Transitioning to More Minimalist Running Shoes

English: An example of a barefoot runner in a ...
Running barefoot is all the rage, no?

Barefoot running and so-called minimalistic running has been all the rage the last few years.  Less is more, right?

NO!  It simply isn’t that simple.

If you are going to run barefoot or in minimalist shoes, you must have the right biomechanics and must have strong feet.  If you do not, you are likely to find yourself injured if you jump into minimalist shoes without proper preparation.

The fact is that we all have different biomechanics.  A fancy trend orchestrated by the shoe companies will not change that fact – no matter how awesome the colors those minimalist shoes come in.  That isn’t to say that we can’t make ourselves stronger so we can more effectively utilize these tools.

Why do I say this?  My own experience, of course.  When I started running in 1998, I would go into the local shoe store and buy the coolest looking, most light-weight shoe I could find.  That worked just fine for me because at the time, I was only running 3-4 miles a couple of times a week.  Every 6 months or so, I’d get a new pair.  But once I started logging more serious mileage in late 2005, I started having all sorts of knee pain and Achilles tendon pain.  So I went to my local running store and they fitted me with Asics Kayanos.  Man, I LOVED those Kayanos.  They fit so great and I felt like I was running on cushiony clouds.  But by the time I’d put about 120 miles on them, I’d start getting those aches and pains back again with a vengeance.  This was clearly not good since I was running 50 miles a week and I simply couldn’t find a credible way to pitch to my significant other that I needed to drop $125 for a new pair of running shoes every 2.5 weeks.

How to find the right shoe?

Discover your biomechanics.

Rather than relying on running stores to watch my gait, I went to see my doctor, who could have cared less about my problem (but that is another post for another day), but fortunately she referred me to the local runner’s clinic.  There, I was video-taped both walking and running on the treadmill.  The good news was that, overall, my biomechanics were decent. I have a minor hip drop on the left side, but if I keep up with core work, I should be okay.  The bad news was that I am a pretty severe late-stage over-pronator.  This means that even though I land correctly, once my foot hits the ground, my foot/arch collapses inward resulting in knee and Achilles tendon pain.

The perfectly minty shoe

Then shop around until you find “the one.”  

I followed the trend for that time, which was seeing a podiatrist to get fitted for fancy schmancy orthotics.  They were expensive, but I was excited to solve all my problems!  The problem?  They didn’t solve anything.  In fact, they caused more harm than good.  They hurt my feet.  So I went on a several-month mission to find the “right” shoes.  I tried motion control shoes (read: bricks) and everything that had any sort of indication of stability.  I must have tried at least 20 different makes/models with no luck.  But in the summer of 2006, I discovered the Mizuno Wave Alchemys  (cue the clouds parting, sunbeams shining through, and angelic, bold music).  These bad boys were sent straight from God to my feet.  They were perfect.  Lightweight, comfortable and had the perfect amount of stability.  The Mizuno Wave Alchemys led me through 6+ years of running 100% injury free.  I ran hundreds of races, PRs in every distance and I logged more than 10,000 miles with these beautiful shoes.  During the last year, I was even able to move up to the Mizuno Elixir (more lightweight and slightly less stability) to race my marathons.

Then the unthinkable happened.  As running shoe companies often do, they upgraded the Alchemys in 2012.  Unfortunately, whatever upgrade they added ruined the shoe for me.  EVERY time I wear them, I experience sharp pain on the inside of my shins.  It is unbearable.  Even worse, Mizuno does not mass-produce shoes like Asics and Nike.  So once my size in the old model sold out – they were gone.  I had enough foresight last summer to buy 2 extra pairs.  But now, there are none left to buy.

I would never have thought I’d buy into the minimalist thing, yet these are my new obsession….

A change in shoe type requires adaptation.

I finally had to accept the fact that there are other ways to fix pronation other than shoes.  I must strengthen my feet.  My legs are strong from running, I do core work, I do upper body work… so why in the world am I neglecting my feet?

To get me motivated, I promptly ordered a pair of Brooks Pure Cadence.  They are not only complete eye candy (hot pink!), they also fit like a glove.  They are more minimal than any shoes I have ever worn and I love them.  They have a lower heel drop than conventional shoes, meaning the heel is only a little higher than the toes of the shoe. (To learn more about heel drop, go here.) Even though they aren’t as minimalist as something like the New Balance Minimus or any shoe from the Inov8 line, I know the lower heel drop and relatively less shoe of the Pure Cadence will not work for me unless I strengthen my feet.  After 7 years of distance running, it is time to make these feet strong.

The amazing Yamuna foot wakers

I started out by watching a few videos discussing basic alignment and some foot strengthening exercises (see below).  I then purchased some Yamuna foot wakers and started doing strengthening exercises.  I have been at it only 3 weeks and it  has worked almost as miraculously as when I first found those Mizuno Alchemys.  I am running in my Cadences injury- free (although I am cycling them in slowly), and the heel and calf pain I have been complaining about for months is dramatically improving.  I think I am on to something!

Moral of the story:

1. Know you biomechanics;

2. Strengthen your weaknesses;

3. Get out there and dominate.


Do you do anything to keep your feet strong?  Have you switched to more minimalist shoes?

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. I have been in minimalist shoes for two years and I’ve never looked back. And quite simply the easiest way to strengthen your feet? Spend as much time as possible in bare feet–use them like they’re intended! I spend all summer w/o shoes. I walk the kids to school, walk the dog, anything else in my bare feet. And when I do wear shoes, they are zero drop, flexible shoes to allow my feet to stay strong.

  2. The Brooks Pure Cadence is probably a good transition shoe. From what I understand they are lower drop (not zero drop – the heel is raised over the toes, but by far less than conventional shoes), but not really minimal in any other way. There is lots of stability and cushioning still there, so your overpronation should be fine. The biggest adjustment, along with the feet, is with your achilles and your calves. Unless you already run on your toes, these are going to stretch a bit more to get the heel on the ground.

    Good luck with the transition and thanks for sharing the important advice to ease into something new!

    1. Thanks! I agree that it is a good transition shoe since it is not zero drop and does have some stability, but I disagree that my “overpronation should be fine” and that the only issue is the heel drop. Unless I take significant steps to increase the strength of my feet, I will still overpronate with the Cadence. Yes, it has some stability, but it is very minor compared to the Alchemy. The first few times I wore the Cadences, I really could feel it in my achilles and knees because I was still overpronating (I could actually feel my arch collapsing after I landed). The truth is, I won’t be able to wear the Cadences without injury unless I can fix the overpronating. I have to do this very slowly, and fortunately it seems to be working. But I caution anyone who switches out to so slowly and to really listen to the feedback your body is giving you. Your biomechanics won’t automatically adjust overnight and big changes in the amount of stability in your shoe should be taken very seriously.

      1. I overpronate too, but apparently not as much as you do. The cadence felt good for me in that regard. I guess that makes sense based on the fact that you love the Alchemys. I did the Nirvanas for a year and then transitioned to the Elixir before moving to Brooks. I tried to go completely neutral recently and couldn’t do it. My arch and tibialis posterior (sp?) weren’t having it. Guess I need to strengthen my feet too 🙂

  3. This post is so timely for me! I’ve been runnng in the Alchemys for quite a few years. I try others, then end up back in the Alchemys. Lately I’ve been noticing aches and pains in my knee and glutes, a little in the Achilles…so yesterday I ordered a pair of Altra Provisioness. They’re zero drop, but with an added stability wedge. I think I finally realized that it might be me instead of the shoes, so it’s time to work on building better mechanics.

    1. Interesting! I hadn’t heard of the Altra Provisioness, but just read about them and watched the product video. Please let me know how you like them after you try them out. Are you doing any strengthening exercises/stretches for your feet as well?

      1. I’m definitely going to work on strengthening and stretching my feet, and continue my hip/core exercises. I’ll keep you posted on my transition.

  4. I’ve been experiencing similar problems with trying to find the right shoe and combating some bio mechanical issues. I’m working right now to strengthen my feet and have found yoga to be very helpful

    1. I didn’t even think about yoga, but I can see where it would be very helpful. Thanks! Just one more reason I need to get myself back into the yoga studio….

  5. Several thoughts on this post, as it’s a journey I’ve been on for years too. First, too many runners view minimalism as the end instead of a means to an end. The goal is to run as efficiently and injury free as possible. For some runners (though not as many as shoe companies, shoe salespeople, sports medicine doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors would have them believe), support in the form of controlling shoes or orthotics are necessary. For a far greater number of runners though, such tools are just band-aids that cover over the underlying imbalances or weaknesses that create inefficiencies and injury risks.
    My journey has gone from traditional (Asics GEL-1100 series, Nike whatever whatevers, Mizuno Wave Riders, etc.) to lower heel-to-toe drop and I’m confident will ultimately end with some semblance of a minimal shoe (note – the Kinvaras, which I’m currently using, and the Pure Cadence you mentioned are really more of a transitional shoe, as they still have more cushioning than a minimalist shoe does). However, this may not mean that I run all my miles in minimalist shoes, as I believe firmly that runners are best served by rotating among different types of shoes such that they are addressing different muscles. Having 3-4 shoes of different types (for me now it’s Kinvaras – 4mm drop neutral, Asics Gel Lyte33’s – 6mm drop neutral, and Nike Lunarfly’s (10mm drop with mild stability) is a good strategy, and you may drop one shoe to add another (like letting the new Vittara’s from Saucony with zero drop replace the Lunarfly’s) as you progress in your strengthening.
    But the point is it’s the strengthening and mobility work that’s key, even down to the fine motors of your feet. I’m working on a mammoth set of posts and guest posts (even longer than this comment – with more parenthetical statements!) on this very topic over the next two weeks. Be prepared to be dazzled by such terms as “small foot”, “toe yoga”, “proprioception”, and “dorsiflexion”. After all, all the cool kids are dorsiflexing their ankles these days.
    OK, I’ll stop now. I need more coffee. By the way, good post, and I think you invented one more word to describe the new trend with “minimalistic”. And Miss Zippy is also right – barefoot all the way! Except when you’re running, of course.

    1. Haha – I look forward to your posts! You made some very good points here – particularly with regard to rotating shoes. I completely agree and am planning on using my Mizuno Elixirs too. Maybe I need to think of trying other models out as well…..

    2. I believe in shoe hedging too! Although I do not mess with heel drop after my Pure Project experience. I’m scared!

      There was a really interesting article on the NY Times well blog that I posted on our FB page over the weekend that suggested that runners almost universally heel or midfoot strike at easy paces and only forefoot strike at faster paces. I have always been able to get away with minimalist flats for track workouts and races, so I wonder if there’s something to that – we can get away with more minimalist footwear the faster we run. Also, I am always curious what kind of training these minimalists are doing. I know Camille Herron does well in her inov8s and runs crazy miles, but most of the other elites and subelites I know where regular old trainers for easy runs.

      1. Almost all mileage I do at faster than MP now is done up on my forefoot (and my calves feel it, though fortunately in a good way). However, I read the article you mentioned in a different way, that more elite and better trained runners, with a long history of running barefoot (or even walking barefoot) tend to be forefoot/midfoot runners at any pace.
        That being said, I’m looking forward to some heel-striking in a lunchtime recovery run today in my clodhopper Lunarfly’s.

  6. Ladies–So sorry I am just seeing these questions from you! Anyhow–yes, I was in stability shoes and orthotics before making the switch.I was a huge over strider/heel striker. In other words, I had super weak feet. The transition took quite a while. I did use pure barefoot running to improve my form, though, which I think does speed up the process. However, weak feet can only take the tiniest bit of this. Patience is a BIG virtue when it comes to the transition. Also, I think it is an ongoing process. I feel like I can always do things to improve my form. Do I work that hard on it now? No, but I probably should still do work on it!

  7. Hey Mindi,
    Glad to see you’re feeling the benefits of improving the fitness of your feet! I’m always amazed at how much of a difference it can make for people.

    The two biggest recommendations I give people who are interested in barefoot running, barefoot fitness, or just improving the health of their feet and their energy…are these:

    1 – Get truly BARE
    2 – Appreciate the word GRADUAL and take the transition slow

    Not sure how much you’ve done in just bare feet, but I would really recommend it. The feedback you get (and therefore the adjustments your body can make) is incredible…and it’s something no “barefoot” or minimalist shoe will ever be able to match.

    Best of luck and keep killin it!

    – Steve