Maybe you read Born to Run and you've been thinking about transitioning to Vibram FiveFingers for months. Or maybe you've finally got a pair and you're not quite sure how to get going with your crazy new kicks. If you're reading this, it means that you're researching. You're doing the right thing. Heading out for a ten-miler (or even a two-miler) without reading up first is asking for an injury. But fear not. There are ways to make the switch without landing yourself in the doctor's office. Below you'll find a tips for a smooth transition to Vibrams.
The first rule of the game is to take it slow. You're going to have to build up foot and ankle strength. Any time you're building muscle, the process takes time. Expect crossing over from chunky running shoes to Vibrams to take at least three months. Start out by going barefoot. That's right. Go sans chaussures around the house, the yard and anywhere else you can get away with it. Let those feet and ankles get used to the feeling of working on their own, unsupported. In places where shoes are a must, swallow your fashion pride and sport your Vibrams.
While you're working on going barefoot, give barefoot running a whirl. Head to the track and do a lap barefoot. After one lap, slip on your normal shoes and keep running. If you can't go barefoot, do a lap with your Vibrams before switching back to your normal shoes. This kind of practice will help your body to adjust to your new running form as well as strengthening your feet. Just remember that you're using muscles that have been bound up your entire life. Your feet will need time to recover from even the shortest of jaunts in Vibrams. That means never run in Vibrams more than once in 24 hours.
When starting out with Vibrams, you'll likely experience odd aches and pains. Before you rush off to the podiatrist in a panic, remember that most pain is a normal part of changing your running routine. Sore calves? That's your calf muscles readjusting after a lifetime of elevated shoes. Pain on the top of your foot? Try loosening the Velcro or lacing. (Seriously). Pain on the outside of your foot? It's probably a muscle cramp. Ice it, massage it and stay off of it for a day or so. Aching arches? Unconditioned muscles are going to hurt a little while you're working on strengthening them; just go slow and don't overdo it. Here-today-gone-tomorrow pain is probably not something you need to worry about. What should worry you is a consistent pain that lingers or worsens. The key here is to always listen to your body. If it hurts, take a break. Use your days off to speed up the switch with strength-building exercises for your feet.
If you don't feel any pain during your transition to Vibrams, don't take that as a green light to run a marathon this Saturday. Injuries don't always happen overnight. You could be feeling great for a week and then suddenly be hobbling with a stress fracture. You're starting from zero and learning to run all over again. It comes back to that same essential rule: take it slow.
A few weeks ago, yours truly was racing in Vibrams and happened to run into Barefoot Ted on the trail. We ended up running the last mile together, and Ted pointed out something that I'd just begun to notice: his steps were silent, while mine were like stampeding elephants. Yikes. Running incorrectly in Vibrams (or in any shoe) is asking for trouble. The solution? Run with a friend and have them give you pointers on your form. Or, do it yourself. Ditch your iPod and listen to the sound of your feet as you run. You can find more tips on proper form here and here.
Ultra runner Jeff Browning wrote one of the best articles out there on switching to Vibram FiveFingers. For more stories and advice from real runners on how to cross over to Vibrams, check out Kim Strickland's blog and Vibram's fansite.
Don't let all this talk about injury deter you from going minimalist. When done right, running in Vibrams will forever change your running routine and put a perma-smile on your face. Just remember that your dainty princess feet are eventually going to get wider and take on a caveman look. (Can't help you with that one). Welcome to the club.
So get out there, go slow and have fun!