Below is an article written by Camille Herron discussing how she became an elite marathoner as she transitioned into minimalist running shoes. Camille is a 2008 and 2012 Olympic Trials qualifier and 6 time marathon winner (Dallas White Rock, Mercedes, Napa Valley, Fargo, The Woodlands, OKC Memorial).
While I had already posted under my Training tab about my experience as a longtime “minimalist”, I had a few requests to do a separate blog post about it. Those who know my story, know it’s a big reason for how I went from being a 19 min. 5K, 50 mpw “hobby jogger”…. to becoming a 2:38 marathoner and putting in 120-140+ mpw the past 4-5 years. I often see people ask, “Do elites train in flats or barefoot?” Definitely, I do, and I hear of more and more of my elite running friends gravitating towards lighter shoes and some barefoot running as well. I doubt we’ll see elites racing barefoot any time soon, given their shoe sponsorships. I believe people wear what works for them, and more people of all ages and abilities are finding they like training in less shoe.
I’ve been a “minimalist” since December 2003, long before Born to Run, Nike Frees, Vibram Five Fingers, the mass media explosion, and marketing push by shoe companies. By minimalist, I’m referring to training exclusively in road flats/XC flats or barefoot. Of course, minimalism isn’t really a fad, being around for as long as humans have been on the Earth (vs. the 35-40 years for modern tennis shoes). There’s even been quite a bit of peer-reviewed research on shod vs. barefoot running (in support of going barefoot and the health benefits)– shod meaning “wearing shoes”. Going back even 10+ years, the shoe companies chose to ignore the research, stick to their pseudo-science (~this is that shoe for this or that foot type), and not contradict themselves (see: A thorn in Nikes side ).
Back when I made the decision to “go minimal”, I figured I had nothing to lose, considering I’d already seen the bottom of the barrel with so many injuries (including 7 stress fractures, 3 in my left foot). I was tired of being told I needed this or that shoe or orthotics for my supposed flat, weak feet– none of it did anything to help me stay healthy! I had never trained more than 3-4 months continuously and had pretty much given up on striving to be a competitive runner (cause I didn’t think my body could handle it). I just wanted to be able to run continuously and be pain-free.
I had read about the Africans growing up barefoot and how they have strong feet/legs and less incidence of injuries compared to shod populations (see one of the first articles I read back in 2003 ). Their domination of our sport speaks for itself! I had also noticed how the great marathoners from the 70s and 80s training in thin “plimsoles”, putting in mega-mileage and running faster than American marathoners of today.
I was taking Physics and Biomechanics around 2002-2003, and it made perfect sense that we are evolutionarily adapted to walk and run barefoot, regardless of our foot type, anatomical or biomechanical makeup, and surface. I believed our dynamic, resilient, and adaptable body is far superior to a synthetic shoe. Everything fits together, works together perfectly, and is in “equilibrium”. Shoes throw off that balance and can maladaptively change the distribution of stress (read about one of many studies here ). Even if you’ve worn shoes over a lifetime, the body is adaptable and capable of being strengthened with less or no shoe (just like what happens with training, or strength training). We really only need shoes to protect us from “modern hazards”, ~puncture wounds/infections, rather than to cushion and support (which our body innately does, much better than any shoe!). Knowing and understanding all of this, I was willing to take the risk and be my own “guinea pig”– as I called it, putting the faith back in my own body!
Back in 2003, everyone thought I was crazy to even do this, people told me I’d get hurt (really?! Worse than what I’d already been through?!), and no one wanted to listen to an average runner (despite being armed with a mass collection of PubMed research studies and anecdotal experience). I have to chuckle at how it took a mainstream book and a funkadelic shoe to finally get the shoe companies (and the public!) to change their tune! Of course, I’ve known it all along.
How I transitioned
In December 2003, I tossed out the orthotics (I’d been wearing for 4 years) and trainers and started from scratch by training in the only pair of racing flats I had at the time (Asics Tiger Paws). I eventually got some retro flats (Asics Onitsuka Ultimate 81s). My feet/ankles and lower legs were stiff and sore for the first 3 months, esp. getting out of bed in the morning. Then, one day that soreness disappeared.
When I first started, my feet would slap the ground (HARD!), overstriding with a heelstrike, and wear down the sole and midsole of the shoes quickly. I used to overpronate badly and wear down the medial side of the upper and midsole (~it would tilt inwards). I could only get around 300 miles out of a pair. Over time, my mechanics became lighter, more efficient, compact (landing more midfoot under my center of mass), and “controlled” (~strengthened the intrinsic foot and leg muscles, thus providing the “support”…. much better than any shoe!). I found I could get more mileage out of my shoes, upwards to 1500+ miles out of one pair (the limiting factor being the upper peeling off the midsole!). At the present, I change my shoes after 800-1000 miles (sole wear being the usual limiting factor, or little aches in the feet or legs). I believe flats last longer cause they force you to develop more efficient mechanics AND because there’s less material to break down and throw off your gait.
Mileage progression during the transition
I started from scratch on the mileage (was coming back from 7 weeks off with an IT band injury). I did ~10 miles per week the first month (~few miles every other day), 20 mpw the second month, and so on…. until I was up to 70 mpw after about 7 months (June-July). Not only was 70 mpw the most I’d ever run, but this was also the most consistent training I’d ever done! This consistency started to pay off in a big way, as within a year I had dropped my 5K road time from 19+ down to 17:20 and ran my first road 10K in 36:22 and 15K in 55:46. I hadn’t done quality workouts for a few years either, so once Conor started me on ~mile repeats, that helped a ton.
I’m guessing if you already have some established fitness, you could apply this concept as I did, doing “10 mpw” (of your total mileage) in flats, and over several months working up to exclusive training in flats.
Adding in the barefoot running
By March 2004 when it began to warm up, I added in barefoot running, starting with 5 min. and progressing up to 30 min. a few times a week by the summer. I would run on the smooth infield grass of a track, or go to parks with nice grass.
During this transition period, I had a severe ankle sprain training in flats (stepped in a hidden hole and “creaaaak”). If it wasn’t for the barefoot running, I wouldn’t have been able to run at all! I progressed to wearing Puma H Streets by the summer (a street version of the popular Puma Harambee track spikes), because the soft upper was compatible with my swollen ankle. I wore the Pumas for ~3 1/2 years, until I couldn’t get them anymore.
Ideally now, I would run barefoot 2-3 times a week for 20-30 min. each time (which I did when we lived near a nice grassy park in Oregon). However, this gets tricky during the wintertime in Indiana, so I only run barefoot now when the body feels like it needs it (~therapy!)– I generally do more barefoot running in the summer too. I like to do my strides and drills barefoot on grass as well, although I don’t always have this option available.
I tried running barefoot on smooth concrete one time (~4 miles)…. and developed some golf-ball-sized blisters on the balls of my feet! I’ve also run barefoot on woodchip trails– the key here was learning to relax, head to toe! I’ve walked barefoot on large gravel (can’t imagine running on that, but apparently it’s possible, see here ). It would probably take an adaptation period to thicken the skin. Being at the level I’m at right now, it’s not a risk worth taking (esp. the possibility of puncture wounds and infection). The worst things I’ve dealt with was bee stings and a puncture wound on my toe that caused me to tear my calf (and had to get an updated tetanus shot too!). I’ve stepped on all kinds of things (and even rutted ground, like when they aerate grass fields). It’s amazing cause the foot rolls over or lifts off any objects– you end up being nimble on your feet.
How long it took to fully adapt
I’d say it took about a year to fully adapt to training in flats and barefoot. The first 3 months was the toughest with the sore and stiff ankles (but never pain). The rest of my body felt good though and “in balance” (finally!). What I found was any time I felt a twinge any where (sometimes in my Achilles, or like my ankle sprain), I’d find some grass ASAP and do some barefoot running. I have cured many, many things with barefoot running– works like magic! One time I even cured a sore back from sleeping on a bad bed (for real– running barefoot seemed to align my back and make it feel better. Hallelujah!). It feels like the barefoot running shakes you out– all those little “quirks” you develop from wearing shoes.
Shoes progression over the years
I progressed to wearing Puma XC flats, then Saucony XC flats (qualified for the ’08 Olympic Trials in these, and wore them at the Trials), and eventually Brooks T5s/T6s. Although Brooks was my shoe/club sponsor for 2 1/2 years, I alternated with other company’s flats for variety and to stress the feet and legs differently. I am now sponsored by the “minimalist” shoe company, Inov-8, whom I loooooove (see the newly released Inov-8 155s to the side).
I think it’s important to rotate a variety of flats, as each shoe has it’s own idiosyncrasies. No shoe is as perfect as what exists while barefoot! This is why I think the barefoot running helps, as it shakes out those little muscle tweaks and keeps you balanced.
While I rotate a variety of flats, the shoes I wear for my main training runs is the same shoe I race in. I see this as a huge advantage, esp. the marathon, as my legs are fully adapted to my racers. It’s not a new stress to my legs and feet to go 26.2 miles in them cause that’s what I wear every day. This also helps with recovery. I like to get in a few hundred miles on my shoes before I race in them. This is kinda not good (bad Camille!), but I’ve run marathons (and won!) in a pair with 1000+ miles on them. Some shoes seem to get more comfortable the longer you wear them, and if they’re not giving you problems…. why change?! I think it’s extremely important to wear the most comfortable and broken-in pair you can for the marathon!
As I talk about under my Training tab, I prefer training on concrete. It’s predictable, has better energy returns, feels good to my legs/mechanics, and there’s less hazards to deal with than off-roads. I trained for years in trainers on grass and soft surfaces, and it didn’t help one iota with preventing injuries (esp. with all my stress fractures). Since I switched to flats 7 1/2 years ago, I’ve put in probably 80-90% of my mileage on concrete. I remember when I first did it, I was trying to run on soft surfaces, but I kept finding myself gravitating to concrete cause I noticed it felt better on my legs. I generally try to mix up the surfaces I run on to stress the legs differently, but my long runs and most of my mileage is on roads, sidewalks, and bike paths. I like hard-packed, smooth dirt and cinder too (like what you get in Colorado/Southwest USA). I don’t train on a track, but it feels good.
When we lived in Oregon and had tons of soft dirt trails at our discretion, I felt the trails made my legs sluggish, and I lost that poppiness in my legs. I don’t think one surface or another makes much difference with shoe wear either (although staying dry is a big factor for upper durability and midsole resilience). As I talked about in my post about stress fractures, there is no difference in impact force going from one surface to another, because we adjust our leg stiffness and “muscle tuning” to keep impact force the same (see FAQ on Harvard research study page ). My theory is there’s less “muscle tuning” when you’re on a flat, predictable surface, so it ends up feeling less stressful than ~off-road running.
What you wear (or don’t wear) outside of running, is just as important as your running shoes. If you’re wearing high-heeled (even 1/2-1 inch), stiff dress shoes…. and then you try to train in flats…. that’s going to screw with your feet and legs (AND Achilles/calves)! Even wearing something like clogs/sandals/flipflops, with no heel support, is going to cause you to change your gait ever-so-slightly (maybe gripping toes and shifting weight forward to keep the shoes on). Thus, it’s important to be mindful of what you’re wearing, and how that compares and contrasts to your running shoes.
The past 7 years I have gone to completely wearing flat, little-to-no-heel shoes– mostly retro running shoes, some old or new road flats, dressy/casual flats, a few pairs of sandals (with heel support), and a pair of mushy flipflops. I have worn high heels no more than 5 ocassions! I try to be barefoot as much as possible when I’m at home. Consequently, since I’ve stuck with the “flats/barefoot” mantra, I never have to deal with foot or leg soreness from wearing a minimal-support shoe cause that’s what I wear all the time and am most comfortable with. Obviously, I’m not going to force my feet to wear thick mushy shoes or dress shoes cause it hurts and feels like bricks on my feet!
My thoughts on Vibram Five Fingers
I first heard about Vibram Five Finger in 2006 when they came out and decided to get a pair in Fall 2007. Back when I got them, they had ~3 different types to choose from, so I got the Classics (cinches at the heel, no strap).
Ok, so the pair I have was NOT designed and tested for running. I don’t think they feel very good on concrete, being hard rubber and ’jarring’ the ground (too much vibration? Pods on sole not suited to running mechanics?). I really think that kind of beat up my legs and feet on concrete, despite my years of experience as a minimalist– I’d prefer to have a smooth sole that has greater surface-area contact to disperse the force. I think they’re “ok” on trails– actually, I kinda like the “squishy” feeling you have with them on trails (esp. on mud, ahhh!). I’m not so sure whether it’s mechanically ‘right’ to separate the toes. Knowing what I know, I think you could adapt, but these just don’t feel right (and not like the smoothness of barefoot running). I’ve also had problems with “pressure spots” because I have to cinch them tight to stay on my feet. No, I do not need to size down either cause I originally had gotten a size smaller, but they put too much pressure on the ends of my toes. I got some toe socks from Walmart, and they feel better with socks. I thought they’d be useful for shaking out the legs and getting that ‘barefoot feel’ in the wintertime here in Indiana, but I’d rather run barefoot on indoor turf or on the golf course when there’s no snow.
I may eventually get a pair of the latest model that’s been designed and tested for running (I’ve heard they are a lot better). However, seeing that my shoe sponsor, Inov-8, is coming out with the Evoskins, I think I will choose those over VFFs!
During the winter, I find myself running on mostly concrete, sometimes with lots of uneven snow and slick ice. I prefer to alternate pairs of more cushioned, durable road flats to handle the wet and sometimes tricky footing. I’ll put screws in my shoes too for added grip (hence the need for a thicker cushioned shoe…. I’ll do a blog post on screw shoes next winter!). I’ve worn XC flats through a few Indiana winters, although my new Inov-8s worked fantastic last winter.
At the present
I’ve been training in road flats for 7 1/2 years now, and this is the happiest and healthiest my feet and legs have been my whole career. It felt right at the beginning, and it still feels like the right thing to do. It’s allowed me to train consistently, not deal with so many overuse injuries, and develop my aerobic fitness to a high level. My only injuries have been acute, freak accidents. I AM NOT biomechanically perfect either– I’ve had lots and lots of people tell me my stride is hideous, with not very much hip flexion or extension (a lot of this being due to anatomical makeup that can’t be changed). Whether I end up crippled…. who knows (I doubt it!)– I have no regrets for doing it and am grateful for how far it’s allowed me to go with my running. The best advice I can give to others is to do what works for you, feels right, and most importantly keeps you healthy!