By Paula Jager, CSCS
“A woman can never be too fit, too happy or have too many pairs of workout shoes” (Paula Jager – and you can quote me on that).
At our local dairy pick up a few weeks ago I noticed Sarah was wearing her pretty multi-colored Merrell’s and I asked her how she liked them. “Love them” she said. “Wear them all the time but I just can’t run in them”. Really, why is that I asked? “Just kills the back of my leg down by the Achilles”. Yes, I knew exactly what she was talking about and silently chuckled to myself–from the sheer experience of it.
We are all so very different–biomechanically, in our fitness capacity and just overall structure. Despite the differences I still believe that everyone should wear a barefoot or minimalist shoe for whatever the activity. It’s the way nature intended us to be. We’ve just gone against nature in this department for so long we’ve created issues and a cautious and gradual approach is what many of us need in order to correct the problems and imbalances we’ve created.
Sarah asked me to share my story transitioning to barefoot shoes as well as the experiences of a few of my clients. I would say that 85% of my clients have converted over to a minimalist shoe. Some have no trouble at all, some had to do it very gradually.
The main players in ease of transition are age and habits along with efficiency of running and conditioning. Like anything else with bad habits, the damage is cumulative. I got my first pair of Vibrams at age 50; I was/am a sprinter but had terrible running form for distance and was what is known as a “heel striker”.
Until that time I wore primarily Nike Shox (the worst) and other similar platform training shoes. I ran in them, I lifted in them and had 18 pairs in various colors to match what I wore. Being an all or nothing girl when I first learned of the barefoot idea I spun my typical 180. First time I wore them I ran 800 m (that was taking it easy for me). My feet and entire lower legs were so sore I could barely walk. It took almost a full week to get back to normal. I kept at it and eventually tore my calf. After healing that through laying off it I was still determined that the barefoot shoes were the best thing for us.
I wore them all day all the time. I got used to just walking and standing in them. I then began to run 200-400 m 2-3 times a week in them being careful not to overdue it. I allowed time for recovery. Our box put together a team for Tough Mudder that year and I was determined to wear a minimalist shoe as they were deemed the best for the terrain. Tough Mudder requires 11.5 miles of running, mind you I’d never run further than 4 miles in my entire life. My Achilles and calves were so shortened from years of bad running form and the wrong shoes.
But it’s never too late to change–is it?
Using CF Endurance our training consisted of 3 runs a week (long intervals, short intervals and a long run on the weekend). I wore my barefoot shoes for the short intervals, rowed the long intervals to allow for healing and wore a pair of Nike frees (I call them Tweeners) for the longer run until I built up some ability to handle the distances. I included at least 20 to 30 minutes of mobility work and foam rolling after every run. That worked well. After a few months, I got rid of the Nike Frees and slowly began the longer runs with my barefoot shoes. Four months later we ran the mudder and they were the best shoes I could have chosen. I ran the entire 11.5 miles without any issues.
Could Improper Footwear Cause Knee Problems and Plantar Fascitis?
Fast forward to the present moment and I only wear barefoot shoes for everything. I can run in them–long or short distances, jump in them and basically spend my entire day in them or the real thing–my bare feet. Improvements? You bet; my knee doesn’t hurt anymore when running. I’ve had 2 meniscus surgeries and I am now convinced that improper footwear played a part in both injuries. I have improved range of motion and overall function in lower legs and hamstrings which we all know the entire body is connected and that carries over to improvements in the entire spine.
My problem: tight, shortened posterior legs, especially the lower.
Let’s take a look at some others. . .
Shaina/Tiffanie/Jesse: ages 35/22/23. All 3 are excellent and efficient runners. They experienced minor calf soreness the first couple of weeks and after the first longer run. With some intelligent training they adjusted very quickly and wear them exclusively now.
Sandy aka Spunky: Age 59. Long history of running and a good runner. Said “heck no” to the Vibrams and went for the Nike Frees. Overall smooth adjustment with some lower leg soreness initially. Has run in them exclusively now for over 2 years and will not go back to the clunkers nor will she try anything less. In her words “if it ain’t broke I’m not fixing it”. And you wonder why we call her “Spunky”.
Ken: Age 35 presented with plantar fascitis. Good runner and fairly efficient. We switched him to a very minimalist shoes and lots of rolling on the foot with a lacrosse ball. Pain free now and running form improved even more.
Lucinda: Age 37 “flat feet”. (Developed) She first wore a shoe similar to the frees. After adjusting to that we switched to a more minimalist shoe. Her “flat feet” were a result of mistreating the feet by wearing improper shoes such as heels and wearing shoes with too much arch support like orthotics. That led to weakened and atrophied muscles. We had to strengthen her feet. We encouraged her to spend as much time as possible barefoot. She needed to learn to use her feet again. We gave her exercises for toeing, pulling and grasping. We also had her walking in the sand, pointing her toes and walking on the sides–all strengthening exercises. She’s doing great no and guess what? Her feet are no longer “flat”.
Greg and Denise: Age 53 and 49. They were overweight and sedentary. They needed a very slow, gradual transition. We started them with a minimalist shoe with a little bit of support and got them used to walking in them. We encouraged going barefoot whenever they could. We implemented a consistent stretching and mobility protocol for them before and after every activity to correct imbalances. After getting used to walking and losing some weight we started them on jog/walk routine. They have become dedicated and disciplined people that really wanted to make health changes and were willing to do the work. Not everyone is.
To sum it up; evaluate the reality of your situation–past and current fitness experience, any orthopedic concerns or limitations along with your goals and proceed with caution and gradual increases in volume. There are many brands, degrees of minimalism and varieties out there. Shop around, try them on, walk or run in them (many footwear stores have a treadmill you can use to see how they feel) and decide what is right for you at this time. And remember the best way is usually the way nature intended.
. . .and what woman needs an excuse to go shopping?
Paula Jager CSCS and Level 1 CrossFit and CF Nutrition Certified is the owner of CrossFit Jaguar.
Her exercise and nutrition programs yield life changing results
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.