Minimalist Running Shoes and Gear - Mistakes and Lessons - Chi Running

Minimalist Running Shoes and Gear - Mistakes and Lessons

Posted by Laura Houston on Sat Apr 23rd, 2011, 9 comments

A few years ago, while running at Hood to Coast relay, one of our running team members proclaimed you could put a certain running shoe logo on a piece of dog poop and sell it. He worked for and was sponsored by a local running shoe company, which made him biased, but there was an element of truth to that. These days, it seems to ring true for minimalist running, and what that means to different people. A friend of mine saw a guy running and  tweeted "Spotted: Vibram 5-fingers, hydration pack, GPS watch & trekking poles. Now that's the essence of minimalism." (If you need trekking poles on flat ground, then something is truly amiss with your running technique and ability to body sense!) 

In Chi Running, we talk about minimalism in terms of running shoes. When asked what kind of running shoes one should wear, I say two things. First, start where you're at. If you are in highly structured running shoes and orthotics, that is what your body is currently used to. You can still incorporate the basic pain-free running focuses, which will help strengthen your core muscles and add stability. As you get stronger, and your body awareness increases,  you may find that you need less external correction. (Note: I started practicing the Chi Running technique while still wearing orthotics and stability shoes) I may have my client remove their shoes during the posture lesson, which allows them to feel contact with the ground. For running, I tell them first listen to their body and put the Chi Running focuses into practice - one at a time. I encourage them to work towards less running shoe and less structure, if they want, but gradually (see below). The advantage of having less running shoe between you and the ground is the 'feedback' is more immediate.  To respond to that feedback on the run with less structure, the focuses should be well integrated into your neuro-muscular system. For shoe and support choice, I tell my clients to listen to their body and not their egos.

This leads to the second - follow the law of Gradual Progress. I recently talked to three different people who got metatarsal stress fractures after running barefoot or in extremely minimal shoes. In all cases, they did too much too soon. When I first ran without my orthotics (after wearing them for 12 years!), my right foot hurt from the lack of metatarsal support, because the muscles had atrophied over the years. My PT (who had advised I toss the orthotics) put a metatarsal pad in my shoe, and gave me some exercises to help strengthen my weak core. After a couple of years (read: gradual progress), and strengthening my foot muscles, I was able to let go of that support. It's been a road of trial and error, but today I don't wear inserts and do some of my runs in Vibram Five Fingers. So far, I can safely say the only time I had metatarsal stress fracture(s!) was when I wore orthotics. 

With all the hype and marketing that surrounds us today, it's easy to get caught up and believe we should be running in less now. This is a good opportunity to learn and practice nonidentity. With that, gradual progress and body sensing, you can make a wise choice in minimalist footwear, and when you are ready to make that transition. Your feet will thank you for it. 


  • Foot wear,
  • minimalist running shoe

9 CommentsLeave a comment below

Peter Schrier Apr 25th, 2011 01:18pm

Hi Danny.

You are so right with this post. I did not listen to my body but my ego, when I decided to go from my Asics Gel Nimbus shoes to TerraPlana Evo shoes. I had been doing workouts for half marathons using ChiRunning technique, so I guessed that doing a 5 km schedule would be safe. However, after 3 weeks I got myself a metatarsal stress fracture. Not because of the shoes, but because of neglecting some subtle signs in my feet.

So I am now back on my Asics again, recovering, and doing a Walk2Run schedule. As the Ascis are end-of-life, I am now looking to a somewhat less dampening shoe (however still more dampening than my TerraPlana’s). In the meanwhile I will do excercises to strengthen my feet.

Cheers from The Netherlands

Laura Houston Apr 25th, 2011 01:28pm

Hi Peter-

Good luck and let that foot heal! It takes a while, but if you let your body do its healing work, that metatarsal will be stronger than before, assuming your calcium levels are good. Keep listening to your body, now that you know what it ‘sounds’ like! grin

Hi Laura,
Does running with a backpack go against the grain of minimalist running? I run with a backpack on days that I run to commute home from work, does this affect my chirunning form? And how should I counter any imbalances the backpack creates? I use a hydration type backpack minus the hydration pack as I use it to store my personally stuff instead of for hydration purposes. I find these the lightest and most ergonomical for running.

Thanks in advance for your advice.

Laura Houston Apr 25th, 2011 10:24pm

Hi Celeste -

I did the same thing today - commuted by running home. I also use a hydration pack minus the bladder. I wore my NB WT101 shoes, which by some folk’s standards are minimalist (one friend calls them my ‘tissue paper shoes’). Sometimes I’ll wear my Vibram Five Fingers. Just depends. I don’t really think about whether or not it’s minimalist - I think more about the fact that I’m getting exercise, getting a chance to work on my run technique, and reducing my carbon footprint.

As for the pack interfering with my form, I’ve had to play with the straps and adjust them so I can still feel relaxed. At first (with this particular pack) I had a hard time but I discovered partly it’s my crooked back (one side is much larger than the other). I finally dialed it in. Make sure you don’t over-stuff the pack (I left my big raincoat at work) and that it’s comfortable. Having (and figuring out) cinch straps is a big plus so the pack isn’t flopping around.  And I have to allow myself to warm up to running after sitting at my computer all day - so really listen to your body and let the run come to you! Keep up the good work on run commuting! grin

Injury prevention Toronto Apr 28th, 2011 12:22am

Danny… first time I’ve been aware of your age… smile You look so great!
I took your class two yrs ago at Kripalu and learned so much…  Wish I had been paying attention b/c if I knew you were in Boston I’d have come up to visit!  You might not remember me but I was one of the ‘older’ runners (now 62) and have been a huge fan for years.  Getting ready for a half marathon in Bos on Mem Day - using your half marathon training guide and am in week 8.  Question.. what is the Succeed capsule you mention?  Is it the electrolyte stuff you refer to in your books? Congratulations on a nice finish… you’re just amazing!
Phyllis Howard
Injury prevention Toronto

Laura Houston Apr 30th, 2011 12:33am

Hi Phyllis -

Danny does look great, doesn’t he? Shows what staying active and happy does for you. grin The Succeed! S caps are electrolyte capsules and great for staving off cramps and other side effects of salt depletion. You can find out more here:
I swear by them too on runs lasting more than two hours, especially if it’s warm. Good luck in your half marathon!!

Cheers, Laura

PS you can also leave comments over at Danny’s blog -

Kevin McGehee Aug 22nd, 2011 12:56pm

How does one tell if the pain in the balls of their feet are from a stress fracture or just soreness?  What are the steps to recovery?  I recently began have such pain. While I have never tried to run in minimalist footwear (I wear Brooks Adrenalin on the advice of my local running store.) I have always done yard work barefoot and more so lately thinking it would be a good thing and I did put off replacing my running shoes hoping my technique would allow me to go further on a single pair. I hope I did not injure myself too much.  I want to run my 1st marathon this spring.  I am a self taught chi-runner (2 years gradually and still progressing).  I wanted to consult my Chi running book about the injury, but its on loan to my brother-in-law.

Laura Houston Aug 23rd, 2011 07:25pm

Hi Kevin -

First of all - is the pain intense or are there ‘hot spots’? If so, you should get it checked out by your sports doc. For more general aches, you can try icing and resting. Without seeing you run, it would not be fair for me to make an assessment of the cause. If you have an instructor in your area, I encourage you to make an appointment with them. I have had several clients who were self-taught and either came to me for a ‘checkup’ or took a workshop. They always learned something new and had ‘aha’ moments regarding their form!

As for your shoes - you should probably replace them. Running on them past the time they are worn down can lead to injuries, as your foot compresses the parts that were originally meant to support your foot (that would be the grey medial posting in your Adrenalines). Any inefficiencies will show up in the form of aches and pains because your foot is following the pattern it laid down in the shoe over time.

Instead, keep working on your form (and -again -get it checked out by a certified instructor) and maybe buy a step down in support for an extra pair of shoes. Try very very gradually switching over to them (that means a very short run once a week to start off with) and listen to what your body is saying. If you are ready, you will know, but you have to listen to your body!

Walking around barefoot and running barefoot (or in very minimal shoe) are two very different things. Think of it this way - before you started running, you walked around a lot. Yet different muscles got used when you took up running and you started it (I hope) very gradually. Keep on walking around barefoot though! And any change you make, follow the law of gradual progress!

Very inspirational. Thank you. Now I’ll have to search out a resource for decent foot exercises—I get a callus on the ball of my foot between the second and third toe. I’ve been able to build up my medial arch, but the transverse seems non-existent.

What are your thoughts?

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