Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Written by: Scott Jurek
Minimalist running shoes are popping up left and right, but this style has long been available in the form of racing flats and spikes. While some runners might feel intimidated by racing flats, rest assured: Racing flats are for everyone.
The most obvious benefit of racing flats is that they’re lighter. They initiate quicker turnover and studies demonstrate that lighter shoes reduce energy costs up to 3 percent, a small number that can add up to significant time savings over the course of a distance event. I also believe that running in minimalist shoes connects the feet to the ground, allowing the brain to realize more sensory information. This promotes body awareness that leads to natural form adjustments. Racing flats can provide most of the benefits of barefoot running; they can also ease the transition from running shod to barefoot.
Before you take off in flats, you should know the disadvantages. According to the author of “The Lore of Running,” Dr. Tim Noakes, “Minimal shoes and racing flats can cause sore feet, add stress on the musculoskeletal system and increase the risk for injury.” To help counter these potential drawbacks, flats need to be selected properly and incorporated gradually into training.
Selection should be based on the distance you’ll be training for and racing, as well as the amount of cushioning and support you desire.
Racing footwear can be grouped by shape and fit: Shorter distance shoes are more form fitting and have less outsole surface area; longer distance shoes have more cushioning and support. If you’re accustomed to running in highly supportive, cushioned shoes, start with a longer distance flat even if you’re planning to run a shorter race. Get fit by a trusted specialty running retailer to find the pair that conforms best to the shape of your feet.
Give yourself time to adapt to the new footwear. Injuries result from training too much, too soon in flats and, in the case of racing, too little, too soon. Six to eight weeks before the event in which you want to wear your flats, make sure to do short recovery runs in your new shoes one to two times per week, and a shorter speed or tempo session once per week. If you’re using the flats as your training shoes, start out by only wearing them to complete 5 to 10 percent of your weekly mileage, broken up into one to two easy recovery runs. Continue to increase the amount of racing flat mileage by 5 to 10 percent each week; at four to six weeks, racing flats can be worn for training at faster paces.
It’s a good idea to alternate running in flats with different shoes on a weekly basis because this will require your musculoskeletal system to use different muscles, which can reduce overuse injuries. Keep in mind that the lighter the flat, the quicker they will break down—you might need to replace flats sooner than other shoes.
Always pay attention to your body and return to more supportive trainers if you feel an injury coming on. Each runner is unique and adapts to minimalist running differently. Race and train light, but run smart.