How to transition from cushioned shoes to barefoot shoes? Or should you even?
‘Using true minimalist shoes — shoes that are widest at the ends of the toes, have a flexible sole, and possess a completely flat support platform — offers the possibility of profound and enduring foot health benefits.’ – Natural Foot Gear
Like most aspects of health, it’s always best to exercise caution and restraint in transitioning to a new and natural approach. Your feet and body are amazingly adaptable and will indeed strengthen if treated appropriately. But this remarkable adaptation works best with patience, diligence, and a progressive approach. It is an investment well worth making, as it will pay foot health dividends for an entire lifetime.
There are so many good articles over this subject that I will not just settle for telling you about the facts, but instead I’ll tell you from my experience and try and give you some practical tools to work on!
When I started running regularly, I was 16. We were living the time when just about every shoe had “over pronation supports” and just about every shoe seller at the stores “analyzed” you having over pronation without actually ever looking at your gait (funny that! 😉 ) So I ran with over pronation running shoes (as almost everybody!) with the intention of landing on the heel and rolling over the toes, as at that time, we were told to do so.
Until I started running longer distances and my medial knees started hurting. At the same time I started researching a little more and came into the conclusion that I don’t need the extra arch support, changed my shoe model to new, but they were still highly cushioned. My new go to shoe had been found: Asics Gel Nimbus! I ran with those through the years I covered the most amount of distances. My long runs were… long.
After finishing the Helsinki City Marathon, I started looking for more speed. Not that I was unhappy about my performance, but that’s what I thought I should be doing, right? So I purchased another pair for to use along side with my “long distance shoes” for speed work. Less cushioned, more lightweight shoes, that were supposed to get me faster.
So did they get me faster?
No, I was still a runner of one speed. Every time I tried to improve my speed and do more interval type speed work, it only lead me to getting injured.
I can remember quite clearly completing a 30k run with my goal pace of 5:13-5:14 that was supposed to get me over the finish line of my next marathon in 3:40. Again, as I was pushing my limits, I got injured and then the whole idea of doing annother marathon just faded away. I’m sure I could have ran several marathons within the same average time of 3:50 – 4h, but somehow I felt I was just slowly wearing my body down, rather than using my time in building it.
My first pair of barefoot shoes
My first barefoot shoes, I purchased already back in 2008. Those were probably one of the first ones in the market, but I used them only occasionally in some group fitness classes. But my first pair for to use in running, I purchased around 4 years ago. That was the Skora Form shoe.
At around the same time I got curious over this new wave in the running world: natural running technique. I attended a course over the subject and really started to work on it.
Now that I had a sense of the technique, the whole idea of a barefoot shoe, started to make more sense. So I stack with the Skoras and worked on my technique. I had my fare share of problems too. Looking back now, if I had known better, I would have searched for a pair with a 6mm heel drop. As I went down “4 sizes” on one go!
‘Many people benefit from a stepwise approach to minimalist shoes that involves a gradual transition from a built-up conventional shoe to a transitional type of shoe to a true minimalist shoe.’ – Natural Foot Gear
My first pair of Skoras started to wear out, so I ordered myself a new pair. I needed them quickly, so I think I rushed with the order a little bit as I didn’t notice that the new pair was a full 0 drop barefoot shoe!
So what did I feel the next day after my first run with them? That my lower calves and achilles tendons were super sore! A clear sign that the demand was much greater than with the 3,8mm that my feet were accustomed to. 3,8mm sounds little, but for your structures, it’s a lot!
Did I suffer from any injuries?
Yes. I had several problems with my feet and the soles of my feet. Nothing major, nothing gone broken, but things that forced me to have breaks from running.
I did a lot of mobility work, I used a voodoo floss band on my ankles almost every single day, rolled the soles of my feet every day while washing my teeth and gave some good massage to my calves after each running session. And I didn’t need to sit much as I don’t have a desk job.
But what made the final change for me, is the fact that I changed all my shoes to barefoot shoes. That’s when I finally got rid of the tightness I felt in the soles of my feet. Nowadays, rolling my feet with a golf ball is really not a big deal as I don’t feel much anything at all. And the most importantly, I wear high heels probably only 2 few time/ year! Yes they look nice, but women; is it really worth it?
Would I recommend changing from cushioned shoes to barefoot shoes?
There’s really only one question that will determine my answer to that:
How much are you willing to work for it?
You can’t simply just jump into a pair of 0 drops from a 12mm heel drops and think that your body will just adjust, because you know, it won’t.
This is what you need to consider:
- Wearing high heels or even just normal heel raised shoes everyday at work or elsewhere and then just suddenly jumping into barefoot shoes for your runs is not going to happen. If you truly want to transition to barefoot shoes, you will need to make some changes in your all around shoes too to support the change
- You will need to do a lot of mobility work in order to get your structures ready for the change. Are you willing to do that work? As we know, nothing comes for free.
- You may need to consider how much time you spend sitting at your desk. As the whole body is connected. Sitting for long periods of time will shorten up your hamstrings and tighten up your lower back, this will affect the whole posterior chain: the chain that runs from the soles of your feet all the way up to your neck and your head. If one link in this chain gets tight, it will affect the whole rest of the chain.
- You may need to do some strength work on your feet as the little muscles in your feet get weak when you are not using them at all wearing cushioned shoes.
- You may have some bumps on the road, as what it comes to your feet, there are so many little structures that may possibly be overloaded by this change.
- And the most importantly: You will need to cut down your long runs temporarily.
So knowing what I know now and learning from my own mistakes, this is the receipt I would give you:
- step – learn the proper running technique first : it’s not that the shoe will somehow fix your technique
- step – start doing mobility work regularly, I mean daily : a little but often goes a long way!
- step – buy another pair of shoes with 2mm less heel to toe drop and use them along side with your old shoes : If you have a 12mm heel to drop now, buy a pair with 10mm and use them in your technique work first only and slowly transition to using the new pair only.
- step – do as in step 3, but the next pair would be 8mm
- step – …and the next one 6mm
- step – 4mm
- step – 2mm
- step – 0 drops
How long will it take? Think of it as “as long as is needed” . Steering away from injuries for as much as you can should be a priority number one on your list. So rather take it too slowly than too fast. For me it took all together for around 4 years and you know, still I didn’t stay free from injuries. So it might take you even more. If it takes you 8 years without injuries, then you’ve done a good job in respecting your body and in giving it time to adjust!
This text is not there to intimidate you or to stop you from making the change, as there are huge benefits in using the barefoot shoes! I would never change back anymore. But instead to support you and to give you a little background for how to make a successful change.
The barefoot shoes suddenly disappeared from the stores as people weren’t given any information over how to use those properly and got injured. But the problem is not in the shoe, it’s in the shoe we have all been wearing for decades. So it’s about how to restore what has been lost in order to be able to walk and run barefoot again.