The endurance industry is filled with crazy marketing.  No doubt about it, I've seen just about everything.  Trends happen, injury's happen, getting sold on bad philosophies happens.  But switching to a minimalism approach is one of the most sound principles in the endurance world.  It's not easy, there are dangers, but they can be overcome in order to actually achieve a better experience in staying active and healthy.  This article will help guide you through the process, reduce your risk of injury, enjoy the transitions, and help you achieve the goal of better running.

Whats the concern all about?


Having been in the industry for 10 years, personally treated over 3700 patients, been the race day medical director for Ragnar, and consulted with top level endurance coaches, I've come across anything you can imagine with people trying to transition their shoes.  Because I'm a chiropractor along with being trained as a clinical exercise physiologist and a strength and conditioning coach, I actively coach all of my patients in programming and transitions.  This has allowed me to see not only the injuries suffered from transitioning shoes, but also understand the root problems on WHY they've happened.

Tendons get over stretched and bones start to get stress fractures from pounding the pavement in a different way.  Blisters and friction sores open up.  All of this related to your feet being use to confinement, bracing, and stabilization.  It starts when we are young and the culture of fear around being barefoot.  We have to wear shoes everywhere because of concern over stepping on garbage and the concrete just isn't friendly.  We've been told by everyone under the sun that if we have flat feet we are going to have pain and problems.  So we put our kids in thick shoes that clunk around and don't bend.

As we grow, parents want to save money and just in general don't keep track of how fast their kids feet actually grow.  We are told to keep a tight shoe on, and we don't buy new ones when we should.  At the first sign of pain or problem, we immediately get the death sentence.  "You need better support, look at how flat your feet are" so we buy orthotics or a more supportive shoe.

Now fast forward to where you are entering a running shoe store.  The world of marketing products comes into play.  When we talk perspective, we have to put weight into where we are actually getting information.  The sales people at a shoe store, even with the best of intentions, are mostly getting their product information from the product company itself.  Even online, when you go to search for information, it's usually an article by someone trying to sell something.  So it's of no fault of the sales people in the store, but depending on which day of the week you go, you may get drastically different information about what shoe would be right for you.  Of course an orthotic company will come in and train the sales force about the greatest features of their product.  End result is you get sold a shoe and and an orthotic because you "over-pronate."

Long term stability shoes cause our tissue in our feet and calves become very tight.  Normal shoes have a 12 mm height difference of the heel elevated above the toes.  This can dramatically shorten the tissue in your calf and tendons.  We spend most of our time like this.  With most people, we are in shoes almost every minute we are awake.  This even furthers the problem of our feet never getting exercise.  As with the rest of our body we need to move in the way we were designed.  Shoe's don't allow us the contract the muscles in a normal fashion.  They become week.  All of this is the ultimate problem when we try to transition to a minimalist shoe.

But here is the shinning light.  When we switch over to being more natural with our feet we can have amazing results.  Our feet were designed to move, and with that comes a whole new sensation.  We feel better in general, our mind becomes more stimulated, and the rest of our joints become healthier and happier.  We can feel the ground and react when we need to so we don't twist an ankle.  But assuming you've already committed to this transition process, lets get to the good stuff.

What is a transition?

Because normal shoes have a 12 mm difference, we have to work our way down to a more "neutral" shoe.  Neutral being defined as NO height difference between the heel and the front of your foot.  Shoe companies thankfully have great options for us in the variety of heel height differences, defined as Drop.  There are 8 mm, 6 mm, 4 mm and so on for drops.

Tissue change in our bodies can take 2-3 months to fully adapt to a new stress on them.  In other words, when we start to work out we can feel great right away, but it still takes 2-3 months to make the full physiological change to happen.  As we go through a transition of changing the drop in our shoes, we have to keep this in mind in relation to how well our bodies adapt so we don't create an injury.

The transition is defined as the length of time and amount of drop you are trying to achieve.  How you determine your transition is based off of your purpose.

Defining your purpose

Because this is a running specific "How to guide" we need to get at some root concepts.  Without defining your purpose we could cause injury, and more importantly HATE what we are doing.

First we have to decide why you are running.  Then we put into the equation your training experience and your body type.  At the end of the cross section you should feel comfortable with a plan that fits what you are tying to do.

Here is the breakdown:  Weight loss, recreational, and competitive.  Training experience is beginner, doing it for awhile, and intense.  Body types are rigid, needs improvement, and bendy.

Weight loss- This is a huge category of people.  I find it's a current trend to think running is the best way to loose weight.  This is outside of the scope of this article, however, the best way to loose weight is NOT running.  You can use running as a tool during weight loss, but it should not be the main focus.  Stick to shorter miles and running at a faster pace if you are in this category.  More on this with other posts if you want to dive deeper.

Recreational-  This category is just about getting out and hitting the pavement.  Exercise is an amazing drug and you want to feel the high.  Maybe you want to train for a marathon, or maybe you just run a couple of times a week because it feels good.

Competitive- You are an achiever who likes to set goals and accomplish them.  This is the person who likes hanging the metals on the wall and wants to try and always improve their pace and place.

Beginner- You could be the person who has never exercised before, to the person who has always worked out but never ran before.

Doing it for awhile-  On and off through your life you've tried running.  This is usually the middle aged person with a family or work to deal with.

Intense- This is in line with the competitive goal setting person.  You are in an intense program for a specific reason.  You also accept the fact that there is recovery time involved with this.  Irregardless of other commitments, you put this training program above all else and spend your time focusing on it.

Rigid- plain and simple you have a hard time bending.  You can't touch your toes, you are tense.  You've always been told to relax a little more.  When you touch your muscles they feel rock hard.

Needs improvement-  This category is a vast majority of the people out there.  Your body could use a little more movement and exercise.  You can recover OK, but sometimes need a little more time off.  You have minor aches and pains but can get past them.

Bendy- Doesn't matter if you're over weight or skinny in this category.  I've come across some really bendy people who fold in all sorts of places.  You can bend over and touch your toes with ease.  In a lot of people, they even feel like they "can't get a stretch" because they bend so far they can't actually get the tissue to traction.

Putting it all together to make a plan that's right for you.

Lets take the top 10% of you who are bendy.  Normal transition advice doesn't work for you.  I typically find you get pain and discomfort from normal shoes but just haven't realized it.  If I were to ask you to go barefoot in the office, your knee pain goes away immediately.  This category typically overrides all conventional transition advice.  You either need to transition immediately down to a 0 drop, or have a very short transition time. 4 mm drop for 2 months then buy a 0 drop shoe.

Beginner and weight loss category.  This is a huge chunk of the population.  The good news is there is an advantage you have over others.  Your body isn't conditioned to bad things yet!  You can expect 3 months of a building phase with your muscles no matter what.  In this category it also doesn't matter what type of body you have, you can start out right away.  I highly encourage you to do a run/walk program to train your feet to be conditioned to the lower drop, 0-4 mm.  Go longer on the walking portion, and when you run it should be trying to go at a fast pace.  DON'T do long and slow if you are in this category.

Recreational category overview.  This is where most of the injuries happen.  I often see this class of people over training for their situation.  They also get really bad training programs or following some one who is a great runner themselves and is now coaching the general population.  This is why I break this category down into 3 sections.

Recreational category 1:  If you've been doing this for awhile and are a rigid type of person you need a slow transition.  You will have to accept the fact you will need to buy a couple of pairs of shoes and work back and forth with them.  Start with an 8 mm drop for the first 2-3 months.  Then buy a 4 mm drop.  month 4 do your short runs with the 4 mm and do your long runs with the 8 mm.  Months 5-6 just run in 4 mm.  Month 7 do your short runs with a 0 drop and long run with 4 mm drop.  Then month 8 transition to 0 drop full time.

Recreational category 2:  You've been doing this for awhile and you could improve your body, you need a medium transition schedule.  Word of warning, if you are in the middle to end of a training program for a specific race, wait until after your event to work on a transition.  You can start with dropping to a 4-6 mm drop for 2 months.  Month 3 get a 0 drop and on your short runs use the 0 drop and the long runs use the 4-6 mm drop.

Recreational category 3:  You are intense!  This is where a lot of my business owners and managers fall.  It's the type A personality who works full time, maybe has a family, but still hammers into an intense program to try and win.  Not enough focus is put on self care in this category because so many of these personality types think there is no return on their investment.  They hop out of their car and immediately go into their pace because "they don't have time" to do anything else.  With the right focus on self care along with the transition, you can drop down to a 0 mm shoe with 1-2 months of training.  Short distance with your 0 drop and long runs with your normal shoe.  If you have a training program where you are running back to back some days, make sure to use your best judgement based on how tight you feel from the day before.  If you feel really tight, wear your normal shoes.

Competitive:  In the running world, you are already a seasoned vet, which can be good and bad all at the same time.  On one hand, you can handle the transition very quickly.  On the other end of the spectrum it can be hard to adjust if it changes your form.  This is more of a trial and error type of approach.  In the first month, do your shorter runs with the 0 drop and your longer runs with your normal shoes.  If there is no pain, go full time in the 0 drop.

For a faster transition.

When we think about the amount of time spent during the day, even for our long runs we are only scratching the surface on the percentage of the day in the minimalism shoes.  Most of us spend a much larger percent of our time walking around.  If we wear regular shoes, and even worse if we wear high heels to work, we are not working to better the length of the tissue in our calves and feet.

Go barefoot in the carpet and grass!  One of the easiest ways to strengthen and return function to your feet is to let it be as natural as possible.  10-20 min walks would be ideal for going barefoot.  For walking on surfaces other than grass and carpet I recommend Vibram Five Finger Shoes.  These allow for your toes to contract in a natural way and continue to strengthen your natural foot and flexibility.

Final thoughts

This is about having fun while trying to improve you body.  Health is about the journey, and nothing is instantaneous.  Being minimalist is just part of the puzzle with running.  Taking a season to improve the long term outcome of your running life is a huge win in my book.

If you would like to work with me in person in Madison WI, please visit my clinic site for more details.

Live active and be well,

Dr. Dave