Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Transitioning to Forefoot and/or Minimalist Running Shoes Part 2

Let me say, at the outset, that I am not a running coach.  Any knowledge that I have on this subject come from personal experience, not from any formal training.  Therefore, please take these comments as my own suggestions, not as expert advice.

Here is a brief summary of my history with running:

Throughout my life I have enjoyed being active.  I played various team sports until I was 12, at which point I started mountain bike racing, rock climbing, and running.  I ran long distance races competitively until I was 19 and then moved to Europe for a couple years.  For the last four years I have run off and on; mostly off because running was too painful and I enjoyed biking and climbing more.

Two years ago, while working at a local shop, the desire to run came back.  I was talking to some friends of mine and my boss, who is an ultra-marathoning nut, overheard me complaining about running injuries and how I wish I could still run.  He invited me to go running with him and told me he'd coach me on how to run with a forefoot strike.  I took him up on it and within a few weeks running became enjoyable again.

My Transition

My transition to a forefoot strike started about two months before my first run with my boss.  I have always worn "supportive" shoes with "good arch support".  When I wasn't wearing shoes I was wearing Chacos with "good arch support."  Over the years my feet had become very weak.  About two months before this run, I bought a pair of Sanuk shoes (oh wait, they're not shoes, they're sandals).  They were some of the most comfortable shoes I'd ever worn and they were on sale.  Sanuks, however, do not have "good arch support."  Man were my feet sore.  For the first three weeks or so, every time I would wear these Sanuks my feet would get sore.  The soreness came because the muscles in my foot were getting a workout and weren't used to it.  It's no different than sore arms after lifting weight.

I wore these shoes more and more and wore other shoes less and less.  As my feet strengthened, I noticed that I enjoyed shoes and sandals that had little support.

The trail run I went on with my boss was six miles long and in the snow.  He taught me that I was overstriding which was causing me to land on my heels.  He also explained that it would be very difficult to run properly in shoes with a big, built-up heel.  Because most shoes have a 12mm drop (the heel is 12mm higher than the forefoot), he'd cut a 12mm wedge out of the heels of his shoes to help him run properly.  So, I shortened my stride and quickened my cadence.

Next he taught me that I should have good posture when I'm running properly.  Because of the big heels of my shoes (and laziness), it was difficult to always have good posture.  But, I rolled my shoulders back, stuck my chest out, and focused on having good posture.  This became much easier once I got shoes that have a zero drop.  

He also taught me that my arms should be pretty compact by my side, swinging forward from the shoulder, not across my body.  I was already doing this much.

Finally, he told me it would take a little time to get used to the new technique and to stick with it.  I did, and after a couple weeks, my knee pain was gone.  As the weather warmed up, I started running on the grass at a park without shoes on.  I did this to help make sure my technique was proper (when I run without shoes, I naturally use proper technique; my posture is good, I forefoot strike, etc) and to help strengthen my feet.

One other thing that was helpful was that I read the book Born to Run  while I was making the transition, which helped me stay motivated to run.  After reading that book, I was convinced that I could eat some chia seeds, lose the shoes, and run 200 miles.  Now I'm convinced that snickers taste better than chia seeds, that marathons are plenty long (though I will do 100 miles at some point), and that, with proper running technique, I can at least run pain free.

Transition Pains

As I transitioned to a forefoot strike, my knee pain went away, but other pains came.  First of all, the day after my first run, I could barely walk.  My calves were so sore!  I hadn't given my calves that good of a workout in a very long time.  This, however, was just muscle pain from a good workout, not joint pain.  I stuck with the running and, after about three weeks, my calves were used to the running

My boss mentioned that it's best to transition slowly, starting with a short run and getting progressively longer as your body gets used to it.  I would suggest this, otherwise you do risk injury by straining weak muscles that have not yet adapted to the new strain.

Another transition pain was from plantar fascitis in the ball of my foot.  I think this was caused by older, poor-fitting shoes.  With the additional pressure on the ball of my foot and a shoe that was too narrow in the forefoot to allow my toes to splay properly, the tendons in my foot started acting up and I soon had pain shooting up my foot every time I would long on a rock or tree root (or even a slight mound) with the ball of my foot.

The more I wore these running shoes, the worse it got.  Eventually I threw the shoes out and got a pair of Altra Instinct running shoes (of which I have already written a fair amount) and the pain slowly went away.  It took about a month for the pain to totally subside.

Now I am super picky about the shoes I run in and wear.  These Altras are so comfortable they have turned me into a snob.  There are few things I am pickier about now than my running and hiking shoes.

Transitioning Tips from Altra

Considering my running "coach" is one of the founders at Altra, I often look to them for information about technique and transitioning.  This is what their website has to say about it:

Transition to Zero Drop Footwear

Most Running Shoes are built on a 2-to-1 heel-to-toe ratio (Twice as thick in the heel as the forefoot). Zero Drop footwear by ALTRA has been built on a 1-to-1 ratio (The heel and forefoot are the same heights off the ground).
A lifetime of wearing an elevated heel has neutralized your Achilles and lower calf and THEY NEED TIME TO REDEVELOP!
Depending on your foot and calf strength, many runners will experience some lower calf tightness due to the natural loading effect of running with Zero Drop. Getting into Zero Drop Shoes will be an adjustment for many. Please read the appropriate directions depending on your shoe.

Minimalist Zero Drop Shoe Transition Guide

How to transition from traditional running shoes to Altra's Zero Drop and minimalist shoes… Running Minimalist or Barefoot Transition Program for Average Feet (i.e. Occasionally walk around barefoot; doesn’t wear supportive insoles)
This program is built for runners & walkers who have average foot strength in order to help them transition to barefoot, minimal (i.e. Adam/Eve), or cushion Zero Drop (e.i. Instinct/Intuition) footwear. Candidates are people who use their feet a fair amount, exercise regularly, don’t wear overly supportive shoes or insoles, and those who may occasionally walk around or run barefoot. I suggest doing the following program as part of regular exercise routine. Simply take some time during your workout in your minimalist footwear or bare feet.
For your first outing, go 1 mile wearing your minimalist shoes or barefoot. The following day, evaluate your level of comfort*. If you have no soreness, then add a ½ mile to your routine the following day. Continue running one day, evaluating the next until you get a bit sore. Once you get sore, you’ve found your base line and foundation to build from. Once you find your baseline, simply add a few minutes every couple of days to your routine and continue to evaluate on a regular basis. Within a few short weeks, you should be able to run long distances with no problems.
*The key to being successful in phasing in a minimalist routine is to evaluate your level of comfort and to find a base line to build from. If you get to the point during your workout where you feel uncomfortable, you have probably gone too long and will most likely be a little sore the next day. This is the premise for the whole program.

Closing Thoughts
This is me again, not Altra:
Listen to your body.  If there is pain, that's your body's way of saying that something is wrong.  In my experience, it is much easier to stay motivated to make the transition if you start slowly to help minimize the pain.  If you transition too quickly and you feel a lot of calf soreness, you are less likely to go out the next day for another run.


  1. This is a timely article for me since I am currently feeling the soreness of getting into running and trying to start out with a mid/fore foot strike for the first time yesterday during a three mile run. It's definitely not an intuitive stride for me so I'm going to take your suggestion and run barefoot in the grass for a little bit until i can figure out the right form - after my calves stop burning.

    Also I think i may be experiencing some plantar fasciitis or similar internal foot pain in my right foot cause of some shoe fit and crappy gait issues. I wish I could get some coaching on form like you did, cause right now I feel like running COULD end up being fun, but right now its just awkward.

    1. Thanks for your reading and your comments, Wyatt. I think running barefoot is a great idea. I think it will definitely help you figure out the proper technique, but it MAY also help with plantar fascitis problems. It's hard to know how it will work for you, but my plantar fascitis went away once I allowed my foot to work properly by running barefoot and with proper shoes. It takes time, though, so be patient.

      My wife and I went running last night. She is trying to transition to a forefoot strike as well after a lifetime of heel striking. It was awkward for her and her calves were really feeling it. You are not alone.

  2. Thanks for another good series. The Altra shoes arrived today, so I am quite anxious to test them and the Scarpas. Both shoes are very light weight. I don't have a scale (yet) but on paper, the Scarpa beats the Altra by .4 oz. The Scarpas do feel a tad lighter, but not enough to make a real difference I suspect. The Altras are comfortable!--so much toe room, yet lacing them up as if I were to run they feel very secure to my feet. The Scarpas do have a slightly raised heel, but not so much that I think it will cause a problem for a midfoot strike. They too fit my feet well and are very comfortable. It should be a good competition between the two and I have no idea which I'll prefer--I may end up liking them both. :)

    As far as looks/style go, the Scarpas have my eye there (they conveniently match the lemon-lime color of my nano puffy). They are not overly snazzy for my taste, yet I like the plainer look of the Altras as well.

    A couple more weeks and I'll be able to run again--can't wait!

  3. Nice! Glad they arrived. Keep me updated on how they feel. I love the Altra fit. It has definitely made me very picky in choosing running shoes. There are a lot of other good options out there, but I think these Altra shoes are some of the very best. I have always been a fan of Scarpa, however, and the Spark (that was the shoe, right?) looks like a good one. Good luck on your recovery.

  4. I have worked as a family practice physician assistant and frequently advise patients on foot pain, commonly plantar fasciitis. The literature recommends a number of techniques for therapy. Some of them contradicting what has previously been posted. The common therapy is MORE SUPPORT, with more supportive footwear/boots, gel heel pads, night splints to maintain the ankle at 90 degrees to reduce nocturnal plantar flexion ( the cause of pain with those initial steps in the morning) etc. referrals to PT (physical therapy), steroid injections. I can honestly state that each of these therapies have been effective for different individuals.
    I have been symptomatic with plantar fasciitis now for about 6 months. It has not been anything debilitating to limit my activity, but as for anyone who has dealt with this already knows, the first morning steps can be fairly painful. I have consulted with a couple PT friends and there recommendations have been helpful.
    Self massage with proper technique. Placing a golf ball on the floor and pushing the most painful part of your foot on top repeatedly to further irritate and promote healing. Another technique is approaching the most painful aspect of the plantar surface (sole) of your foot from a perpendicular approach instead of along the length of the foot. Using your thumb and in a repeated saw like painful rub at the most painful spot has also been helpful. More is better with the amount of massage/pain you inflict on yourself.
    After reading your blog, I plan to experiment more with alternative footwear .

  5. Thanks Kerry for your input. I haven't asked any professionals for help with my plantar fascitis. I would have had it gotten worse. It's good to know some of those other techniques. The shoes that I have been wearing have helped me, but that definitely doesn't mean it's a cure for everyone. But I do think (but only from my own experience) that it won't hurt.

    I appreciate your input. I would suggest to readers to do plenty of their own research, especially with a trained PT or other health professional, on how to deal with injuries like this. And I would definitely trust a health professional's opinion and suggestions before mine (a recreational runner who has read a little bit).

  6. I'm going to have to disagree with you, big time.

    My argument?

    Contrary to your opening statement, you seem to be an EXCELLENT running coach!

    The advice you gave is on the mark.

    The only thing I'd add is that there's another minimalist option that's even closer to barefoot -- www.InvisibleShoe.com

  7. Thanks Steven. I appreciate it. When I first looked at invisibleshoe.com, I thought it was a joke. They look pretty cool. I'd like to try them out, but I don't think I'm man enough to handle them. I haven't really gotten into the barefoot running. My focus is running with natural form. I do like a little padding in my shoes.