My Minimalist Running Shoe Saga

You might have noticed that I’ve been quiet around here over the past week or so.

No, it’s not that I’ve fallen into groupie-dom on the Backstreet Boys / New Kids on the Block tour, despite any Facebook rumors you may have heard.

The real reason is that I’ve been busting my tail to put together some really good free stuff for you that’ll finally be available this week.

Tomorrow I’ll be publishing a 16-page special PDF report that’s all about the crucial mistakes people make when they try to train for their first half marathon, mistakes that often leave them injured, discouraged or both.

And of course, the report explains what you need to do to avoid those missteps.  It’s something you’ll find extremely useful if you’re just starting to think about a half marathon and wondering about what it might take for you to do it, or if you’ve tried in the past but struggled with it.

But that’s for tomorrow.  Today it’s Memorial Day, so since the audience is probably a little thin, I’ve got something different than usual.  A little story, if you will.  It’s the answer to the question — which I get ALL the time — “Matt, how come you don’t run in Vibram Five Fingers anymore?”

It all started as a Boston-qualifying present.

Vibram Five Fingers Mens KSO 04 300x199Like so many other runners, maybe even you, I was led to Vibram Five Fingers when I read Born to Run. I had been curious about the shoes-with-toes for a while, but in a show of restraint that was completely uncharacteristic, I delayed buying a pair until my marathon was finished, the marathon for which I was training so hard to qualify for Boston.

“Not worth the risk,” I said.

The risk, of course, was of getting injured.  Of forcing all those small muscles in my feet, which had so long been neglected in modern running shoes, to do some work. And perhaps they would not be up to the task.

But as soon as I did run that marathon (and did qualify), I bought a pair of Vibrams as my reward for qualifying.

Vibram Five Fingers

Although I enjoyed the novelty of my Five Fingers, I pretty quickly noticed three unsettling things:

  1. Running on roads was not very comfortable.
  2. I got painful blisters from a protruding seam on the instep of the shoes.
  3. Whether on trail or road, I still landed on my heels when I wore them.

This third point was particularly troublesome.  I was under the impression that Vibrams were supposed to “automatically” correct a heelstrike by making it too painful to land on your heel, when there was no cushioning there to protect it.  And yet I still did heelstrike without much pain.  If I were to continue landing on my heel without the protection offered by big, cushion-y running shoes, what might happen?

I continued running in this way without problems, slowly building up my mileage in the Vibrams as I was instructed to do.  I stuck to the trails, wore five-toed socks to counter the blisters, and tried to focus on midfoot-striking.  But inevitably, after a few miles I would tire and revert to heelstrikes when I forgot to pay attention.

During this time, I made the thrilling discovery that I could actually run in my Five Fingers on serious, technical trails — those covered with rocks, roots, and all manner of things that should hurt like hell to step on — with almost no pain.  I loved this.  The feeling of running in the woods, receiving feedback through your feet from the mostly-soft trail, punctuated by sharp rocks or roots and your foot’s instantaneous and infinitesimal adjustments to distribute the load without much pain, make up about as sensual an experience as running can become.

And then one day, after a particularly fast and tough eight-mile trail run, my heel started hurting.

The pain caused me to compensate, finally landing on my midfoot like I was supposed to.  I believe it was this sudden change that caused the top of my foot to start hurting, and then the ball of my foot to start hurting.  And the pain didn’t go away.

Looking back, I think it was wearing my Vibrams to the track that did most of the damage.  I had heard about some track team, I think Stanford, practicing in bare feet, so that seemed an ideal place to wear them.  In hindsight, I realize that was some of the hardest heelstriking I did, and is probably more to blame than trail running or even easy running on the roads for the injury.

I put the Vibrams away, in search of something a little less extreme.

Brooks Green Silence

Brooks Green Silence Black Kelly Green 1 300x134From the first steps I took in the Brooks Green Silence at the Marine Corps Marathon expo, I noticed something remarkable.  Although not advertised as a feature, the Green Silence did what the Vibrams did not — they made me land on my midfoot instead of my heel.

I wore them for that marathon and fell in love with them.  The Green Silence became my everyday running shoe, striking a compromise by providing some cushioning like a traditional shoe, but remaining extremely lightweight, without pronation control, without much of a heel-toe drop, and without much support in the upper.  The eco-friendliness only sealed the deal.

But the ball of my foot kept on hurting.  Not badly, and not getting any worse, but it was there.  I noticed it for the first few minutes of every single run.

Even after a month of very little running when I took a break after the doing the Vermont 50-miler and Marine Corps Marathon within five weeks of each other, the pain was still there when I came back.  Stubbornly refusing to return to traditional shoes, I figured I’d just have to live with the pain.

New Balance 890

detail hero template 400x400 300x300And then, like a gift from above, a pair of New Balance 890′s showed up at my doorstep for me to try out and review.  I didn’t expect to like them much, given that they were more traditional, “neutral cushioning” shoes, but because they were extremely lightweight for the category, I agreed to give them a chance.

When I first put the 890′s on, it felt like I was walking around on a platform — it had been over a year since I had worn a shoe with a sole this big, and I couldn’t imagine actually running in these huge things.  But then a strange thing happened: I rediscovered why cushioned shoes got so popular in the first place.

I ran Boston in them.  They felt great.  And then I started doing track workouts in them.  They still felt great.   And so, I realized, did the ball of my foot.

Within just a few weeks of wearing the 890′s on all of my runs (which were mostly track workouts), the dull pain that had bothered me for seven or eight months was gone.  Giving cushioning another chance was all it took, and I hope that if you take one thing from this long post, it’s that: Don’t be stubborn.  If minimalist shoes aren’t working for you, there’s no shame in going back to cushioned ones.

New Balance Minimus

New Balance MT10 Minimus Trail 1 300x300Just this weekend, I’ve started wearing the Minimus, a minimalist-style trail shoe that New Balance sent me to try.  (The Minimus comes in a road version too, but for now, I have no plans to get any more minimal on my road runs than the Green Silence.)  The Minimus is equipped with a sturdy Vibram sole, but it looks like a normal shoe, only with a very low profile, and lots of room in the toe box.

I’ve only worn the Minimus on trails, and I have no plans to try it on any other surface.  But so far, I really like it.  The inside is seamless and padded enough that you can wear it without socks, and sole is just thin enough that you feel what you’re stepping on.

A full review is to come, but only after I’ve put in some more miles in these shoes and on more technical trails.  It’ll take me a little while to get my mileage up in them, though, since I’ll be proceeding with caution after my experiences of the past year.  (The Minimus even come with a “Caution” tag that warns about overuse, and recommends running only about 10% of your mileage in them initially.  Very cool of you, New Balance.)

A shoe for every purpose

Something tells me that I’m on the right track.  I’m wearing my cushy 890′s for speed workouts, and I even think they help me get a better workout than the Green Silence or Vibrams did on the track, by allowing for a longer stride. (The others acted as a sort of built-in governor the prevented me from going at full speed on 200 and 400 meter bursts.)

This longer stride, of course, is what many barefooters blame for the injuries caused by traditional shoes, but I’ve found that my time in minimalist shoes has now made the midfoot strike natural for me, even in cushioned shoes like the 890′s, so I’m not overly concerned about this.

For my tempo runs, which are somewhat slower and usually on roads or non-technical trails, I’m wearing the Green Silence and loving them just as much as ever.  Only now the ball of my foot has stopped hurting in them, having had a chance to heal in the 890′s.

And for technical, “real” trails, I’m in a combination of the Minimus and my standard trail shoe (the Adidas AdiZero).  I tend to think that on the trails, a lower-profile shoe is far easier to adjust to than on the roads or the track, since the nature of trail running lends itself to quick, short strides and a variety of movements anyway, rather than allowing one to break into the long, uncontrolled and supposedly dangerous stride that comes from cushioned shoes.

So I’m feeling great right now.  But it’s only been a few weeks, so time will tell if this truly is a happy medium.

Whew!  That was a lot.

If you hung in there, I hope maybe this has helped you make a little bit of sense out of these different types of shoes, especially if you’re on the fence about minimalist running and not sure where to start.

Thanks for reading, enjoy your Memorial Day, and don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the half-marathon mistakes PDF report and a few other surprises in store for this week!

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Comments

  1. Can’t argue with your experiences–you need to do whatever works for you. I know several people that have had issues with going from “regular” shoes to the VFFs. It’s too easy to overdo it since the VFFs don’t allow sufficient ground feel and feedback. It’s better to try pure barefoot running at first, then move toward minimalism. I guarantee you won’t heel strike while running barefoot! You won’t do too much, too soon either. You’ll likely learn proper technique and running form…which should carry over to shod running. I mix barefoot, VFF, and minimalist shoe running and it seems to work for me.

    We all need to listen to our bodies and do what works for us…if we are running injury free and happy…no need to change. Listen to our bodies, not the shoe companies, friends, or media.

    Hope you like the NB Minimus Trail. It’s one of my regular trail shoes for ultramarathons. Wish it was zero dropped, but the 4mm heel differential is OK for me. The extra heel helps when I walk the hills in ultras.

    -Chris

  2. I will agree with the other Chris on the mix of shoes and barefoot. Although I do not own any VFF, I did see on their website when I was considering them that they recommend running barefoot on hard surfaces first – http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/faq/barefoot_running_faq.htm

    My journey to the mid-foot has included a mix of the NB MT101, the Minimus Road & Trail, and a lot of barefoot walking. In addition, I have found that wearing more minimal shoes all the time (work, etc.) has also helped me get away from the dreaded heel strike.

    BTW, I absolutely love my Minimus Trail. The “feel” for the trail combined with just enough support is awesome! Yesterday I ran a 7 mile very technical trail race in them and was extremely pleased.

  3. I don’t run in my VFFs anymore, but they are my every day walk around shoes and that has helped a ton in and of itself. As you found, they offer too much protection without enough cushioning which lets you run with poor form and do too much too fast, I think. If I want to run barefoot (or nearly so), then I’ll just run barefoot or will wear my huaraches. Normally, I’ll wear my normal (minimal) shoes that I’d been using for years and that works well too.

  4. I agree with you that there is a shoe out there for everyone and that minimalist running is not a good fit for every person.

    That said, I adore my Brooks Green Silence. My foot pain was completely eliminated when I started wearing them and I feel like a more efficient runner because I can feel that I am not heel striking as much.

    I can’t wait to read the PDF tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it.

  5. Hey Matt, check out Merrel’s Trail Glove as well. I have been transitioning into it for all of my runs (mostly trail), and love it!

  6. I am batteling Plantar Faciitus and read Born to Run, so of course I picked up VFF. I broke them in slowly (I did feel the same instep inseam pain so got some socks to eliminate that) but never did get relief from the pain. I also run with Spira and still suffer heal pain. Even after physical therapy, electric shock and injections.

    I guess now I will have to barefoot running.

  7. Elizabeth Eaton says:

    I was never ready to toss out my cushioned Asics, but felt better after reading your thoughts on the subject. I want to remain as injury free as possible, and appreciate your honesty. I do use minimalist Nikes occasionally, 8 oz. Saucony trail shoes, and run barefoot on the beach. Overall, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

  8. I was so excited for minimalist running when I heard McDougall speak – I was running into serious knee pains on long runs, and all my race photos showed some hard core heel stomping on every stride.

    I was able to adjust my running to not heel strike in my VFFs – but something about the way my toes fit in them is uncomfortable, and my left small toe and bone that runs down my foot ends up hurting after a while in them. It got so bad last summer that I essentially had to ditch them entirely.

    I switched to a mix of the Adizeros and the Saucony Progrid Kinvaras. I really really love the Kinvaras – I seem to naturally midfoot strike in them and they are so very comfortable.

    The only trail run I did in my Adizeros was that Phunt 50k; they didn’t work particularly well that day, but it was so muddy it is hard to tell. I picked up a pair of Saucony Peregrines which are supposedly based on the Kinvaras, but with a better tread and a slightly beefier body. I’ll be using them for future trail runs.

  9. I am an older runner who has worn Superfeet inserts for years after a nasty case of plantar fasciatis. I, too was intrigued with the minimalist movement and bought the Green Silence. They felt sooo great to run in ( I had already corrected my stride with Chi running which made my last marathon easier). They felt so wonderful that I apparently threw caution to the wind, putting in too much mileage, and now have persistent pain in both feet even though I have not worn the Green Silence in a month. I hope to get back to them because I am craving that wonderful feeling they gave me on my runs. But now this weak-footed, older runner will have to start cautiously from scratch after my injuries heal.

  10. Just a plug for New Balance. LOVE them! All of them. I have never gone wrong with a pair of NB shoes and as a bonus, many of their models are made in the USA!

  11. Jon Weisblatt says:

    As a physical therapist I agree that different strokes fir different folks. hasven’t seen any studies yet on the amount of stress fractures caused by a combo of barefoot/VFF shoes with overuse. I actually tried to put a pair of VFF’s on but couldn’t even get my toes in. I didn’t have the patience to fight with them. I ran the Vermont City Marathon 2 days ago in Asics DS Racers, albeit with an orthotic, which is still more minimal than my Asics 2160′s with the orthotic. As with Eileen earlier, the Chirunning has helped my form mre than any shoe.

  12. Great post Matt. While I love my Vibrams (Classic, KSO, and Bikilia) I know that they are not for everyone, and I think that it is great advice to not stick with minimalist shoes if they are not working for you.

    I have thankfully not suffered from any serious injuries since transitioning to Vibrams (just some forefoot pain that I think was from overworking my feet and increasing my mileage too quickly). I am trying to work up to half and then a full marathon in them, but I know that I have to take the time to get my feet use to running un-shod. I think that the thing that sucks for most runners who try and find the right shoe that is that it costs so damn much to experiment and find what works. For me, I cannot know how a shoe feels until I have run in it for a while, and then, opps, you cannot give it back if it doesn’t work!

    Thanks again for giving a great post on the whole minimalist journey that many of us are undertaking as well.

    -Jonathan

  13. Just finished reading Born to Run and was very curious about the Vibram shoes. But still on the fence about the whole thing. I had no idea there were other minimalist shoe options. Thanks for the reviews! :-)

  14. I am definitely with ya on doing what is right for your feet. I started running in my Vibrams after running Chicago in October. I had already tried to change my stride up a bit – shortening it and focusing on mid-foot strike, so I think it was a little more natural for me to run in the Vibrams. I had absolutely NO heel strike in them, but it definitely killed my calves for DAYS. But, I am a firm believer in doing what’s right for your feet. A question for you: Have you ever heard/tried Newton training shoes? They have a bar-type thing on the bottom of the shoes that force you to run mid-foot. I’ve tried on a pair of my friends and loved them, but would rather wear my Vibrams than those.

  15. i really like this post, as i think people underestimate how different shoes are and that you really need to find one that works for your own foot. wish it was easier sometimes, but what can you do!

  16. I’ve been curious about Vibrams for a while – I’ve never tried them (actually I’ve never run in anything besides Asix), but I’ve seen as least one person running in them on the track at my gym. I’ve heard several people give them mixed reviews though, and I’m quite paranoid about injuries, so I’m not in a big hurry to try them.

    The problem with me for buying shoes (which again is why I’ve been sticking to Asix) is that most of the other brands I know of use leather, which I don’t want to wear. I haven’t looked into those minimalist shoes though – if they’re synthetic that might be a good match for me.

  17. Hey Matt,

    The timing of this post is excellent because it’s bringing me back to reality, regarding my choice of footwear.

    I jumped on the Vibram bandwagon several months ago, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never be able to wear them on longer road runs, due to the constant pounding. I still love them for walking around, shorter trail runs, and the occasional track workout, but I’ve switched back to a neutral-cushioned trainer for my road running.

    On another note, I had the good fortune to attend a 90-minute lecture/Q&A session with Jeff Eggleston at a local running shoe store. Jeff just won the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2:16ish, and is gunning for the Olympics in 2012. Although he now trains in Flagstaff, AZ and is coaced by Dr. Jack Daniels, he grew up here in the Rochester area, so he returns to visit and race now and then.

    The entire session was fascinating. He is such a friendly, humble guy. But the two highlights for me were his discussion of diet and footwear.

    Jeff has been a vegan for about a year-and-a-half, and many of the benefits he described are exactly those that you’ve covered extensively here in your blog.

    Then, when somebody asked him whether he trained barefoot, as well as what he thought of the minimalist movement, he kind of chuckled and said that from the beginning, he never bought into it.

    His most memorable comment was about the fact that humans today are basically born with shoes on their feet, and they take their first steps in shoes. Plus, he also added that East Africa may be covered with sand, dirt, and other soft, forgiving surfaces, but the United States is covered with paved roads and concrete sidewalks.

    Also interesting, his shoe of choice for all racing and most roadwork is the Green Silence.

    Another great post, Matt!

  18. I’ve been running in nothing but Vibrams for almost 2 years. At the beginning I suffered through sore achiles, top of the foot pain, and soreness on the balls of me feet. Then all those pains faded away. I think people really underestimate the amount of time and distance, that Too Much Too Soon means. Since I switched my knee pain has disappeared and now I can enjoy running again. When I started out I could feel every pebble under my feet when I landed and now that my feet are tougher, it takes a really sharp rock to make me cringe. I run on concrete, wooded paths, and gravel roads. All of which I can handle just fine. I’ve also tried to run again in regular shoes and immediately felt discomfort. I’ll stick to the minimalist design and just enjoy pain free running.

  19. I have a pair of VFFs that I used to run in. I took it slow when I started, and never experienced any pain or foot problems. They were definitely successful in getting me to shorten my stride and stop heel striking. However, I just don’t like running in them. It sucks when you land on a rock, and I feel slow when I wear them. So I’ve been running in the saucony racing flat type shoes I had from before. I am very interested in trying the Green Silence or some other minimalist type shoe.

    However, I do like working out in my VFFs. They add a level difficulty to certain exercises (like lunges) and forece you to work on your balance.

  20. I’m still trying to transition into FiveFingers and recently started noticing the blisters in the toes, just like you experienced. I really don’t want to go back to regular runners because one foot is slightly smaller than the other, making the arch support press into my foot in a weird way; I’m starting to like the FiveFingers more and more, but may have to try some other minimalist shoes after reading this.

  21. KSOs and Classics had a seam that could cause a blister. Bikilas don’t have that seam. I never had a problem with VFFs but I’ve never worn cushy running shoes, either. (well, I tried it for a few months a couple years ago and didn’t like it. The cushy shoes felt like clunk clunk clunk. awkward) VFFs were a big step up from All Stars for me.
    Those New Balance there look nice.

    • I actually got a blister on the inside/arch area of my right foot from a seam in the Bikilas. That spot has now hardened enough and the seam seems to have softened enough for it to not bother me at all, but there’s still that seam there in the arch in the Bikilas.

  22. As a martial artist for many years as well as a runner, VFFs were like the best thing that happened to my feet. I train for hours every week, barefoot, and have done so for many years, which shrank down my transition period considerably, and I find that VFFs provide just enough cushioning to make running on hard surfaces and trails comfortable without taking away the feedback and lightness. They have helped my foot-strike, although I had to make a conscious effort, it was much easier in these shoes. (I really like them for training outside, too). As a person who never liked shoes much (and spends as little time in them as possible) I’m in love with them, and I’d recommend them to other people who like the sensation of letting your toes spread out without worrying about sharp stuff.
    On the other hand, I still keep my well-cushioned Asics for long road runs or extended periods on my feet, especially if my feet are sore, and I love those too.
    I think it’s really cool that there are so many options available to runners and athletes, and I think experimenting with different running styles and foot-wear can help “shake things up.”

  23. JoAnn Kenyon says:

    Thanks Matt. I am just lookinginto the minimalist shoes and got a pair of Minimus to try, slowy. Your info is great.

  24. Hi!
    I run on a treadie and do elliptical workouts as well as step. Too hot to go outside – Middle East.
    My ascics gels were great but now I get ball of the foot, in both feet, fatigue type pain with a slight numbness as if I am pounding too hard. (Which indeed may be the case!) however they were great to start with. I did break my right ankle YEARS ago and have pins and plates holding it together but no problem with it, got good physio and faithfully did my exercises in determination and got back running within 9 months. Any suggestions please, for a type of runner to wear? Put a metatarsal gel pad in, no diff. Would a wider shoe help? Thanks guys!!

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  1. [...] stay on the bandwagon. I researched issues that other runners had with minimalist running and found Matt’s post about minimalist running at No Meat Athlete. He said something I needed to hear, “Don’t be stubborn.” And you know, he was [...]

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