Minimalist Running

To understand running of any kind we have to understand the basic aspects.

Natural Running – Running barefoot. The reason we limit natural running to running without shoes is simple. Once you put a shoe on it’s not natural. Shoes were created by humans.

Shock Attenuation – during running is the process of absorbing impact energy due to the foot-ground collision, reducing shock wave amplitude between the foot and head. – Pub Med

While Natural Running, your perfectly designed body attenuates shock. The foot, ankle, Achilles , calf, knee, quad, hamstring, hip, your core, upper back and shoulders all play a part in absorbing and dispersing the shock. Two major things happen to you to disrupt this natural occurrence.

  1. Something in the chain tightens up or gets injured – You’ve read on this website that sitting in chairs all day long is probably not good for your running. Limiting your hip range of motion will limit your ability to absorb shock. That’s one example but there are many more.
  2. You run on hard surfaces

There are two things you need to work on to improve on your Natural Running form.

  1. You need to have full range of motion in all moving parts. A strong mobility, stretching  and strength practice can sure help out.
  2. You need to practice good running form.

A  13 year old study questioned two aspects of running form as they relate to shock attenuation. Their findings were that stride length or better phrased a shorter stride will help your body in dispersing shock. Stride cadence made no difference. Just understanding this will get you to better run form. If in doubt shorten your stride. At first you’ll find yourself slowing down. Keep at it and you’ll find you run faster with less impact.

What runners tend to do instead of working on form and stretching is they ask shoes to fix our problems. When the current shoe isn’t working we tend to want more shoe. Another aspect that may be a bigger part, is aging. As we age we get tighter and less limber. Without keeping that solid range of motion we will continue to look to other things like running shoes to be the answer.

As a pure example let’s look at Hoka One One. Either this brand came out at the exact right time or it would have happened anyway. We don’t know. What we do know is the book Born to Run came out. Many went straight to minimalism without going through the process described below. They got injured. What appears to be a strange phenomenon is they went the completely opposite direction straight to the Maximal design of Hoka to solve their running woes. As minimalism died away Hoka rose. Is that a causal reaction or a coincidence? It doesn’t really matter it’s just a fact. If running hurts, lets find something to soften the impact.

The Confusing World of Minimalism

Minimalism is a truly overused and misused term. Let’s look at two definitions that hopefully clear some of this up.

Minimalism – Running in as little amount of shoe on the market.

Minimalist – The act of reducing the amount of shoe you run in, moving as close to natural running as possible.

Minimal or not minimal

Midsole Drop – It is true that a shoe probably has to be 4mm or less in heel to forefoot drop to be considered minimal. It is not true that because a shoe is 4mm drop or less that it is in fact minimal.


What makes the difference?

Stack Height – Remember Natural Running is barefoot. The more shoe (thicker the midsole/outsole or stack height) the further away from Natural we get. A shoe that has a 0mm drop but sits a 20mm heel and 20mm forefoot is not very minimal. You are relying heavily on the shock attenuation in the shoe at 20mm.

What does a minimal shoe look like?

Merrell Vapor Glove

Midsole Drop – zero

Midsole Stack Height – 6mm heel, 6mm forefoot

Weight 5.8oz

How many people can run in this shoe? It’s a small percentage of runners. Let’s say less than 5% of all runners. Even if you work really hard to become a minimalist you probably won’t get there.

Becoming a Minimalist

We strongly believe you should run in the least amount of shoe you can get away with. The more you practice this the more you will begin to really rely on your form and  mobility. If you are a minimalist you will continually work to run in less shoe. Eventually you’ll find your sweet spot where your form matches the shoe. Then your job is to stay there using mobility and strength.

With any drive towards a more minimal shoe you come to a decision based on what you feel:

  1. You feel the shock of every running step in your head – Stay with the slower transition.
  2. You feel your feet floating with every step – Time to move on to a more minimal shoe.

If you never get to #2 you’ve found your limit. If and when your form catches up, you should not try to rush to more minimal. Staying where your body wants to stay is still being minimalist. It’s the least amount of shoe you can run in right now. After some time in this shoe you can then try to go to less shoe if you want.

Two final pieces before the process.

  1. Comfort – Let comfort be your gauge in every running shoe decision. If the shoe isn’t comfortable it’s not worth the effort to make it comfortable.
  2. Barefoot Running – As a practice we take our shoes off once a week for 15-20 minutes of running. Always on grass and usually working on form at the same time.

Where to start?

First you need to fully understand the shoe you are in today. What is the stack height and what is the drop? The worst thing to do is to change the drop first. Changing drop changes the pull on your Achilles. There are too many stories of runners suffering major strains due to drop change. The first place to start is changing stack height. Using Brooks as the example:

Current Shoe – Brooks Glycerin  – Brooks on amazon

Category: S2

Midsole Drop: 10mm

Stack Height: 29mm/19mm

The only thing we want to do now is lower the stack height. There is little risk in lowering drop by 2mm but any more than that and you travel at your own risk. In normal shoe speak the logical next step in the Brooks line would be the Ghost. Looking at the shoes and knowing the feel it’s not a good step. The Ghost sits at a 12mm drop. It makes no sense to increase the drop if you are tying to go to less shoe. Skip the Ghost and go straight to the Launch.

Brooks Launch

Category S2

Midsole Drop: 10mm

Stack Height: 28mm/18mm

The process. If you run 3-4-5-6 or 7 days the process is the same.

Weeks 1-3 – Run one day in the Launch and all others in the Glycerin

Weeks 4-6 – Run two days in the Launch and all others in the Glycerin

Weeks 7-9 – Run three days in the Launch and all others in the Glycerin

By the time you get to 9 weeks you may only be running in the Glycerin on your long run and all other runs in the Launch. Time to make another change if your body is ready.  Assuming you now like the Launch better you have a choice. Both will take time to transition and both take you to different place.

Brooks Hyperion – Racing Shoe

Category: S1

Midsole Drop: 10mm

Stack Height: 27mm/17mm

You may be asking what’s the big deal? The Hyperion is only 2mm less in stack height than the Glycerin. True as that is the shoes are night and day in difference of feel. Between the two the Glycerin is going to attenuate shock more than the Hyperion on equal running.  In the Glycerin you rely heavily on the shoe. In the Launch you are asking your body to do much of the work. Once you get the the Hyperion you again  are asking your body to attenuate more shock. If you choose the Hyperion, follow the same method in transitioning to the shoe. You may adjust quicker than before but don’t rush it. Let your body be the judge.

Your other option out of the Launch is to change the drop. This will take more time as it engages your Achilles which can be a sensitive area.

Brooks Pure Flow

Category: S1

Midsole Drop: 4mm

Stack Height: 24mm/20mm

Because of the major change in drop you’ll want to transition slower to the Pure Flow.

Weeks 1-4 Pure Flow once, Launch all others.

Weeks 5-8 Pure Flow Twice, Launch all others

Weeks 9-12 Pure Flow Three times or more.

Once you get to the Pure Flow you’ll have to leave Brooks to go more minimal. Again the suggestion is change the stack height first and then change the drop. I’ll use two examples to illustrate.

Altra One 2.5   buy on Amazon

Category: S1

Midsole Drop: 0mm

Stack Heigh: 20mm/20mm

The positive of going to the Altra is you are again engaging the Achilles. The down side if there really is one is that you aren’t going any more minimal. With 20mm of foam between your foot and the road you are still asking for the same shock attenuation from the shoe.

If you want to go more minimal than look at a shoe like:

Nike Zoom Streak LT 3  buy on amazon

Category: S1

Midsole Drop: 4mm

Stack Height: 22mm/18mm

Once you get to a shoe like this you are feeling more than the change in midsole. The entire shoe, midsole and upper is minimal. The total weight is 5.3oz.

This gives you a good picture of how slowly you need to transition as well as how you would transition to less shoe. Being a minimalist doesn’t mean running without shoes. It can mean that but only if that’s right for the way your body functions today.

A few questions that might arise.

  1. What if I’m in a stability (S3, S4, S5) shoe? – You would transition the same by first going to less shoe in the same category. Once you are as low as you can go in the S3 category then you would switch over to S1 or S2 to continue down the path. Small changes work better than big changes.
  2. How does this apply to walking – Your transition down to less shoe would be faster because the impact is much less. With lots of experience with walkers it’s clear that going to less shoe feels better. Rarely if ever do we hear walkers complain about the transition to less shoe.

To summarize all of this:

  • Getting closer to Natural Running is a Minimalist way to think of things and at it’s core is the best way to become a better more injury free runner.
  • Minimal running shoes require that your Natural Running form provides most of the shock attenuation.
  • Going to a minimal shoe before your body is strong enough and mobile enough to handle it is not a way to Natural Running it’s a way to injury and frustration.
  • It’s ok if right now you can’t get to less shoe. The first step is knowing how you can safely work your way to less shoe.