My experiences with minimalist running shoes

A friend in Japan and I chat about running a bit, and he posted on his Facebook asking for peoples experiences of minimalist shoes. I started typing out a reply but it grew and grew and actually I’ve decided to post it here. It’s not controversial – I don’t have a horror story to tell nor, particularly a success story – but there’re are definitely lessons to be learnt from the way I approached things.

So… I started out doing all my running in Asics 2170’s – they are pretty much the standard shoe for beginner runners, offering good cushioning and stability – an all-round good package for shorter to mid distances. I never had any problems running in these shoes, a fact probably helped that I got them after gait analysis at Runners Need (something I recommend it you’re a beginner looking to buy new running shoes). At this point I was running about 5km at a time.

I bought some Vibrams in June last year. I wore them mostly for walking, but did two or three short (sub-3km) runs on the treadmill in them. I didn’t do that much reading on the conversion to barefoot, but just wore them every other day or so and if my feet ached I switched to other shoes. I noticed my feet and calves got *much* stronger – like when doing burpees I could really push off of my forefoot. This also meant they were tight as hell though, so I spent some time with foam rollers and doing myofascial release work on them.

Three months on I decided I needed something more suitable for running, and didn’t do much research but instead went to Lillywhites and came across these:

Snazzy eh?!
They are New Balance Minimus Ionix 3090. I presumed, after three months in the Vibrams, I was good to start doing some light running – again under 3km and on the treadmill. That was fine, but whenever I pushed the distance or incline up I found that the inside of my leg below my ankle joints would ache. Some reading made me conclude these were stress fractures – they took ages to heel and a 5km hill program would then see me having to stop running for week or so to recover.
Completely bonkers.
I realised that I needed the stability offereed by more conventional shoes. I think if you have perfect feet and an excellent gait (your feet neither roll in nor out) then you’d have no problems with the Minimus or other shoes like it, but that’s not the case with me – my feet naturally tend to roll in and I need some support around the arches.
This time I did a LOAD of reading, and eventually settled on the Saucony Progrid Mirage 2:

Ugly, eh?

These have a low toe-to-heel drop, something that is a characteristic of minimalist shoes, of 4mm. Most conventional trainers, especially “fashion” shoes like Nike Airs have one more around the 1cm and upwards mark. This low drop encourages you to run more on your mid-foot – striking with the centre of your foot first instead of the heel.

I’m not going to go into the biomechanics of running – google and thou shalt be rewarded with a veritable bucketload of articles to read. But the mid-foot strike is again something that is encouraged by the barefoot style, since you don’t want to be smashing your heels into the ground.

I have got on excellently with these, and I’m really happy with my well-researched purchase. I’ve done 3 x 10km treadmill runs on them and 3 x 10km road run (plus 1 x 10km trail run, to which they were obviously not well suited!). I find they do indeed encourage a good running style yet still offer some support, and are cushioned enough yet still feel responsive and low to the ground.

The only other pair of shoes I’ve bought since have been the Salomon Speedcross 3’s, which I’ve just got for trail running (so far only used once!). They have a 9mm drop, which is bigger than I wanted, but the only other alternative were the shoes by Inov8, which I felt wouldn’t offer the same support (learnt my lesson!). When I tried them on they felt really stable, which I felt would be good for my slightly dodgy ankles until they strengthened up a bit.

So, some takeaway advice from someone who did it all wrong, here it is:

  • Read up on the conversion to minimalist shoes
  • Don’t try and do it too quickly
  • Choose your shoes carefully – a gradual progression is good
  • Don’t be too proud to say “y’know what, I’m not sure this is working out for me”.
At the end of the day, if it ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it. Minimalist shoes are big now but if you don’t feel they have anything to add to either your running or training style then I would urge you to ask yourself why you’d bother with a process that could, for a committed runner, halt your progress due to the time taken to make the switch safely.
If you’ve had experiences, good or bad, feel free to leave a comment.

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