How long does it take to transition to barefoot shoes?
If you’re thinking about getting into barefoot or minimalist running, you’ve probably asked “how long does it take to transition?” “Can I just take my shoes off and start running barefoot?”
The short answer is, “No”. It is not advised to simply remove your supportive or conventional shoes and start running at your usual level in barefoot shoes.
The research does suggest that it takes approximately 6-8 weeks to build up the necessary strength in your feet and legs, and to adapt to this new running gait pattern.
In fact, at ProActive, we’ve developed an evidence-based (meaning we dove into the research to make recommendations supported by science) training program to help people transition from conventional shoes to barefoot or minimalist shoes.
Here’s the video where I break down what the research has to say on the subject:
The Barefoot Running Transition
We’ve already written about transitioning from conventional shoes and running to barefoot or minimalist running. The main takeaway involves how much running you attempt to do early on. Most people that experience an injury when trying out barefoot running injure themselves because they try too much, too fast. Especially if you’ve been wearing and running in conventional, supportive and cushioned shoes for years, some key muscles in your feet and legs are simply weak. You need to strengthen the muscles up before working them through long runs.
Now, in our training program, we discuss the Core-4 foot exercises. These 4 exercises, combined with “barefoot weight bearing” for 2 hours per day, at least 5 days per week, work to strengthen the muscles needed for successful and pain-free barefoot or minimalist running.
I highly encourage anyone, even runners that don’t plan on trying out barefoot running, to begin incorporating these exercises into their regular routine. They help to improve balance and increase foot strength and health.
What types of barefoot shoes should I start with?
Another question that may arise when you’re thinking about transitioning to minimalist shoes is “What type of shoes shoe I start with?” A simple search on Amazon for “barefoot shoes” gets you pages and pages of results. It can be overwhelming to pick one.
Now, I’m no footwear expert, and I haven’t tried every possible barefoot shoe out there, but I’ll share a bit below about the shoes I’ve tried and what I have and have not liked about each.
Here are the basic shoes/brands I’ve tried since transitioning to barefoot and minimalist footwear:
- Whitin Barefoot Runner
- Merrell Vapor Glove 4
- Xero Aqua Cloud (sandal)
- Xero Oswego
Whitin Barefoot Runner
Ok, so I don’t know about you, but I hate taking a gamble buying clothes (shoes included) online. Just the thought of having to deal with returns and shipping items back makes the whole thing unappealing. That being said, when I first started looking into barefoot shoes, I decided to roll the dice on these.
At the time, these Whitin Shoes, which is an Amazon online only brand, were priced at $25 or so for a pair. To me, that seemed like a safe bet. If they didn’t fit, or if I didn’t like them, at least I didn’t spend $100 on shoes that I’d never wear again.
Now, that being said, I really like these shoes. I’ve run at least 15 miles per week for at least 8 months in these shoes. They are comfortable, durable, and well worth the relatively inexpensive price tag. I did remove the insole that comes with the shoes, since it’s not zero drop (it has a bit of a heel cushion on it). And, other than the yellow foot liner getting torn, they’ve been pretty durable. And that part of the shoe only got torn up when I was playing a few pickup games of soccer. I’m sure these shoes were not designed for that, so it’s more my fault.
Merrell Vapor Glove 4
After my experience running in the Whitin shoes, I decided that I was going to transition to barefoot and minimalist shoes. I then decided that it was time to look at the more established shoe brands in the space.
I looked to Merrell and found the Vapor Glove 4. Now, no shortage of reviews and opinions about barefoot and minimalist shoes exist, and this is no exception. Some people love this shoe. Some people hate it. I found these shoes to be a great fit for both everyday wear and occasional running. I say “occasional running” on purpose.
These shoes provide great breathability and are very light. I almost forget they’re on my feet most days. However, because they’re so light and breathable, the upper material seems a bit more delicate than I would like. I think I’ve run around 100 miles or so in the first pair that I got and the upper is starting to separate from the sole. The upper has torn in a place or two from brushing up against sticks and such. So, for road running, I’m sure it would last a bit longer. I just happened to start using these as my “every day” shoe, so they got more wear.
All in all, I like these shoes, and still wear a pair nearly every day. Especially living in Georgia, the breathability and lightness of these shoes outweighs the durability concerns.
Xero Aqua Cloud
As I mentioned in that last section, I live in Georgia. That means I need a good sandal to wear during the blistering heat of our summers. Until recently, I wore Chacos basically all summer long. However, after transitioning to barefoot shoes, I found my Chacos too heavy and firm. They now feel like I’ve got bricks strapped to the bottom of my feet.
So, when summer hit this past year, I began searching for a replacement sandal for my outdoor activities. Luckily Xero Shoes does a sale every season, and I happened to luck into a pair of the Xero Aqua Clouds for $20-ish. Usually, these run around $47-50 or so. Now, this style of shoe was a big change for me, since it’s basically a flip flop with a rear foot strap. It took some getting used to, but now I wear these whenever it gets warm out. Xero also makes a Z-Trail sandal that looks pretty similar to a Chaco, except with the barefoot and minimalist feel. I may try those out this next summer and see how they do.
Now, I mentioned that I liked the Merrell Vapor Glove 4 because it’s breathable and light. In the winter, when it gets cold out, I want something to insulate my feet a bit more. So I turned to the Xero Oswego.
These shoes provide a more insulated upper, being made of a hemp canvas. They still have a running sole, so you could run in them if you wanted. I have not run in these yet, and just use them as my in-clinic shoes.
These shoes, as with most Xero Shoes run a bit on the pricey side. But, if you keep an eye out for sales, you can find these them for up to 50% off or more. Or a quick search on eBay yields options in the “new without tags” category that are always worth a look.
I tested them for two months and, in that time, they’ve been comfortable and great. They seem to be durable for everyday use. I use them mainly in the clinic and on errands, so I’m not trail running or rock climbing in them.
Transitioning to barefoot shoes requires more than simply switching what’s on your feet. It takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-8 weeks to build up the necessary strength and endurance in your foot muscles before going back to normal mileage and activities. That being said, 4 simple exercises help to strengthen those muscles up without requiring special exercise equipment or long hours.
Hopefully, my breakdown of barefoot shoe options help with the decision about which shoes to pick and start with. Many options exist, and there are plenty of sites out there with reviews. I just wanted to share a bit from my personal experience with this small number of barefoot shoes.