Not too long ago, I tried minimalist running for the first time. This has been a growing trend in the running world, with proponents touting benefits such as improved form, greater strength and conditioning, and injury prevention.
There is also an admonition: Ease into it.
In my experiment, I chose a pair of Merrell True Glove shoes. Minimalist shoes are the closest thing you can get to barefoot, so it makes sense to try minimalist shoes before going all in with barefoot.
(Note: I’m reviewing products here that I bought on my own; manufacturers did not participate in this review)
My first go at it was fruitful: 2.4 miles on a flat, paved track. I went without socks and found that I transitioned pretty well and got in a groove. When I finished, my legs felt like they were worked more than they would be in traditional shoes. I also had some blisters from hot spots the developed. On the bright side, the zero-drop of the sole seems to have solved a nagging issue with me—sore Achilles tendons.
Round two included some adjustments. I was told my stride was off, so I did some research on that. I also opted for some blister prevention – a pair of Climacool fabric socks from Adidas. Lastly, I was told I may have gone a little too far for a first attempt at minimalist running.
For my next route, I chose a shorter run – 2 miles – in a somewhat hillier, paved area.
Immediately, I noticed that the shoes forced me to adjust my stride. I usually lope a little bit, which means wasted energy bobbing up and down. Springy, cushioned shoes enable this bad habit. The utter lack of cushion on the Merrells stripped that away. I found myself conforming to the mid-foot strike, level, 180-steps-per-minute stride that is recommended for minimalist and barefoot running. (By comparison, most people heel-strike, running with longer strides, more bounce and at a pace of 120 steps per minute.)
Again, I felt the extra work my legs had to do. And the faster cadence meant my breathing had to be adjusted. The bad news is this means I’m working harder, thus affecting how far and how long I can go.
Hill climbing is also harder, as I wasn’t aided by the spring of my old shoes. My legs and feet were forced to do all the work.
The good news is that the amount of work I’m doing per minute means I’m getting more bang for my buck in the workout. In the short term, my “stats” will suffer, as in, fewer miles per run and slower times. But in the long run, I’ll be much stronger and ultimately, more fit.
I like that long-term prognosis.
Another thing to note: Even though I was wearing shoes, this particular model let me feel the contours of the ground. Every pebble, crack and any other anomaly on the ground I stepped on was felt by my feet. In normal running shoes, this might not be the case, or at least minimized greatly.
Once the run was over, I experienced the same leg sensations as I did the first time – greater leg soreness (particularly in my calves) and fatigue in my feet. Two miles in minimalist shoes at a moderate pace felt like a 5K.
But the sock strategy worked – no blisters. And the socks might also prevent the inevitable downside of minimalist running without socks – shoe odor. Even with special fabrics designed to combat odor, over time it will build up. No thanks to that. Purists in the barefoot/minimalist world might blanche at this, but my thinking is you should go with what works for you.
Lastly, back to the Achilles heel issues. This is what is stopping me from adding miles, and it’s a problem in my other shoes. Like my first minimalist run, I was pleased to have no Achilles soreness despite the extra work my calves were recruited to do.
My first minimalist run was a success with setbacks. My second – which included conforming to the barefoot/minimalist form – was also a success, but without the setbacks.
So far, so good. I’m starting to believe. But the test isn’t over.
Next time, I’ll take the uber-light Merrells out for a trail run on one of the more rugged tracks around: Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088