How-to Transition to Running in Minimalist Shoes

I’ve had several questions about my minimalist transition, how to’s, etc. So I thought I’d look back and try to put it in a generalized “how-to” post, based on my experience. With the benefit of hindsight, I put it into a generic 8 week program to be full time in a minimalist shoe in 2 months. I personally made the full transition in 6 weeks, but please keep in mind, I’m an ultrarunner and typically run a minimum of 2000 miles a year, compete in a least 6 ultramarathon races per year and have been doing this for nearly a decade. So, my transition may be a bit quicker than most. However, if you spend time barefoot and re-learn your proper running stride (barefoot), listen to your body and don’t overdue it giving your body time to adapt, I truly believe you can do this. And, it won’t take as long as you might think. Happy natural running!

So, here’s generally the concept behind my transition from the Brooks Launch with a beefy arch support insole (basically an over the counter soft orthotic), to a minimalist 7+ ounce trail flat with just the flat, stock insole it comes with (e.g. NB MT100 or the Inov8 x-talon 212)…

Week 1 and 2:

I started spending time barefoot (around the house, wore Vibram Five Fingers around town to run errands, etc.). If I felt discomfort in my feet or arches, I put on arch supported sandals (Montrail flip-flops, Birkenstocks, etc.) and wore them the remainder of the day (first day was maybe 30 minutes before I put on sandals). I did this mainly around the house. Then, repeated this regimen every day until I could go all day barefoot without discomfort).

During this time, I ran every other run (never back to back days) in a minimalist shoe, half of my normal run time. (Example: if my typical daily run is 1 hour, 6 days a week: I ran every other 3 days in my normal running shoes for 1 hour, and the other 3 days , I bumped back my volume and ran 30 minutes every other day in the minimalist shoe.)

Also, during this time, I rolled my foot and arches on a golf ball every evening and worked on keeping my heel on the floor while picking up and dropping the golf ball repeatedly (at different angles…to the side, straight on, etc.). At first, my arch would cramp and couldn’t even pick it up with my left foot (my weaker foot that pronates more). But with time, I could pick up the golf ball with any of my toes (big toes, outside little toes, etc.). I also worked on curling and flexing and spreading my feet and toes…which I do often when sitting at my computer or driving after long runs back from the trailhead (barefoot).

Week 2 and 3:

By this time, I was spending a lot of non-running time comfortably barefoot. When I did wear casual shoes, I felt constricted and my feet wanted out. I immediately flipped off shoes when I walked in the door. My feet and ankles started feeling stronger…and springy. I started to introduce a Vibram Five Finger cooldown run at the end of my every other 3 day minimalist 30 minute run sessions. First day was 6 minutes in the VFFs and my feet were sore after 6 minutes. I kept adding a few minutes every run in them until I could run a 20 minute cooldown in them comfortably.

In my personal opinion, these were key sessions. This really started to work on proper natural (barefoot) running form required to run in a minimalist shoe and not get injured. That meant working on no overstriding, a midfoot strike, heel kiss the ground slightly, bent knees, running light…really using your leg bend, and ankle/achilles/calf flex to absorb shock.  I had some calf/achilles soreness during this period, but I kept stretching consistently and eventually the soreness passed. Plus, remember, these sessions were every other day, so my body had time to heal and adapt before the stress of the next session.

Week 5 and 6:

Still barefoot as much as possible in casual time. I started to gradually increase my minimalist run sessions to more days a week and more time for each run (slowly…no more than 5-10 minutes more each run). I’m only running my once per week long run in my old running shoe set-up and they feel weird and clunky and VERY heavy. I was now running about 40-60 minutes 5+ days a week in the minimalist shoes with a 20 minute VFF cooldowns at the end. In this week, I replaced one of my run days with strictly a VFF run of 30 minutes. I’m having fun and feeling more comfortable in the VFFs and I’m looking forward to the “adventure” in them when I go out. In the 6th week, I do my first VFF “longer” trail run  of about 55 minutes (on singletrack with part of it on snow). I have a blast! My feet are slightly tender the last 10 minutes of the run (as it was frozen ground), but they’re fine the next day.  I’m now solidly running 3 (sometimes 4) sessions in the VFFs per week in the form of either a long cooldown (15-25 minutes) or at least one run per week as a VFF-only run of 30-50 minutes. The VFFs are in my bag on long run days and I switch into them to wear home after my weekly long trail run. I found that if I put on a shoe, especially after my long run days, my arches and foot get Plantar Fasciitis symptoms. (NOTE: I believe this is because of restricted movement, post-run, as your feet need to stretch out and move and wiggle, just like stretching and shaking out your legs). So, I usually choose to either drive home after long runs completely barefoot, or wear VFFs so they can flex and stretch.

Week 7 and 8:

My minimalist epiphany: Ongoing and required to stay minimalist…barefoot as much as possible in casual time and HAVE to run a few days a week in the Vibram Five Fingers or barefoot (once the weather allows) to keep form dialed in and ongoing strengthening in the lower legs and feet. I think of them as basically form drills.

At this point (as well as moving forward in the future), I’m running at least 2 days a week in the VFFs for barefoot form reminders and general strengthening (plus I wear them around town sometimes for running errands), not counting a cooldown or two…my general rule is 3 sessions per week in them. These VFF running sessions vary from 15-60 minutes, depending on if it’s a cooldown or a recovery run day where I’m strictly in them as my run for the day. During this two week span, I bumped back my long run day to a normal 1 hour run and transitioned ALL my runs in the minimalist shoes. Now over the coming weeks, I start to build my weekly long run (and one other run per week) in order to get my old running volume back in the minimalist footwear.

So, that’s my experience, I just ran a 50k trail race in minimalist shoes and had no issues. I’m totally psyched to be in light shoes and look forward to my time running in the Five Fingers each week. They really, really help form and strength on my easy run days. So, I hope that helps somebody out there free their feet and go minimalist and tap into their natural running form. Have fun and Giddyup!

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