The idea of "less is more" has caught fire amongst the running/walking community in the minimalist movement. Unfortunately it seems that lots of people bought into the craze but executed the transition to minimalism wrong. The people who went out and bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, slipped them on, and knocked out a 30-60 minute jog all in one day were making a mistake: There is a transition period required to strengthen the muscles in the feet before minimalist running can be done effectively.
The practice of wearing shoes—with all their padding and support—regularly has weakened our foot muscles. Weak muscles need to be exercised with gradual incremental increases in order to avoid injury. It's the same reason why you don’t go from running 10 miles a week to running 100 miles a week without a build-up. Likewise, to effectively run with a minimalist shoe, one must slowly transition. If you're interested in learning about my transition to minimal footwear, keep on reading; I recently completed a 50-mile trail ultra in a pair of minimalist shoes.
I started getting into the minimalist approach last fall when I visited a unique running store in Wauwatosa, WI, called Revolution Natural Running. The owner, Kyle Roberts, is actually a pedorthist by trade. His perspective, and that of most proponents of minimalist footwear, is that most people could cure their foot ailments by ditching their insoles and going minimal. As strange as this sounded, I was convinced. After all, why would a guy who is trained to design foot inserts tell the vast majority of people that they don’t need his product? Kyle explains:
As a certified pedorthist, I am not a doctor, but am a specialist in conservative therapies of the foot—namely orthotics and footwear. So I used to spend much of my time actually building orthotics, but now I see a much better alternative for most athletes that have foot and lower extremity injuries, which is the strengthening of the muscles of the feet and looking at gait to reduce over-striding. By teaching runners to run more efficiently, we can get them to use more of their body’s elasticity, so they don’t have to use as much muscular energy.— Kyle Roberts
I walked out of the store convinced I wanted to transition towards minimalist running. So with the guidance of Kyle’s philosophy, I began the journey. I started out by doing a lot of walking around barefoot or in sandals. This gave the muscles in my feet a chance to stretch out and strengthen. My next step was to give my feet a slightly harder workout. I began running about 10 percent of my weekly miles in shoes with an 8-11mm heel-to-toe drop, meaning the difference between the sole thickness in the heel compared to the toe. Typical modern running shoes have about a 12mm drop, and the drop in stability shoes can be even greater. The closer to a 0mm heel-to-toe drop (called "zero drop") a shoe has, the closer it is to a barefoot-like running experience. I spent all winter gradually increasing the percent of weekly mileage I ran wearing a shoes with smaller heel-to-toe drops.
By springtime I had convinced myself I was ready to go back to Revolution Natural Running and try out a legit minimalist shoe. I met with Kyle for quite a while going over possible shoes that would be good for me to start with. Kyle relentlessly analyzed my stride and foot strike on his store treadmill with various shoes to make sure we found one that was right for me. When all was said and done, we decided the Inov8 F-Lite 230s (6mm drop) would be a good shoe to start with. He also set me up with a pair of Inov8 Road X Lite 155 (3mm drop) for road running and to help further transition to my goal of running in zero drop shoes. I also walked out of Revolution Natural Running with a pair of Vibram Five Fingers (zero drop). Kyle explained that walking around for long periods of the day wearing the Vibrams would help strengthen my feet. Ultimately, I was able to race the Ice Age 50 Mile in the Inov-8 F-Lite 230s without getting hurt, and feeling light, smooth, and efficient the whole way.
Based on my experience, I would highly recommend contacting Kyle at Revolution Natural Running if you think you would like to try out a minimalist approach to running or walking. In the two weeks since I started wearing minimalist shoes I have noticed an increase in foot strength through improvements in balance. I am excited for what this will do for technical trail running.