger” with a top time of 19 minutes for the 5K. Then she got serious, really serious about running. She went minimalist. Camille writes on her blog, “I’ve been a huge advocate of minimalist running since December 2003, when I began training in road racing flats. In the spring of 2004 I added in some barefoot running. Changing to flats/barefoot running has helped me develop strong, healthy feet and legs, allowing me to achieve consistency in my training/health and continuing to improve the past 6 years. Between 2006-2009, I put in 19,890 miles and have continued to progressively improve my personal bests each year.”

Camille has an impressive racing resume– 2011 NYC Marathon, she was 3rd American/18th overall, 2:40:06; represented U.S .Team in marathon at 2011 Pan American Games (1st American/9th overall);  2011 Fargo Marathon, 1st, 2:43:41; 2011 Napa Valley Marathon, 1st, 2:42:20;  2011 Mercedes Marathon, Birmingham, AL—1st, 2:43:1.

Camille lives in Oklahoma with her husband, Conor Holt, the Head Cross-country and Track Coach at Oklahoma City University, who is a 6-time All-American and professional road racer.  She’s his volunteer assistant coach. We imagine she’s quite qualified; she also has an M.S. and researched enhancing bone recovery through whole body vibration training.

The following essay originally appeared on her blog last summer, and is a marvelous introduction on how a runner found her own way to healthy, injury-free running. — NRC

***

How I Became a Minimalist and Went from Average Runner to Elite Marathoner (2:37)

by Camille Herron

Back when I made the decision to “go minimal”, I figured I had nothing to lose, considering I’d already seen the bottom of the barrel with so many injuries (including 7 stress fractures, 3 in my left foot). I was tired of being told I needed this or that shoe or orthotics for my supposed flat, weak feet– none of it did anything to help me stay healthy! I had never trained more than 3-4 months continuously and had pretty much given up on striving to be a competitive runner (cause I didn’t think my body could handle it). I just wanted to be able to run continuously and be pain-free.

I had read about the Africans growing up barefoot and how they have strong  feet/legs and less incidence of injuries compared to shod populations . Their domination of our sport speaks for itself! I had also noticed how the great marathoners from the 70s and 80s training in thin “plimsoles”, putting in mega-mileage and running faster than American marathoners of today.

I was taking Physics and Biomechanics around 2002-2003, and it made perfect sense that we are evolutionarily adapted to walk and run barefoot, regardless of our foot type, anatomical or biomechanical makeup, and surface. I believed our dynamic, resilient, and adaptable body is far superior to a synthetic shoe. Everything fits together, works together perfectly, and is in “equilibrium”.

Shoes throw off that balance and can maladaptively change the distribution of stress (read about one of many studies here ). Even if you’ve worn shoes over a lifetime, the body is adaptable and capable of being strengthened with less or no shoe (just like what happens with training, or strength training). We really only need shoes to protect us from “modern hazards”, ~puncture wounds/infections, rather than to cushion and support (which our body innately does, much better than any shoe!). Knowing and understanding all of this, I was willing to take the risk and be my own “guinea pig”– as I called it, putting the faith back in my own body!

Back in 2003, everyone thought I was crazy to even do this, people told me I’d get hurt (really?! Worse than what I’d already been through?!), and no one wanted to listen to an average runner (despite being armed with a mass collection of PubMed research studies and anecdotal experience). I have to chuckle at how it took a mainstream book and a funkadelic shoe to finally get the shoe companies (and the public!) to change their tune! Of course, I’ve known it all along.

How I transitioned

In December 2003, I tossed out the orthotics (I’d been wearing for 4 years) and trainers and started from scratch by training in the only pair of racing flats I had at the time (Asics Tiger Paws). I eventually got some retro flats (Asics Onitsuka Ultimate 81s). My feet/ankles and lower legs were stiff and sore for the first 3 months, esp. getting out of bed in the morning. Then, one day that soreness disappeared.

When I first started, my feet would slap the ground (HARD!), overstriding with a heelstrike, and wear down the sole and midsole of the shoes quickly. I used to overpronate badly and wear down the medial side of the upper and midsole (~it would tilt inwards). I could only get around 300 miles out of a pair. Over time, my mechanics became lighter, more efficient, compact (landing more midfoot under my center of mass), and “controlled” (~strengthened the intrinsic foot and leg muscles, thus providing the “support”…. much better than any shoe!).

I found I could get more mileage out of my shoes, upwards to 1500+ miles out of one pair (the limiting factor being the upper peeling off the midsole!). At the present, I change my shoes after 800-1000 miles (sole wear being the usual limiting factor, or little aches in the feet or legs). I believe flats last longer cause they force you to develop more efficient mechanics AND because there’s less material to break down and throw off your gait.

I started from scratch on the mileage (was coming back from 7 weeks off with an IT band injury). I did ~10 miles per week the first month (~few miles every other day), 20 mpw the second month, and so on…. until I was up to 70 mpw after about 7 months (June-July). Not only was 70 mpw the most I’d ever run, but this was also the most consistent training I’d ever done! This consistency started to pay off in a big way, as within a year I had dropped my 5K road time from 19+ down to 17:20 and ran my first road 10K in 36:22 and 15K in 55:46. I hadn’t done quality workouts for a few years either, so once Conor started me on mile repeats, that helped a ton.

I’m guessing if you already have some established fitness, you could apply this concept as I did, doing “10 miles per week” (of your total mileage) in flats, and over several months working up to exclusive training in flats.

Adding in the barefoot running

By March 2004 when it began to warm up, I added in barefoot running, starting with 5 min. and progressing up to 30 min. a few times a week by the summer. I would run on the smooth infield grass of a track, or go to parks with nice grass.

During this transition period, I had a severe ankle sprain training in flats (stepped in a hidden hole and “creaaaak”). If it wasn’t for the barefoot running, I wouldn’t have been able to run at all! I progressed to wearing Puma H Streets by the summer (a street version of the popular Puma Harambee track spikes), because the soft upper was compatible with my swollen ankle. I wore the Pumas for ~3 1/2 years, until I couldn’t get them anymore.

Ideally now, I would run barefoot 2-3 times a week for 20-30 min. each time (which I did when we lived near a nice grassy park in Oregon). However, this gets tricky during the wintertime in Indiana, so I only run barefoot now when the body feels like it needs it (~therapy!)– I generally do more barefoot running in the summer too. I like to do my strides and drills barefoot on grass as well, although I don’t always have this option available.

I tried running barefoot on smooth concrete one time (4 miles)…. and developed some golf-ball-sized blisters on the balls of my feet! I’ve also run barefoot on woodchip trails– the key here was learning to relax, head to toe! I’ve walked barefoot on large gravel (can’t imagine running on that, but apparently it’s possible). It would probably take an adaptation period to thicken the skin. Being at the level I’m at right now, it’s not a risk worth taking (espeically the possibility of puncture wounds and infection). The worst things I’ve dealt with was bee stings and a puncture wound on my toe that caused me to tear my calf (and had to get an updated tetanus shot too!). I’ve stepped on all kinds of things (and even rutted ground, like when they aerate grass fields). It’s amazing cause the foot rolls over or lifts off any objects– you end up being nimble on your feet.

How long it took to fully adapt

I’d say it took about a year to fully adapt to training in flats and barefoot. The first 3 months was the toughest with the sore and stiff ankles (but never pain). The rest of my body felt good though and “in balance” (finally!). What I found was any time I felt a twinge any where (sometimes in my Achilles, or like my ankle sprain), I’d find some grass as soon as possible and do some barefoot running. I have cured many, many things with barefoot running– works like magic! One time I even cured a sore back from sleeping on a bad bed. It feels like the barefoot running shakes you out– all those little “quirks” you develop from wearing shoes.

Shoes progression over the years

I progressed to wearing Puma XC flats, then Saucony XC flats (qualified for the ’08 Olympic Trials in these, and wore them at the Trials), and eventually Brooks T5s/T6s. Although Brooks was my shoe/club sponsor for 2 1/2 years, I alternated with other company’s flats for variety and to stress the feet and legs differently. I am now sponsored by the “minimalist” shoe company, Inov-8, which I loooooove.
I think it’s important to rotate a variety of flats, as each shoe has it’s own idiosyncrasies. No shoe is as perfect as what exists while barefoot! This is why I think the barefoot running helps, as it shakes out those little muscle tweaks and keeps you balanced.

While I rotate a variety of flats, the shoes I wear for my main training runs is the same shoe I race in. I see this as a huge advantage, esp. the marathon, as my legs are fully adapted to my racers. It’s not a new stress to my legs and feet to go 26.2 miles in them cause that’s what I wear every day. This also helps with recovery. I like to get in a few hundred miles on my shoes before I race in them. This is kinda not good (bad Camille!), but I’ve run marathons (and won!) in a pair with 1000+ miles on them. Some shoes seem to get more comfortable the longer you wear them, and if they’re not giving you problems…. why change?! I think it’s extremely important to wear the most comfortable and broken-in pair you can for the marathon!

Surface

I prefer training on concrete. It’s predictable, has better energy returns, feels good to my legs/mechanics, and there’s less hazards to deal with than off-roads. I trained for years in trainers on grass and soft surfaces, and it didn’t help one iota with preventing injuries (esp. with all my stress fractures). Since I switched to flats 7 1/2 years ago, I’ve put in probably 80-90% of my mileage on concrete. I remember when I first did it, I was trying to run on soft surfaces, but I kept finding myself gravitating to concrete cause I noticed it felt better on my legs. I generally try to mix up the surfaces I run on to stress the legs differently, but my long runs and most of my mileage is on roads, sidewalks, and bike paths. I like hard-packed, smooth dirt and cinder too (like what you get in Colorado/Southwest USA). I don’t train on a track, but it feels good.

When we lived in Oregon and had tons of soft dirt trails at our discretion, I felt the trails made my legs sluggish, and I lost that poppiness in my legs. I don’t think one surface or another makes much difference with shoe wear either (although staying dry is a big factor for upper durability and midsole resilience). There is no difference in impact force going from one surface to another, because we adjust our leg stiffness and “muscle tuning” to keep impact force the same .My theory is there’s less “muscle tuning” when you’re on a flat, predictable surface, so it ends up feeling less stressful than off-road running.

Street Shoes

What you wear (or don’t wear) outside of running, is just as important as your running shoes. If you’re wearing high-heeled (even 1/2-1 inch), stiff dress shoes…. and then you try to train in flats…. that’s going to screw with your feet and legs (AND Achilles/calves)! Even wearing something like clogs/sandals/flipflops, with no heel support, is going to cause you to change your gait ever-so-slightly (maybe gripping toes and shifting weight forward to keep the shoes on). Thus, it’s important to be mindful of what you’re wearing, and how that compares and contrasts to your running shoes.

The past 7 years I have gone to completely wearing flat, little-to-no-heel shoes– mostly retro running shoes, some old or new road flats, dressy/casual flats, a few pairs of sandals (with heel support), and a pair of mushy flipflops. I have worn high heels no more than 5 occasions! I try to be barefoot as much as possible when I’m at home. Consequently, since I’ve stuck with the “flats/barefoot” mantra, I never have to deal with foot or leg soreness from wearing a minimal-support shoe cause that’s what I wear all the time and am most comfortable with. Obviously, I’m not going to force my feet to wear thick mushy shoes or dress shoes cause it hurts and feels like bricks on my feet!

My thoughts on Vibram FiveFingers

I first heard about Vibram FiveFingers in 2006 when they came out and decided to get a pair in Fall 2007. Back when I got them, they had ~3 different types to choose from, so I got the Classics (cinches at the heel, no strap).

Ok, so the pair I have was NOT designed and tested for running. I don’t think they feel very good on concrete, being hard rubber and ’jarring’ the ground (too much vibration? Pods on sole not suited to running mechanics?). I really think that kind of beat up my legs and feet on concrete, despite my years of experience as a minimalist– I’d prefer to have a smooth sole that has greater surface-area contact to disperse the force. I think they’re “ok” on trails– actually, I kinda like the “squishy” feeling you have with them on trails (esp. on mud, ahhh!). I’m not so sure whether it’s mechanically ‘right’ to separate the toes. Knowing what I know, I think you could adapt, but these just don’t feel right (and not like the smoothness of barefoot running). I’ve also had problems with “pressure spots” because I have to cinch them tight to stay on my feet. No, I do not need to size down either cause I originally had gotten a size smaller, but they put too much pressure on the ends of my toes.

I got some toe socks from Walmart, and they feel better with socks. I thought they’d be useful for shaking out the legs and getting that ‘barefoot feel’ in the wintertime  in Indiana, but I’d rather run barefoot on indoor turf or on the golf course when there’s no snow.

I may eventually get a pair of the latest model that’s been designed and tested for running (I’ve heard they are a lot better). However, seeing that my shoe sponsor, Inov-8, is coming out with the Evoskins, I think I will choose those over VFFs!

Winter Running

During the winter, I find myself running on mostly concrete, sometimes with lots of uneven snow and slick ice. I prefer to alternate pairs of more cushioned, durable road flats to handle the wet and sometimes tricky footing. I’ll put screws in my shoes too for added grip (hence the need for a thicker cushioned shoe…. I’ll do a blog post on screw shoes next winter!). I’ve worn XC flats through a few Indiana winters, although my new Inov-8s worked fantastic last winter.

At the present

I’ve been training in road flats for 7 1/2 years now, and this is the happiest and healthiest my feet and legs have been my whole career. It felt right at the beginning, and it still feels like the right thing to do. It’s allowed me to train consistently, not deal with so many overuse injuries, and develop my aerobic fitness to a high level. My only injuries have been acute, freak accidents. I AM NOT biomechanically perfect either– I’ve had lots and lots of people tell me my stride is hideous, with not very much hip flexion or extension (a lot of this being due to anatomical makeup that can’t be changed). Whether I end up crippled…. who knows (I doubt it!)– I have no regrets for doing it and am grateful for how far it’s allowed me to go with my running. The best advice I can give to others is to do what works for you, feels right, and most importantly keeps you healthy!

Donate

21 Responses to “How I Became a Minimalist and Went from Average Runner to Elite Marathoner (2:37)”

  1. MarkC says:

    Camille,

    inspiring story! we need more women in the minimalist mix. All athletes can get better through knowledge and practice. Keep spreading the word, especailly to the often injured HS and College female runners.

    Your best days are ahead!

    Dr. Mark

  2. BryanC says:

    Great article and story, I really appreciate all the detail, especially with the transition process. I, like many natural runners was electrified by my reading of “Born to Run” back around Sept. 2011 and let my excitement get the best of me. It’s hard for a lot of people I think to stomach spending 6-12 months properly preparing the body and redesigning the gait towards the natural running style when many of us haven’t run that way in decades.

    I of course went with my heart instead of my head and developed I.T. band syndrome in my right leg in less than 2 months. It has been a hard and trying process for me, mostly emotionally, but just this week after “transitioning” for 4 months I finally got to the spot where I am ready to do it properly. Patience is now the center of my training as opposed to a sub 3 hr marathon in Oct 2012.

    As they say “when the student is ready the teacher will appear,” so thank you Camille, I am going to back way off and follow your lead and try the 10 mile/wk for month one, 20 miles/wk month 2, …

    Happy running!

    Bryan

  3. Ken B says:

    awesome story and should serve as inspiration to others with minimalist running on their minds. i am nearly 60 and have gravitated to flats all my running life (since 15) but have had my share of “high heeled” and cushioned running shoes. it is heaven the choices that are now currently available. i hardly have enough cash to satisfy my need to try out the latest minimalist shoe. even after breaking my big toe in a trail marathon last Sept. i am still wearing as flat and light a shoe as possible. anyway, thanks for sharing your experience and continue your great running.

  4. Rick Donnelly says:

    Very cool story, and validates my own experience even though I will never be the runner Camille is. To me this is worth far, far more than the dozens of academic studies debating the pros and cons of barefoot running that have been published of late. Don’t get me wrong — they’re all great stuff, and some have been very useful to me. But to read about someone’s long-term experience with them is the kind of story I’ve been hoping to see.

  5. Ryan says:

    Congrats Camille! What advice would you give HS/College runners about barefoot-like training when their coaches/medical professionals advise against/forbid it?

  6. Jesse says:

    This is a great story! I also started getting competitive around the time I switched to minimal shoes. I think they allow for the form necessary to run fast and train for speed. I used fivefingers for two years with no issues, but now prefer racing flats for everything.

    Great job on the writeup.

  7. Mark says:

    Good to read about your experience on the 3 months.. and the stiffness and a bit pain you felt in the morning. In my case, during the warm-up run I feel a little pain in the achilles.. but after a few minutes it disappear. I hope its part of the transition.

    Thanks for the writeup.

  8. Steve S says:

    Thanks for this validating story. As a 59 year old man who had been jogging for health for most of the last 30 years typically running 304 miles about 3 times a week, my change to minimalist running a year ago was a shock. I went straight to using Merrell barefoot shoes 11 months ago. My first run resulted in cramping one calf so bad it hurt for a week. Then my achilles on both feet became inflamed and hurt.
    I found I could maintain, that is not make things hurt more, if I ran only 1/2 mile once a day. Gradually, over the next 6 months, I worked up to only 2 miles at a time. Finally, after about 9 months of gradual progress, I realized that my achilles were back to normal and not hurting. I am now able to run the 4 miles or so that I could a year ago in the barefoot shoes.
    Running now feels good again. I would never have guessed that it would take so long to transition. It goes to show how different barefoot running is and how soft our feet and ankles become wearing conventional shoes. Patience is truly required for this change.
    Steve

  9. Camille says:

    Hey guys! Glad you like my article! I am 8+ years into “minimalism” now, and I still have to pinch myself on where it’s taken me! With regards to Ryan’s question, I’ve actually run with 2 high school girls the past month+, both of whom prefer training in lightweight shoes and are healthy doing so. I believe in having an open mind– if doing something makes you feel better and keeps you healthy, that’s a good enough reason to keep doing it. As I said about my experience, I had to get over a 3 month hump with sore feet/ankles, but the rest of my body felt great…. the best it had felt in years. It’s like with anything new you try– you’re likely going to have an adjustment period. If you’re already past this period and healthy, training great, racing great… that should be evidence enough to anyone’s coach that it works for you.

  10. Jimmy says:

    Interesting, but are there any elite athletes in the world who run exclusively in barefoot/minimilist running shoes, not racing flats. I haven’t seen one yet, which is strange as there are many average runners touting the great benefits of running in these types of shoes and he benefits they bring in respect of less injuries or running injury free. It makes me wonder why all elite athletes don’t run in barefoot/m,inimilist running shoes if this is thecase. I’m talking about road running and not track running. Does anyone have any evidence of this?

    • Mike Andersen says:

      Jimmy,
      I’ve heard Ryan Hall runs in a custom made Asics flat that is very similar to the minimal flats we are talking about here. I believe Josh Cox runs in Newtons at times. Also, Kenyans are bread on this type of training from birth and as such are able to overcome poor footwear once they sign show deals because of their background, and we are vice-versa, born with bad habits and have to correct. …Also, Dr. Mark is pretty darn fast and trains barefoot/minimal. As a 2:30 marathoner that uses minimal and alternative footwear exclusively, I think that it really is a real trend and here for good. Also, most elites tend to avoid giving away their training secrets for free. Can anyone really accurately tell me what taining shoe so and so wears anyway?

      • Jimmy says:

        Thanks for the reply Mike. I wonder if we’ll see more elite runners using barefoot shoes in the furture. Shoes such as Terra Plana Vivo barefoot Neo/Evo or similar shoes.

    • Camille says:

      Hi Jimmy, when I started training in retro “flats” in ’03, that was considered as minimal as it got at the time. Now I realize there’s a whole other “minimalist” category below this, with the Vibram Five Fingers, Inov-8 Evoskins, etc.. I trained in Puma H Streets for many years, which was basically the street version of the Harambee track spike without the spike plate. I was still training in these and XC flats until 2008, when I got sponsorship with Brooks and started training in real racing flats (T5s). I’ve been with Inov-8 since last year and have even more options to choose from. I tried to seek sponsorship with VFF a few years ago, and they never got back to me– do they sponsor elites now? I would imagine most elites are obligated to train AND race in what their sponsor provides, and not go bare. I do have elite friends (sponsored by shoe companies) who elect to train in more minimal shoes, while still doing some barefoot activity on the side. With more companies offering lighter/more minimal options, it gives elites with the shoe companies more options on what to train and potentially race in. There’s a guy in Australia (?) who ran ~28:30 for 10K in the VFFs.

  11. Sharon says:

    Camille,

    I’m interested to hear about the cross training and strength workouts you do to support minimalist running.

    Thanks,

    Sharon

    • Camille says:

      Hi Sharon! I created a page on all “The Little Things” I do: http://camilleherron.com/training-the-little-things/

      I do drills and strides (barefoot), and twice/week strength training. However, I’m not really someone who “cross trains”. I believe if you want to be good at running, you need to do it over and over again. Specificity is very important. However, I will say that if you have weaknesses/imbalances that hinder your gait (~ex.– I tend to “sit” too much and shuffle when I run a marathon), then you should work on these imbalances. I met with a strength and conditioning professional to figure this out. The past month I’ve gotten into foam rolling and doing lower body strength training and flexibility (horribly inflexible!). I’m seeing significant gains in my hamstring and butt strength and flexibility. I’ve seen my mile repeats, alone, drop 9 seconds average (compared to before the Olympic Trials) and nearly got a PR (missed by 4 seconds) running solo at The Woodlands Marathon!

      I believe there’s something to be said about working on your weaknesses. I’ve found that every new “transition” I’ve made…. has been followed by a breakthrough performance.

    • MarkC says:

      Sharon,

      We’ll have Camille do a f/u piece. she is on it! Mark

  12. brilliant, such detail, I will share with my chi running students if that is OK! I have to say a similar story re transition, bigger the shoe the harder you run. For me at 6 1 and yogi re broad chest and general build you CAN run light, have less impact and avoid injury. Excellent.

  13. Dale says:

    Thank you so much for this personal look into transitioning. I’ve started going to more minimalist shoes for the last few weeks but am still really sore, I wasn’t sure if I was doing something wrong.

    I’m going to keep at it and keep trying to improve.

  14. Jolene says:

    A great article to read when trying to decide on my next running shoes!

    I have worn rigid orthotics for close to 8 years and am currently experiencing a lot of tightness through my hips/ hamstring and ITB’s. Would you recommend doing as you did and ditching the orthotics and going straight to flats or keep the orthotics and transition twice?

    I am just getting back into enjoying running and am nervous to go backwards.

    Heading to your blog now for more great info!


Leave a Reply

*