The Transition Shoe for Minimalist and Natural Runners

Posted on 15 January 2013

As we enter or transition into the first weeks of the new year, it often means aligning our personal goals with training and racing in the coming months.  So now is also a good time to summarize some of the basics about transitioning to minimalism, especially for those new to natural running and who what to find out more about why “less shoe is better.”

Making the transition to minimalist running shoes is different for everyone. There isn’t a set formula that can be applied to all situations. The most important question to ask is whether your body is prepared to set your goal as running in a barefoot-style or minimalist shoe rather than a set amount of mileage per week.

If you as a runner are strong and well-balanced in a single leg stance, have an anatomically correct foot, nice flexible heel cords, and a good gait, then you are ready to roll pretty quick and do not need much transition. The opposite is true for someone who fails all these parameters. You might need lots of supplemental work and need to get in a flat shoe all day.

Walking barefoot and in thin and flat street shoes is very helpful for the running transition.

A transition over a week or two is possible if one already has strong feet, is committed to form training and understanding structural issues, and is able to ease in with slow running and body awareness. The only way to really learn good form is to chuck the traditional shoes and do some running and drills in bare feet. There are lots of common sense gradual progressions but no clear science. Here are a few suggestions:

 Add a mile every day or two until you are doing all running in minimalist shoes
 Add 5 minutes every day or two in minimalist shoes
 Add 10% a week in minimalist shoes

Now let’s look at what is meant by a transition shoe.  In the following FAQ, I have provided a brief guide to help runners.

Which shoe should I start off with?

A Transition Shoe is the ideal shoe for most runners taking their first step towards natural running. It has a lower heel to toe drop and less cushioning than a traditional running shoe.

I’ve started the transition but now my calves and feet ache. What have I done wrong?

This is a symptom of doing too much, too hard, too soon. Like any training effect, the load on the structures cannot exceed our capacity to adapt. In more minimalist shoes your feet, calves and Achilles tendon must work harder to control the landing, which requires stronger muscles and more flexible tendons. Alternate your previous traditional shoes for some of your training and adopt a more cautious approach. (see intro at top).

What can I do to alleviate sore calves and feet?

As with all training, some soreness is normal so allow sufficient recovery. A program of stretching and strengthening for your feet and calves will help also. Foam rolling and Trigger Point Therapy can help align and restructure the fascia collagen of these tissues and it highly effective.

Should I change my running form if I am not hurt?

Well it depends. Have an expert assess your gait. If you are running injury free in a nice forefoot/midfoot landing there is no need to change anything. My opinion is if you are loading heavily into the knee and hip joints in an overstride pattern then you should fix this, even if it does not hurt now. Remember joints do not feel pain until there is significant degeneration, and then it is too late. Muscles and tendons feel discomfort immediately. So trade a little short term discomfort as you transition for a lifetime of pain free running.

Should everyone aim for the most minimal shoe?

No, the goal for all is to run pain free and with enjoyment. Everyone is different and very few runners will be able to make the full transition for all their running and even fewer are strong enough or desire to run barefoot. We suggest a gradual reduction in the cushioning and drop of your shoes until you are at your individual goal; be it more enjoyable running, better performance, or for some experiencing the joy of barefoot running.

Does becoming a natural runner mean relearning how to run?

For some yes and we have assisted countless runners in being “reborn to run”. Your current running style is deeply embedded within your muscle memory. Short barefoot sessions allow you to concentrate on your form and are safe. The trick is maintaining your new running form when in shoes and fatigued. A metronome will cue you. A lengthy transition period seems to be common with many runners. I am still getting stronger and have been in minimal and flat shoes for 10 years now.

I’ve been recommended supportive, motion control shoes. Can I still try minimal?

There is little to no evidence on why over the last 30 years a process for selling supportive, heavily cushioned running shoes has developed. Injury rates amongst runners are unchanged. We believe that the majority of runners can make a gradual transition into more minimal shoes by strengthening the “chasis” and adopting a natural running style and avoiding overstriding. The work of Jay Dicharry, Irene Davis, and Dan Lieberman are giving us the research base to support our way of thinking.

Will arch supports or orthotics work with minimalist footwear?

Yes. A minority of runners have such a serious structural flaws that they require correction by custom rigid orthotics forever. Many gradually wean off the support mechanisms as the feet become healthier and stronger. Seek advice from a trained running specialist for an assessment.

How long will it take to become a natural runner?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that permanently changing your running style takes at least 12 months. In as little as 30 days you begin to rewire the movement patterns by using minimalist shoes and focusing on form. The more focus and effort you put into the transition, the smoother and safer it will be.

Do minimalist shoes help me run more naturally?

Overly cushioned and supportive shoes change the way their feet ‘feel’ the ground and allow you overstride. Minimalist running shoes provide less protection and more feedback, but one can still overstride in a minimal shoe. Some true barefoot running allows your feet to coach you, then put the thinner and firmer shoes back on.

Why can’t I just start running in minimalist shoes all the time?

If you suddenly change from cushioned footwear to minimalist footwear you are likely to get injured due to the new stresses on your body. Developing a more natural running style requires a gradual transition to increasingly minimalist shoes.

Any brands or  models that you’d recommend as a Transition Shoe?

For a listing of some the the transition shoes, go to our shoe review section or visit any of our Natural Running Center partner stores.

 

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16 Responses to “The Transition Shoe for Minimalist and Natural Runners”

  1. Jose Garza says:

    I am very prone to plantar fascitis, am I a good candidate to minimalist shoes. I have tried in the past and have had no luck with it. Maybe I am doing it wrong.

    • MarkC says:

      Jose,
      yes! walk around in the minimalist shoes first and do this as much as possible.

      Mark

    • Brad says:

      Jose,

      I switched to minimalist shoes BECAUSE I was suffering from Achilles tendinopathy and pf. I run in minimalist shoes and wear minimalist shoes (Vivobarefoot) at work. PF and achilles issues have gone away. Take your time to transition, and see the difference that the shoes (or lack of shoes) make.

      Brad

  2. Richard says:

    Mark–
    I’ve been running minimalist for just over a year now, first in Altra Adams and now in a pair of Brooks Puredrift, which I like a lot especially in the cold weather. I’m averaging around 15 miles per week, in 2.5 to 4 mile chunks, building up from less than a mile a year ago. Typical pace is between 9:00 and 9:30 per mile. Nothing hurts–not my back or my plantar fascia–unlike when I was heel striking. My question is this: I still will feel stiffness in my calves, especially post run, and after a longer run. Should my expectation be that calf stiffness will eventually go away entirely?

  3. Paul K. says:

    Richard,
    I experienced similar lower leg/calf stiffness over the course of 12 months as you have described. Seemed like I had plateaued so to speak, UNTIL, I took the necessary time to use more GLUTEAL action in my running technique. Again, I found myself pulling the pace back, mainly focusing on the quality of my cadence to govern my run. However this time around instead of cadence relatively guiding my foot strike pattern, I timed my glute movement(motor program) to cadence. -BE WARNED- this felt really awkward! Looking back, it should have due to how inactive my glutes were during the running cycle! After many weeks of bridges, bridges, and more bridges, as well as standing in place moving my glutes to a metronome (in the privacy of my own room), I was able to complete runs ranging from 5 – 16 miles without significant calf stiffness or soreness. I believe it was a matter of activating enough body awareness to that muscle group to get them to be PRIME MOVERS. Now, that first stage of neuromuscular transition has taken place, i am doing some strength and conditioning as well. Dr. Mark isn’t kidding when he says the glutes can be the most fatigue resistant muscles of the body when properly used!
    In my experience,
    Paul K. -
    Student of Fitness and Exercise Science, SU.
    TwoRiversTreads, asst. mngr & running specialist

    • MarkC says:

      Thanks Paul for sharing. doing basic squats correctly is huge help
      - good posture
      - sit BACK and load the posterior chain
      - drive knees OUT as you sink with focus on glutes, posterior chain, and abductors….this loads the spring of the posterior chain effectively. this also drives the hip into the sockets correctly for stability…like a screw.

      Rubber bands that are not loaded will not fire…most run in a pattern not optimizing the strong posterior chain

      practice practice practice as Paul says…better yet come visit Two Rivers Treads for one of Pauls clinics

      Mark

  4. Richard says:

    Thanks to you both, I will work on my glutes for sure. Dr. Mark, my wife and I often talk of returning to Shepherdstown and will definitely stop in the store.

  5. Peter says:

    Loved the tips and pointers, however you mention that..

    “Yes. A minority of runners have such a serious structural flaws that they require correction by custom rigid orthotics forever…”

    Included in the approx. 5% of the population (that have a very high arch)…myself, and others, are not “flawed”, but improved over most who have flat feet…or even normal arches. “We” can run faster, jump higher, and have more bounce because of this “flaw” (high-arch).

    Orthodics and arch supports are mostly for different reasons and people(s)…Just so you know…

    • MarkC says:

      agree peter..thanks for the comment. you are right. high arch is normal for that person if it is functional. a severe hallux valgus (as an example) with a high arch creates an unstable foot that cannot land correct and spring. i see lots of really damaged feet more in my medical practice (in non runners) than in the run store…so keep strong and well.

      Mark

  6. Jamie says:

    I have always suffered extreme shin splints and soreness on top Of my ankles. I would always heel strike using traditional shoes. I almost gave up on running completely. Last month I stumbled into a natural running store and was educated on proper technique. I’ve put in 20 miles now with a forefoot strike, still using my old shoes, and have had no pain and am completely stoked. I am totally amazed.

  7. There are lots of running-shoe brands and styles on the market. While most running shoes feel comfortable when you’re standing in a sports store, the true test is after several miles on the trail or asphalt. You’ll quickly realize that your perfect shoe has more to do with the shape of your foot and your running style than it does with the logo stitched on the side.

  8. John says:

    I’m really new in natural running ant my posterior shin splint is almost history. Thanks a lot for all the information and inspiration provided by your site. i can run now 5-6 miles without shin pain at a recovery pace, but I start feeling some soreness in the calf – Achiles tendon junction. I try to alternate with bike ridding in order to increase my aerobic capacity and to avoid injury from to much new style running. how much time do you think it could take for a begginer in natural running to participate to a marathon? Do you think in 6 month could be ok? I already finish my first one last year. Thanks!

  9. Andy says:

    I am thinking of transitioning to natural running, but am just coming back from a foot injury (finally diagnosed by second podiatrist as planter fibromatosis) that has taken almost a year to diagnose and then begin treatment. The nodule is near my heel behind the high point of my arch, and fairly deep in my foot. I’ve been prescribed, and am using, custom orthotics to support both feet (no injury to my other foot or leg). Time off training this past year has included swimming and biking. Since getting used to my orthotics I’ve now done about a dozen short runs (2-4 miles), but have noticed my knees aching and my achilles very tight.

    What with starting running over any way (I used to run mostly 10k trails runs, but some 1/2 and full marathons) I am interested in running more the way we were made to run. Is this something I can do though with planter fibromatosis? Could or should I try natural running without the prescribed orthotics, or possibly with them? Any advice is appreciated. Thanks!

  10. MICHAEL DEVANEY says:

    Hello I am completely new to this but i have been doing some reading on the subject. I am a runner who has been dealing with plantar fasciitis for 10+ months.
    I just started doing exercises to strengthen my feet so that I can stand on 1 foot with eyes closed and isolate the flexor hallucis brevis so that i can raise my big toes and remaining toes independently. This is a lot harder than it sounds, especially isolating the big toes and the remaining toes so I have been doing transition strengthening exercises by holding the big toe down so that I can independently raise the remaining toes and then switch by holding down the remaining toes so that I can independently raise the big toe. I have to do this because all my toes want to raise together and i simply need to hold the toes down with my hand. I hope this independently strengthens the muscles so that I can do these tests without using my hand to hold the toes down.
    As far as standing on one foot it is so much harder to do with the eyes closed so i feel that I have a long way to go before I can do this for 30 seconds.
    Along with all of this i started walking in mizuno minimalist shoes which i imagine with stretch the achilles somewhat since the heel is much lower than traditional running shoes. I also imagine I should commence some strengthening of the calves and hip flexors to get ready for the different types of stress associated with running in minimalist shoes

  11. John says:

    I seem to have chronic shin splints….is horrible. I went to my doctor and said its not a stress fracture. On a whim I stared to run barefoot on the treatmill I probable did .15 miles. My calves were a little sore but my shins didn’t hurt that badly. I,ve been slowly jacking up the distance once a week by .05, I’m up to .35 now. I am presently in my Brooks Ghost or Glycerin 11′s. I have 2 questions if anybody can answer it. Can I or should I still be running in these shoes and when should I just go out and get a more minimalist shoe. I usually run 15 to 20 miles a week, but when i get shin splints I cut back to less than 8.


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