Over the past couple of weeks, I've been asked by many runners for my advice on the proper way to transition to more minimalist running. It seems to me from all the stories I've heard that many of them are convinced that running with a more barefoot/forefoot gait (and less with a heel strike) is the more "natural" and efficient way to run. Yet very few of them actually know what the best way it is to accomplish this. As a group they resist the notion of removing their shoes and going on a naked barefoot run. Many of them have personal anecdotes from others who have tried such an experiment and ended up injured and had given up altogether. They all want some assurances from me before they spend the big bucks on a new pair of Nike Frees or Vibrams or the latest minimal shoe that they will not end up on the PUP (that's Physically Unable to Perform, for those are unfamiliar with the football euphemism) List. Unfortunately I wasn't able to provide them with a guarantee that they will not be injured during the transition process because let's face it, injuries can happen in all types of running. However, I did give them some simple exercises and basic guidelines to follow to make the transition a bit safer and easier for them. In a nutshell, I told them that the key to learning how to run more forefoot and more efficiently is to learn how to perform speedwork more effectively.
Now you might ask, as many of them did, what does speedwork have to do with running footfoot? Doesn't doing speedwork just make you faster? You might also say as some of them also did "I am slow. I am not fast like you. I don't do speedwork. I don't want to get faster. I just want to run" (If you're shaking your head, believe me, there are many runners who feel this way!) But what if I told you, as I did to them, that speedwork isn't even really about building speed at all? What if I told you that getting faster is only a secondary consequence of running with speed? The primary objective, as those who regularly engage in speedwork knows, is to train the body to run more efficiently. Whenever you stress the body and ask it to perform at a faster than comfortable pace, you are essentially asking all the bodily functions involved in running to work harder, quicker and more effectively than they do when you're running easy, slow, and suboptimally. Picture a little kid learning how to ride a bike for the first time. At first, he is uneasy and is peddling very slowly. The bike is wobbling from side to side threatening to topple over at any minute. Eventually though, he gets the hang of it and peddles faster, The bike is able to stay in a straight line without much effort needed to sustain movement. I liken those who don't engage regularly in speedwork to the kid wobbling from side to side with the slow bike. They not only will not get any faster, but they will also likely never uncover the inefficiencies in their own running style. This is important for those aspiring to be forefoot/barefoot runners because (unless you overstride) you will always naturally land more on your forefoot when you're running with speed. That's because the heel isn't involved when you're sprinting. (If you've ever watched elite runners in a race up close you'd see that their heels rarely if ever touch the ground when they're running.) So for those who are already engaged in weekly or bi-weekly speedwork sessions, you're likely already running more forefoot/midfoot than you realize. The thing to do then is to invest in a pair of racing flats/minimal shoes and practice with these on your speed sessions and short races. As long as you keep your strides short and small and increase only your leg turnover to compensate for the speed, you should be able to transition to running only in minimal shoes and racing flats relatively quickly. Just be sure to allow adequate time for recovery in between these speed sessions.
For those who are not doing speedwork and are on the fence about it, what are you waiting for? Remember, it's NOT about running fast. It's about learning how to run more EFFICIENTLY.