Minimalist footwear & "barefoot shoes"
- how to transition to them properly
Minimal footwear tends to be healthier for most people's feet, but some people get injured from them because they don't transition to them properly. This article explains why and how to transition properly.
Most typical shoes & sneakers that people wear have an elevated heel, which points the foot slightly downward. Unfortunately this compresses the calf muscle and the tendon that connects the calf to your heel - the Achilles tendon. Over time, the calf and Achilles become "frozen" in this shortened position, which can cause problems when switching to minimal footwear. We'll talk about how to deal with that in a moment.
The second problem with typical shoes & sneakers is that their sole is relatively stiff, which prevents your arch from flexing as much as it would if you walked barefoot. Your arch requires regular movement to stay healthy, and it degenerates when kept immobilized by stiff-soled shoes. Switching to minimal footwear suddenly can actually cause problems, because our arches can get "shocked" from flexing more than they're used to, leading to something called plantar fasciitis.
So the main goals of the transition phase are to: 1) stretch out the calves & Achilles tendon, and, 2) prepare your arch for more flexing gradually. The transition period can take anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on the "fitness level" of your feet and the activities you intend to do. Some people can switch to minimal footwear with no transition phase and not get injured, but some can't, so i suggest suggest stretching out the transition period and not rushing the process.
1) Stretching your calves & Achilles
Do this calf stretch for 20 seconds at least once a day for 2-4 weeks prior to running, and preferably several times a day. If you have very tight calves, or you wear shoes with a raised heel - or you want to be over-cautious and keep your risk of injuries to a minimum - do the following:
1 - Stretch your calves every hour throughout the day the first month. If you're unwilling to do this, wear a Strassburg sock at night, which will stretch your calves while you sleep. You can buy one sock and alternate between feet each night.
2 - Start with a "semi-minimalist" shoe the first 1 to 3 months, especially if you plan on running. This is simply a shoe with a lower heel than your current shoe. Examples are Converse All-Stars, Keds, and racing flats - all of which you can run in if they feel comfortable. Wear the lower-heeled shoes throughout the day if possible, and try to walk around your house barefoot or in thin-soled slippers.
3 - This calf exercise was shown in studies to improve Achilles tendinitis. Do it for 2 minutes twice a day, 7 days a week. If you tend to get Achilles pain down near the heel, don't let your heel go below the level of the step.
2) Preparing your arches for more flexing
The best way to stretch your arches is simply to walk barefoot or in thin-soled shoes, like sandals or water shoes. An hour or 2 of walking in minimal footwear provides an excellent foot "workout". The next best thing is to wear the Strassburg sock mentioned above. An alternative to the sock is to stretch your plantar fascia for 1 minute, every hour throughout the day. For either technique, do it for a month prior to running if you have no pre-existing arch problems, or 2-3 months prior to running if you have arch problems, including flat arches.
Which shoes to get?
The key things to look for are a thin, flexible sole, and no raised heel. The sole should be flexible enough so you can roll it up into a ball. And the sole should have an even thickness in the front and back - the heel shouldn't be higher than the front. Good examples are the water shoes mentioned above, which tend to run about $10. Other examples are Vibram Five Fingers, Merrell's barefoot shoes, Terra Plana's Vivo shoes, kung fu shoes ($15) or Huarache sandals.
If you need extra cushioning, slip in a pair of Spenco gel insoles, the green kind (under $10). You can even slip in a second pair for a while if you need to.
Start by walking in the shoes at least 30 minutes a day for 1 to 4 weeks prior to running.
When you're ready to run:
1) Start with just a 2-3 minute run the first day, no matter how good you feel, or how long you were running in your regular shoes. Then add 1-2 minutes to each future run.
2) Avoid landing on your heels when you run, like you would in conventional running shoes. Instead, land around the mid-foot or fore-foot, as this video explains. Take short, relaxed strides. Don't try to go fast the first month.
3) Try to run on dirt, a sports field or track, or soft asphalt. Avoid running on hard surfaces like concrete the first month.
4) Avoid running uphill the first month, because it strains the Achilles tendon (downhill running is ok). If you run uphill and get pain in your Achilles, walk the rest of the way up. In fact, any time you get unusual pain anywhere, walk for a while. Running shouldn't hurt.
For those with arch problems
If you over-pronate when you run, or you have flat arches, or a history of plantar fasciitis, slip in a supportive insole when you run, such as Superfeet, or orthotics if you have them. Only wear insoles or orthotics when running or jumping, not for walking around (unless your podiatrist insists). After 2-3 months, you can try removing the insoles for your runs, but put them back in at the first sign of foot pain.
That's it in a nutshell
This article covers the most common issues, but it doesn't cover everything. If you encounter problems not covered here, try asking on barefoot running forums.
Updated February 2012