It is very easy to see how running is probably one of the most minimalist friendly types of exercise as very little to no equipment and ‘stuff’ is required. I’m not really going to talk about that as such though as minimalist running has come to mean something different entirely and it just so happens that long before I identified as a minimalist in general I practiced minimalist running.
If you haven’t heard of minimalist running or barefoot running you are a little late to the party. With the publication of the best seller book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall millions of people swapped their regular style running shoes with cushioning, big heels and arch support for bare feet or flat, flexible minimally cushioned ‘minimalist shoes’.
My story as a participant in this running trend is that minimalist and barefoot running is the only reason that I can run today.
As a child growing up in the 80s and early 90s in Australia is was normal to run school cross country races barefoot and at this I was at least above average in my small primary school. By high school however sports were always conducted in traditional sports shoes with big heels and suddenly running really hurt. I was always getting shin splints and didn’t really know this wasn’t the way it was meant to be and basically just gave up all those types of sports focusing on more academic pursuits and music (although i did still do gymnastics which was done barefoot).
A few years before i got pregnant with my son I was 20kg overweight and feeling horrible about myself and new that I needed to do something about my health. As i was living in remote central Australia my options were a bit limited so running was the clear choice as it required very little. Not having a sports store where i could be fitted for shoes I went onto the shoe selector on the runnersworld website which asks for things like your foot type (normal), weight (too heavy) etc. It told me to get (i think mainly due to my weight at the time) a very structured, sport shoe made by asics and this is what i ordered online. Running in these shoes was HELL, it hurt so so much especially in my shins and I quickly realised that no amount of building up the strength in my shins, foam rolling etc was going to fix that. I couldn’t even walk without shin pain in these shoes, so i sold them on ebay.
The next shoes i tried were some kind of sort of minimalist adidas. Actually i think i had already owned these as casual shoes so I hadn’t specifically bought them for running in. They was ultra light, ultra flexible but they still had a bit of a heel but less so than the previous shoes. This was a bit better and I could struggle on with the couch to 5K program with these, however shin splits were still a frequent issue. I was still believing the typical advice that this was just because i was a beginner I just needed to work though the pain and build up the strength I needed to eventually be pain free.
Around that time i got the Born to Run book an audiobook to listen while running for inspiration. I didn’t actually know anything about minimalist running or that the book was about that, I just knew it was topping the charts of books at the time and that it had the message that everyone can run!
This book was life-changing for me and many other non-runners i think. The first run I did after getting into the book a bit was the first time I ran a full 5km the whole way and on sand dunes no less. I scrapped my C5K program as I had reached my goal only 3 or 4 runs in so didn’t need it anymore and it was certainly the book that pushed me.
The book is really more focused on knee issues rather than my issue: shin splints but it did make me wonder if more barefoot style shoes would also help me. So with the money that i’d got from selling my horrible stability Asics shoes I bought some vibram fivefinger spryidons (the trail running ones) as I though i’d enjoy trail running more than road and had a bit around where i lived.
I also started running completely barefoot on the pavements around my house starting with just 100m or so as it had been recommended online that you want to get your form down pat before adding even minimalist shoes into the mix otherwise you can get injured. Barefoot was so much fun i loved it. Later i would often do my whole run barefoot on footpaths and roads getting up to about 8km. The only reason barefoot running ended for me was after I got glass in my foot, very deeply and painfully embedded that took 2 weeks to remove. People say it would never happen and you should look where you are running, I did but where i lived the recycling trucks would spill bottles on the foothpath leaving tiny impossible to see shards that were never ever cleaned up. After that experience I looked for minimalist shoes that i could wear on roads as I didn’t want to wear my Sprydon’s down too fast that i wanted to save for what they were intended for trails.
After some initial calf soreness as i got used to the new style of running on my forefoot/midfoot things really took off for me. I got to the point that i could run a little beyond a half marathon both on the highway around where i lived and on the sand dune trails.
During this time i experimented with a few different styles of minimalist shoes. I got some xero shoes back when they were called invisible shoes and needed to be made from a kit. I got both the thicker and thinner ones. I didn’t mind these but always found them a bit difficult to get the lacing just right so tended to wear them more as a casual shoe than for running. I also got some fivefinger bikilas 2nd hand from ebay and these continue to be great. While i’m not a huge fan on the look of fivefingers I do appreciate that they fit me really really well and i like that they don’t have any space beyond my toes which i tend to trip a bit over in the way that i run. This is what didn’t work for me with some viviobarefoot shoes that i got and therefore were relegated to being a casual shoe for me. So overall i was slowly converting all of my shoes to minimalist versions as i enjoyed the feel, recognised it also prevented shin splint for me which would happen if i went for a long walk in any shoe with a heel.
After getting to the half marathon distance I would sometimes find though my feel felt a little bit pounded and i did have some ITB issues. So the next experiment for me was with cushion zero drop shoes which for me were Altra Instincts. The problem with these shoes for me though is they feel SOOOO heavy after running barefoot and in ultra light more barefoot style shoes. Again they were relegated to being casual shoes and actually fit that role very well for me if i know i’ll be walking a whole lot in a day and prefer having a little extra cushion.
Then i got pregnant and could not longer run. In the first trimester my boobs were just agony so had to give it up and by the 2nd trimester i was too unfit again so gave running up for a while. One thing i did notice though was that by the 2nd trimester i could no longer wear my minimalist casual shoes comfortably. My arches really hurt and i bought some Birkinstocks which fixed this with it’s arch support. What i think was happening here was the pregnancy hormone relaxin was loosening my tendons and joints too much. I don’t think it was just the extra weight of my body during pregnancy as i had lost the 20kg from the running and a vegan diet and so even at the day i gave birth I was only at the weight i’d been when i started running. And even 6 months after my son was born and i tried running with the pram again I was still getting pain, particuarly in my knees. So shelved the idea of running and wearing minimalist shoes for a while.
Now my son is 1 and i gave it a go again and success! I am terribly unfit, 10kg overweight but i could still do a very slow 5km on trails in my fivefingers and nothing hurt at all. A bit of calf tightness afterwards but that is to be expected. Now i’m training for a trail running series in the middle of the year (races between 5km and 25km), it’s my new year’s goal as well as shedding that pesky 10kg.
Now I believe overall my success with minimalist shoes is that i got into the style with no prior running fitness. A lot of people complained they got injured and my guess is a lot of these people were previously runners and went far to fast too soon. Remember i started with only 100m barefoot! I also put a lot of emphasis on perfecting my technique. Personally i don’t think it is worth the effort for someone to change to minimalist shoes if they are already a runner and doing fine in regular shoes. Even if you get some injuries in regular shoes as minimalist shoes aren’t the answer to all injuries – I still did some ITB issues remember. The other reason i think i had an easy time with wearing minimalist shoes is i tend to spend a lot of my day barefoot, certainly anytime i’m at home and this would have helped me too.
However if you are someone with shin splits that are really preventing you from getting going, then looking at zero drop shoes is really going to help i think. I have had 2 friends with shin splits that have also experience a cure when they moved to zero drop shoes (it doesn’t seem matter if they are cushioned like Altras or not for this).
Sadly it seems to be getting more difficult to find minimalist shoes and the selection is more limited. Fivefingers are still around along with the more extreme sandal brands like zero shoes and luna sandals. And if all the regular shoe companies close down i might be forced to try sandals again, but at least many now have better lacing styles that are more easily adjusted. I don’t really like the attention these bring though although fivefingers are pretty bad for that too.
Anyway my 2 pairs of fivefingers are still going good and hopefully will for a long time yet. That is one benefit of minimalist shoes they do tend to last a bit longer as they don’t have lot of foam and support to wear out (At one point though i did have fivefinger seeyas for a short time but these came apart far too soon. They were just so minimal they were too easily ripped and my attempts are repairs created irritating bits that rubbed so they had to be thrown away. the Fivefingers Spryidons and Bikilas are going great though after several years of use).
Finally Born to Run is being made into a movie and i’m really looking forward to it coming out for a little renewed inspiration!