Ethan Fast

Minimalist Running

24 May 2011 -- Vienna, VA

A year ago, I bought my first pair of Vibram Fivefingers and went running over snow-covered trails. I soon transitioned from the vibrams to a purely barefoot style, then began to mix up barefoot and shod running days. I’ve seen a number of positive changes in my running, and I think that adopting a minimalist style is the single best thing a runner can do to improve his or her imperfect form.

Mine certainly improved. Before I donned the vibrams, I was a heel-striker. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing1 but for me it wasn’t optimal. If I increased my weekly milage beyond a certain point, I’d end up with an injury of some kind, usually in the back or knee. These injuries always left me bemused and misanthropic. They formed a great dissonance. By every other metric I was a competent runner, and it frustrated me to be held back by injury.

I’m always looking for something to hack2, so when I heard about minimalist running, I thought I’d give it a try. What ultimately sold me on the idea was the book Born to Run. I recommend it, even if you have no interest in minimalist running. It’s more a documentary than anything else, and it focuses on the Tarahumara and the history of ultrarunning. Throw in a bit of evolutionary anthropology, and it hooked me. But propaganda aside, the core tenant of minimalist running is simple: humans evolved to run, and shoes interfere with our mechanics. In my experience, this is true. Running with minimalist shoes (or barefoot) highlights the problems with your form. You won’t get away with bad technique. Your body will stop you first, through pain and discomfort.

The transition comes at a cost. You won’t be able to run so far as you’d like. Not at first. And if you attempt to push through discomfort without adjusting your form, you’ll probably hurt yourself. I did that a few times, early on. But if you take your time, and make adjustments as required, you’ll end up in quite a good place. I now have confidence that my form — while not perfect — asymptotically approaches the ideal. I know that I’m minimizing the stress under which I put my body, particularly on long runs. I’ve also found the sensory experience of minimalist running to be enormously fun, against my initial expectations.

If you give it a try, my favorite minimalist shoes are the Merrell Trail Gloves. For more information, the minimalist running google group is a great place to look around. Perhaps in a later post I’ll discuss shoe choice and how to manage a transition to the minimalist style.

  1. Opinions vary, but check out this Harvard site. 

  2. This word has funny semantics. Paul Graham wrote an essay on the subject.