Ellen used to be a recalcitrant runner who felt as if she were carrying a refrigerator on her back, but in her minimalist shoes she feels lithe as a gazelle. She doesn’t know if minimalist running is for everyone, but she’s sure enjoying her runs much more these days.
Initially skeptical about what seemed like a fad, I’m now really pleased to find I’ve made a successful transition to ‘barefoot’ running (also called minimalist or zero-drop running).
This is, in my case, not running in bare feet, but running in shoes that have no extra height built up in the heel, and that have a very flexible sole so my foot can respond to the road.
(Some people do run in bare feet, and simply because of natural caution, that will likely never be me.)
The change has been slow. Along the way, I’ve had to stop, back up, do less, go slower, and tend to incipient injuries from being too eager. I’ve also had to explore my ideas about shoes. And now, I’m running more easily and more comfortably than I ever have before, and having more fun doing it. I’m also more aware of my body, the whole thing, and of imbalances that have resulted in injuries in the past and that I need to address and monitor.
I’d read about minimalist running and the discussions of its merits for years. I’ve treated clients who have injured their Achilles by making the switch to zero-drop footwear too quickly. I’ve read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run and been mightily inspired. And through it all, I knew this was not for me.
But I took a first step toward barefoot running when my pedorthist, Ryan Grant at SoleFit, suggested after a gait assessment that I use more of a mid-foot strike than a heel strike. He did not suggest changing my shoes, only the way I hit the ground in them. “Practice regularly on a treadmill,” said Ryan, “in bare feet, for 5 minutes or so. Then take that feeling, and recreate it on the road.”
So I did. And it was different, and softer. But even so, as I increased my running time, training for an 8 km run this coming June 2016, an old left ankle pain started visiting me again. My chiropractor was able to help with that, and suggested left leg strength exercises, but the ankle, the mid back, and the shoulder-blade on the left side all were unhappy.
Then my friend C, an experienced, creative, and inspiring exerciser, recommended chiropractor Dr. Stephen Gangemi’s Sock Doc blog, where among many other fascinating items I read a rationale for a barefoot lifestyle, and reviews of minimalist shoes. Online searches reinforced the good word about some of these shoes, and Katy Bowman’s Katy Says blog and Nutritious Movement website helped me lean toward trying them for myself.
Now, although I’m enthusiastic to learn and try new things about wellness, I don’t believe everything I read, and nor should you. But I wanted to see what would happen. I do love filing a good report from the field. For me, this experiment toward being less shod, although still in its early days, has been a success.
Already I often work barefoot, or in not much of a shoe. So I decided to start doing more foot strengthening, leg strengthening, and logging actual barefoot time at work. And I started doing short runs in a transition trail shoe, the New Balance Minimus Multi-Sport WO10, that fits me like a cozy, water-resistant slipper with a responsive Vibram sole, yet even stands up to showshoeing.
Throughout the winter, I alternated running in this shoe and my old New Balance model; soon in my old shoes I felt as if I were running in high heels, and with a recurrence of a predictable running injury: tense-feeling glutes and a pain in the butt.
The butt pain vanished with the Minimus shoes; increasing my distances, however, I got pain in the left hamstring and Achilles. So I slowed down, ran less, got massage, saw my chiropractor, and rolled my legs on a sand-filled ball. Now, going into my fourth month with minimalist shoes, I’m switching to my “summer” Merrell Ascend Glove, also with a Vibram sole: a truly delightful, light, and airy shoe that carries me through work days plus running and leaves me feeling as if I could go faster and longer. My left ankle and Achilles feel great, and the goodness is carrying up the rest of the body too.
For the better:
- my legs rarely get deeply tired after a day at work massaging people
- my feet are getting stronger
- my butt isn’t tense and sore as it used to be
- it feels way easier to adjust my posture while running
- my runs are easier, lighter, and more fun – the road feels like an extension of me, we are a seamless fabric, and we can go on together forever
To be cautious of:
- it was really important for me to go at a slow pace, with reduced mileage, as I changed my shoes
- paying attention to small aches and pains and dealing with them immediately prevented bigger injuries from developing – of course this is true with any shoe and any training program
- changing footwear is not the whole story: important chapters include posture, body work, sleep, diet, and mindset
- it’s early in my ‘barefoot’ career, so there may be surprises ahead
I can’t say I won’t be injured again, but I feel as if I understand my body more and I sure as heck am running happier. And there’s nothing like being out on the road running lightly as the sun rises over the fields to make me feel that I’m saving something good about myself.