I've been running in something other than conventional trainers for almost four years now. My initial interest in wearing a more basic, simple, lightweight, low-profile shoe occurred when a physical therapist prescribed rock-hard fiberglass custom orthotics and motion control shoes for me to get over some chronic hip problems I was having in my sophomore year of high school (1999). At the time, I was excited because the new inserts seemed to help immensely to keep me injury-free, but in the back of my mind was the previous years of empirical evidence that I had that suggested that a more simple mode of footwear was sufficient.
When I started running in 1995 I wore a pair of circa 1980 Nike Waffle Trainers (something like the Nike Cortez's) that I picked up in a Goodwill store for a dollar or so. I ended up putting about 3000 miles on these shoes before the sole completely separated from the upper and Shoe Goo wouldn't hold it anymore. Over the year and a half or so that I wore these shoes (including finishing my first marathon in 3:50:11 at age 12 in Okoboji, IA) I was tiny--about 4'10'' and 75-80 lbs. Yet, in later years, I could never get out of my mind the thought that I ran all of those miles injury-free in such a simple shoe; nor could I ignore all of the historical photos I saw of runners from the 1960s and 1970s racing and training in completely flat-soled shoes with little to no cushioning. I read about Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway, and Jack Bacheler logging 170+ mile weeks in Vail, CO in preparation for the 1972 Olympic Trials and then would see pictures of them on training runs wearing basically racing flats.
However, it wasn't until early 2004 when a good friend of mine on the Colorado College XC team, Kiran Moorty, started talking about the benefits of running in "minimalist" shoes that I started actively researching the notion and worked up enough interest to pursue the concept myself. (Notice Kiran racing barefoot in that link--he went on to finish about seven seconds out of All-American in that race. Another good friend of mine, Julian Boggs, finished 3rd at NCAA Div. III XC Nationals last year running barefoot. Boggs also paced for me in the 2006 LT100.)
Up until that spring, I'd run exclusively in motion-control or stability shoes with the same fiberglass custom orthotics. But, I was becoming pretty fed up with the clunkiness and general unwieldy nature of my footwear/orthotics and was simultaneously becoming interested in the apparent injury-prevention benefits of running in very minimal, flexible shoes. This led to doing research on the evolution of running, human physiology, primitive running tribes, etc. to the point that I thought--despite the risks--I should give it a shot myself.
Starting in March of 2004 I gradually started doing runs without my orthotics. I began with maybe 30 minutes a few times a week and over the course of 2 weeks or so built up to doing all of my running(100-120mpw at the time) without the orthotics. I was wearing the Asics GT 2070s at the time. At the end of this period I had one 21 mile long run where I started out with the orthotics in, but my lower legs hurt so I took them out after 3 miles and my legs immediately felt better and my pace instantly dropped over 30 seconds per mile. It was one of the most amazing, epiphanal runs of my life. At this same time, I began to consciously pay attention to my form. I was traditionally a full-on heel-striker, but now began trying to run with a shorter, quicker, lighter stride, higher cadence, and more of a mid-foot/fore-foot strike.
From there I went to an alleged racing flat--the Nike TC Triax (now discontinued, but it is on the beefier side...I would compare it to the present-day Nike Marathoners). The move to these was fairly quick--less than a week--and then over the course of the next month I moved down to Asics DS-Racers and then the New Balance 240s...a very light, flexible flat. The New Balances were the first shoe I cut the heel off of in order to make it equal to the forefoot height so as to increase ankle mobility in my running gait. I was fully transitioned into the New Balances by the middle of June of 2004--a full three months after I'd first started ditching my orthotics; to be sure, it's a slow process. I also did a lot of running in the Asics 15-50 XC flat during this time.
In May, I started doing some barefoot running to further strengthen my feet and aid in making the minimalist transition. Initially, this was only 10minutes or so--all on grass--tacked onto the ends of my usual training runs. I also started going barefoot as much as possible in every-day life (walking around campus, going to class, getting kicked out of a lot of stores, etc.). By the end of June I was up to 30 minute runs completely barefoot, and by August I was completely comfortable doing hour runs totally barefoot (still, all on grass/dirt with small amounts of pavement). During that summer I also did a lot of "nearly barefoot" hiking on all sorts of terrain in a pair of water socks that were basically less sophisticated versions of the Vibram FiveFingers. I summitted Humphreys Peak in Arizona, hiked the North Bright Angel trail to Phantom Ranch and back, and hiked to Havasu Falls and back (20 miles roundtrip) in my water socks (I was living in Flagstaff, AZ that summer).
In August, I started running in Puma H-Streets very regularly---basically for all of my running. These are absolutely beautiful minimalist shoes that are, unfortunately, discontinued. They have been updated with the Puma Saloh that I am interested in trying out but I'm not interested in all of the new synthetic overlays. The H Street was such a great shoe (I would put 1000-1500 miles on a pair--long after my foot would start poking out the side of the upper) that I never really endeavored to go for anything lower than this. I once ran to the top of Pikes Peak and back in the H Streets, but couldn't go as fast as I wanted on the way down because of the lack of protection. However, in the spring/summer of 2005 I logged several 200 mile weeks and a couple 30 and 40 milers in nothing but H Streets. Their main drawback was their lack of traction. The outsole was nothing but little nubbins that I would wear down fairly quickly. These shoes look to me to be a good update to the H Street with greater traction and durability (but, probaby a bit heavier).
So, for me, the meat of the transition (down to truly "flat" shoes and substantial barefoot running) took 3-4 months.
When I hear people say that they could never run in more minimal shoes--that it would tear their body up--I agree, because without the proper adapation period immediately starting to run in flatter, more flexible shoes for all of their running would be a horrible idea. Transitioning to these types of shoes should include a gradual enough increase in workload that the feet/legs are never unduly sore. It's a matter of astutely listening to one's body.
So, one might ask, why don't you do all of your running in the Puma H Streets or a cross-country flat (if I'm so in love with those shoes)? Well, because I've found that running on rocky trails does indeed require a bit of protection, too, if I want to be able to run as fast as I possibly can over that terrain. Up until July of 2006 I was doing all of my running either barefoot, in water socks, or in the H Streets or some XC flats. However, in the Leadville Marathon that year I bruised my forefoot while bombing down the exceedingly rocky descent in that race while wearing the Puma La Bamba. These shoes have even thinner forefoots than it looks in the picture.
I decided that if I wanted to continue running and racing the Rocky Mountain trails that I love I needed a little bit more protection. So, I went out and bought a pair of La Sportiva Slingshots--still the beefiest shoes I've run in in the past four years. Although they aren't my absolutely ideal shoe, they are definitely one of the best things out there in the trail running market that I've found. I really like their thin midsole through the midfoot and forefoot, but the heel is still too built up for me, so that's where my major modification comes in.
To lower the heel, I take a serrated kitchen knife and slice off the outsole and a lot of the midsole of the back half of the shoe. I basically start right behind the grey, hard plastic external heel counter and then cut all the way up until about the "Frixion" logo in the midfoot portion of the outsole. This way, the sole thickness is pretty much even all the way from the forefoot to the rearfoot.
The other things I do to the Slingshots is cut an inch or so off the top of the tongue and then pull all the foam padding out of the tongue; I like the fit better and it cuts weight and doesn't soak up as much water. I also remove the insoles to reduce weight and have a better feel for the trail.
With the Slingshots, I would much prefer a more "racing flat" fit and feel to them, more akin with a road shoe, but it seems almost every company is kind of averse to this. I suspect they're afraid of cramping the toebox so that people don't lose toenails or that they think the upper materials necessary for such a fit aren't durable enough. However, I wore the Slingshots in both the 2006 Leadville Trail 100 and the 2007 Rocky Raccoon 100.
The other shoe that I've been very happy with is the Inov-8 f-lite 250. This shoe best mimics the racing flat type fit that I've been looking for in a trail running shoe. I also shave a bit off the heel of these and remove the insoles. I wore these shoes quite satisfactorily in the 2007 Leadville Trail 100.
I end up wearing the Sportivas and Inov-8s for my typical morning mountain runs of 3hrs or longer and I wear a dilapidated pair of Puma H Streets for my evening runs of 1-2hrs on less gnarly trails. I am looking forward to trying out the Vibram FiveFingers as an alternative to barefoot in colder climates (I now live in Bozeman, afterall) and, hopefully, for my evening runs as a replacement to the H Streets.
What are the reasons for wanting to run in minimalist shoes? Almost all shoes (even many racing flats) have an unnecessary amount of rise from the forefoot to the rearfoot. By training in a shoe with this sort of heel lift, the Achilles tendon is constantly shortened and underworked with each step. The raised heel also limits the range of motion in the ankle upon footstrike and promotes a heelstrike instead of a more midfoot or forefoot initial footplant.
One’s footplant while running barefoot is much different than while running with shoes. If one were to run barefoot across a stretch of asphalt, I guarantee that he or she wouldn’t run with a heelstrike for very long! Thus, a big motivating factor—for me—in wearing minimalist shoes is to encourage my body to adopt a running gait (shorter, quicker strides that land closer to the body's center of mass) that will allow my feet to take advantage of the most natural cushioning mechanism that was built into our anatomy—the resilience of the Achilles tendon, calf muscles, and ankle joint.
Running with a fore-to-midfoot strike in minimalist shoes almost completely disallows overstriding; increases one’s agility on uneven terrain (a definite plus in trail running); strengthens all of the often overlooked supportive muscles, tendons and ligaments of the feet and lower legs; and, in the end, hopefully cultivates a more propulsive, strong, less injury-prone stride. Decent slow-motion shots of the kind of footplant and running style I'm talking about can be seen in this video clip. (For a better look, download the file here.) If one looks closely, he or she can see that the initial contact with the ground is with my outer forefoot; I then roll in, touch down with my heel, and push off (I'm not just running exclusively "on my toes").
Additionally, I am a big proponent of simplifying my life (and thus, my running), and believe that the human body was meant to run, and that simple biological evolution couldn’t have been so wrong, so why not let the foot and lower leg do what it was designed to do (I've read many peer-reviewed articles that have concluded that the human body evolved to run) and not inhibit it with some big clunky shoe?
Of course, basically from birth, the majority of the human population is corrupted by being placed in very “supportive” almost cast-like shoes and our feet and lower legs become very weak. I myself used to run in so-called stability shoes with hard plastic, custom orthotics, but over the past three years I’ve tried--and succeeded in--leaving those albatrosses behind.
Because so many folks have grown up wearing shoes and the medical industry constantly pushes more and more restrictive orthotics and shoes that simply weaken the foot further, most people can’t imagine running hundreds and thousands of miles over rocky trails in such flimsy flats as I do. It’s something that needs to be worked up to gradually, but I believe that as long as the running surface is natural (no concrete, asphalt, etc.) the human foot is well-designed to handle any running stress we’re willing to impart on it (provided you give it enough adaptive time).