“How do I transition from conventional shoes to minimalist shoes?” is one of the most common questions we receive at Natural Footgear. I, Dr. Robyn Hughes, co-wrote the following article with Correct Toes inventor Dr. Ray McClanahan to address this very question. This article originally appeared on the Correct Toes blog.
Many people are aware that a transition period is required when switching from conventional shoes to minimalist shoes. In fact, this is one of the most common topics we hear about from patients and customers. Most people want to know the proper protocol for transitioning to foot-healthy footwear—shoes, boots, or sandals that are widest at the ends of the toes, have flexible soles, and possess no heel elevation, toe spring, or artificial arch bumps or props. Though every individual is different and has unique factors or circumstances to consider, we’ve come up with eight general suggestions to heed that are important for everyone making this transition.
And here they are:
1. Take a Slow, Progressive Approach
It’s perfectly normal to be excited about this new approach to foot health and function. After all, countless people have already benefited from true minimalist shoes and natural foot health approaches. But it is possible to be overzealous in the adoption of this new footwear, and failing to transition slowly from conventional shoes to minimalist shoes might lead to problems.
Consider wearing your new minimalist shoes for a very short period at first, such as 30 minutes per day, and then gradually increasing wear-time by 30 minutes per day as your feet and body adapt to the changes. If you’re a runner, consider wearing your minimalist shoes for the first mile of your run to begin with, then switching to your conventional shoes when your feet get tired. As your feet and toes get stronger, you can begin wearing your minimalist shoes for longer periods during your run, eventually entirely phasing out your conventional running shoes.
Some individuals may be good candidates for a slightly accelerated transition period. This could include runners or walkers who are experiencing significant pain while using their conventional athletic shoes or those who spend a lot of time barefoot. If you opt to stop using conventional footwear altogether after starting in with minimalist shoes, it's particularly important to remain vigilant and monitor your feet and lower legs for signs of fatigue or strain. Know when to back off and give your feet some time to rest and adapt to the changes taking place in your tissues.
Note: It's very important to understand that minimalist shoes go hand in hand with a change in running form. Because the soles of these shoes are thin and flexible, you can't pound the ground as hard with your footfalls. Most people who switch from conventional running shoes to minimalist running shoes adopt a forefoot or midfoot strike that occurs directly underneath the body, instead of a heel strike that occurs in front of the body. This forefoot or midfoot strike is important for dissipating the ground reaction forces experienced by your feet and lower extremities when running barefoot or in minimalist shoes. Our article entitled The Shoe Cushioning Myth delves into this topic in much greater detail.
2. Proceed in a Stepwise Fashion
Many people benefit from a stepwise approach to minimalist shoes that involves a gradual transition from a built-up conventional shoe to a transitional type of shoe to a true minimalist shoe. There are two main considerations as it concerns this stepwise approach:
1. The sole of the foot
2. The Achilles tendon
The sole of the foot is extremely sensitive, which is great for sensing the ground and making appropriate micro-adjustments during gait. But after a lifetime of wearing thick-soled shoes, the sole of the foot (including the skin, muscles, nerves, and other tissues that make up this part of the body) is not properly adapted to the ground, and being barefoot or using thin-soled shoes can be uncomfortable.
The best way to build up or condition your foot’s sole is to start with thicker-soled footwear, such as Altra shoes and Luna sandals, and then move to thinner-soled options over time. Note that your thicker-soled footwear selection should still possess all the other foot-healthy characteristics that we recommend, specifically, a flat platform (i.e., no heel elevation, no toe spring, and no arch-propping inserts), a toe box that's widest at the ends of the toes, a flexible sole that can be easily bent or twisted, and a low overall weight.
After wearing conventional shoes with heel elevation for years (decades, in many cases), the Achilles tendon often becomes contracted, or shortened (sometimes up to three-quarters of an inch!). A shortened Achilles tendon will return to its normal length after conventional footwear is abandoned and the foot is allowed to rest on a level plane, but this process takes time. Heat, ice, physical therapy modalities, and warming or cooling gels can help with this transition and rehabilitation.
Shifting from a shoe with heel elevation to a “zero drop” platform can place a significant amount of strain on your Achilles tendon, and overdoing it, especially at first, can cause damage and pain in this part of your body. Again, a slow, stepwise shift to transitional footwear (e.g., Altra shoes, Luna sandals, etc.) can make the leap to more minimalist shoes (e.g., Lems Primal 2 shoes, Xero Shoes, etc.) a much lower risk.
3. Allow Time for Adjustments to Occur
The changes and deformities that happen in feet and toes exposed to conventional footwear take many years to occur. It’s no surprise, then, that positive, healthy changes and true foot and toe rehabilitation will also take some time. Some people who transition to minimalist shoes do not allow enough time for the soles and the muscles in the feet and the rest of the lower body to strengthen. Transitioning to minimalist shoes will, in most cases, work your foot and lower body in a very new and unique way, leading to initial soreness and fatigue in many before the longer-term strength gains and other favorable adaptations occur. Be patient, monitor your body’s response to this transition, and take it slowly! Changes are afoot.
4. Address Gait Changes
It’s extremely common for gait changes to occur when switching from conventional shoes to minimalist models. Most people who wear conventional shoes are heel-strikers (thick, elevated heels make it almost impossible to be anything but). People who wear minimalist shoes, on the other hand, often first contact the ground with the midfoot or forefoot—a very different gait pattern that has wide-ranging effects throughout the body. This change in gait pattern tends to happen naturally upon moving to footwear with a completely flat (and thin) support platform. But sometimes there is a lag in gait changes that occurs during this transition and some people still continue to heel strike even after shifting to minimalist footwear.
Heel striking in minimalist shoes may cause some heel discomfort, as there is no longer the same level of cushioning in place to absorb the shock. Using heel cups (please see the next section for further details about heel cups) can be helpful in reducing or preventing this discomfort. Another helpful approach is to pay a lot of attention to how your feet and body feel during the transition phase. Consider paying extra attention to your feet during this time, and walk in a way that feels right to you (avoid “pushing through the pain” or limping in order to avoid pain). Forcing a forefoot strike is not ideal either. Basically, just feel and listen to your body and avoid distractions (chatting with friends, listening to music, etc.) while you’re walking or running during this transition period. Strive to practice your "quietest" possible run, paying special attention to the location and force of your footfalls.
5. Use Met Pads and Heel Cups, if Necessary
Using metatarsal pads (including Strutz foot pads) is an unobtrusive way to restore muscle and tendon balance in your feet and reposition your forefoot fat pads to a place that supports your metatarsal heads—a common pain point in many people with foot problems. Metatarsal pads, if placed properly, can also help spread your transverse foot arch, which helps take pinch pressure off the structures that run through the ball of your foot, including nerves and blood vessels.
Heel cups are another helpful (and unobtrusive) natural foot product that alleviates point tenderness in the heel—something that occurs from time to time in minimalist shoe adopters. This point tenderness can happen early in the transition phase or later on, after you’ve been wearing minimalist shoes for a period of time. Point tenderness in the heel is relatively rare in minimalist shoe wearers, but it can be uncomfortable and, in some cases, lead to abandonment of natural foot health approaches. A simple heel cup is often enough to address this discomfort and keep you in footwear that lets your foot function the way nature intended. Setbacks may happen from time to time, but in most cases, there is a simple solution or tweak possible that can help you stay on the path to natural foot health.
6. Use Correct Toes Toe Spacers
Using Correct Toes is one of the most powerful ways to support the transition from conventional footwear to minimalist shoes. Correct Toes naturally curbs overpronation and enables proper weight distribution. This extremely helpful device also encourages a natural strengthening of the muscles and tendons that act on your feet and toes. Correct Toes toe spacers work well in minimalist shoes with anatomically appropriate toe boxes (i.e., toe boxes that are widest at the ends of the toes, not at the ball of the foot). All the men's and women's footwear we offer on the Natural Footgear site is Correct Toes compatible.
7. Add Barefoot Time to Your Regimen
Adding some barefoot time to your foot health and minimalist shoe transition regimen can be extremely helpful in ensuring a smooth and injury-free shift. Spending at least some time barefoot, even if only around the house, can help condition the soles of your feet and strengthen your foot and toe muscles, accelerating the foot adaptations that occur with Correct Toes use and minimalist shoe wearing in a safe and constructive manner. If appropriate, you may also consider walking outdoors in your bare feet, weather permitting, starting with as little as one block. Consider walking barefoot on surfaces that offer good visibility, such as a running track or the hard-packed sand at a beach, so that you don’t inadvertently step on any debris (grass can hide a lot of sharp objects).
8. Perform Key Home Care Exercises
Performing certain exercises at home (or work) can help with your transition from conventional to minimalist shoes. The most helpful exercises you can perform include the Toe Extensor Stretch, the Big Toe Stretch, the Hammertoe Stretch, the Ball Rolling Exercise, and other exercises that help strengthen your intrinsic foot muscles. These exercises, when performed in series, help relax tight muscles and tendons and build long-term foot strength and resiliency. For the best possible outcome, perform these exercises at least several times each day.
Using true minimalist shoes—shoes that are widest at the ends of the toes, have a flexible sole, and possess a completely flat support platform—offers the possibility of profound and enduring foot health benefits. Like most aspects of health, it’s always best to exercise caution and restraint in transitioning to a new and natural approach. Your feet and body are amazingly adaptable and will indeed strengthen if treated appropriately. But this remarkable adaptation works best with patience, diligence, and a progressive approach. It is an investment well worth making, as it will pay foot health dividends for an entire lifetime. If you have any questions about any aspect of transitioning from conventional shoes to minimalist footwear, please contact us.
And now: Onward, to excellent foot health!