Why did I get started with running in minimalist shoes?

After over 20 years of running with traditional running shoes, the heel-to-toe form has taken its toll. With lower back pains, plantar fasciitis, and bruised toes, I stopped running.

Everything changed 9 months ago. I bought a copy of Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run book and I was determined to find out if I can run again. This is the most important and eye-opening book I’ve read on running. If the Tarahumara Indians in the Cooper Canyons can run hundreds of miles without rest and wear only sandals made from old tires and never get injured, there’s something to discover here.

I’ve been running the wrong way all those years.

What happened?

Blame it on the shoes. Cushioned heels in running shoes coupled with heel striking landing causes lower back pains after finishing a 5K or 10K run. After years of this, plantar fasciitis began showing up. My ankles, arch, and knees are fine but my toes are bruised badly in addition to getting blisters from wearing socks with the shoes. Recent scientific studies (I’ll write more on this in later posts) from various universities including Harvard University Skeletal Biology Lab supported what is happening to my body.

In a nutshell, studies show that runners who wore running shoes ended up landing heel-first 75 to 80 percent of the time. In contrast, barefoot runners usually land toward the middle or front of the foot. Heel-landing without shoes would mean a painful collision force of 1.5 to 3 times the body weight. But cushioned sneaker heels have allowed runners to change their stride to high-impact running thus opening up a whole world of pain involving foot and leg injuries!

From the Harvard study, it shows that in heel striking, the collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system. In forefoot striking, the collision of the forefoot with the ground generates a very minimal impact force with no impact transient.

Therefore, quite simply, a runner can avoid experiencing the large impact force by forefoot striking properly.

Recently, the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that running shoes can increase joint torques at the hip, knee and ankle.

What Did I Do Next?

Next generation footwear makers like Newton Running and Vibram Five Fingers permit runners to readjust their foot strike back to the more natural way, or simply act as a second tough skin to protect the foot in the latter case.

Since the Newton running shoes were not available when I decided to run without traditional running shoes, I went with the Vibrams KSO. They were in short supply but I was able to try out a pair in my local outdoor store (Redwood Trading Post). I was hooked. It felt great – snug, light, and more comfortable than anything I have worn.

Don’t run in them yet! Make sure you try your Vibrams out by walking around the house doing chores, walking around the park, and just wearing them for a few hours.

Additionally, walk around barefoot so your feet can get used to it. It will feel weird at first but your arches and feet is getting stronger by the minute. Try running barefoot in the grass for a few minutes.

What’s My Running Plan?

Don’t run barefoot in the streets or sidewalks yet!

I put on my Vibrams and started running on the cushioned track of the local high school. Here’s what my weekly plan looks like before I felt I’m ready to run more than 5K in minimalist running shoes.

Week 1: M W F – 0.5 mile
Week 2: M W F – 0.5 mile
Week 3: M W F – 1.0 miles
Week 4: M W F – 1.0 miles
Week 5: M W F – 2.0 miles
Week 6: M W F – 2.0 miles
Week 7: M W F – 3.0 miles
Week 8: M W F – 3.0 miles

After two months, I was able to run 4 miles or more in my Vibrams comfortably! No blisters, no crams, no aches. What plantar fasciitis? They are not flaring up anymore.

And most important of all, no lower back pains!

Some things to expect. In the first few weeks, I have blisters on a couple of my toes as the Vibrams were a snug fit and my feet is still adjusting to them. After the initial blisters, I never had them again. You might want to tape them initially…

I also had severe pains in my calves because I was not landing correctly. Instead of a full mid-foot or fore-foot landing, I landed on the balls of my feet like a sprinter. My heel were about 45 degrees or more off the ground instead of 5 to 10 degrees! Once I figured that out (it took over a month), the cramps and aches on my calf went away! You might want to video tape yourself to check your running style.

What’s Next?

Make sure you are comfortable with the new running style.

Once you have your mid-foot to fore-foot landing and push-off running style down, you can progress to barefoot running or trying out different minimalist running shoes. I have Newton Running in my radar… I won’t go barefoot yet because of broken glass, pebbles, and wood debris (it windy here) in the streets I run on. I will only go barefoot in the local high school track.

Time will tell… I’ll let you know in 5 years how I feel!