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Adapting Your Training Plan for Minimalist Running

by vffrunner » on Mar 25, 2010 6

There are almost as many marathon training plans as there are marathoners. Every runner is different and even two runners who use the same training plan are going to adapt it for their own needs.

Schedule, cross training preferences, speed, fuel, rest days… you need to think about all these aspects of a training plan and even more. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some insight into my training plan. I’m not a doctor, or a certified trainer, and I can’t dispense medical advice. This plan is (so far anyway) working for me. It may or may not work for you.

Starting Out

If you’re starting the conversion to minimalist running (barefoot, VFFs, etc), don’t expect to ditch your old stability running shoes and start on a standard marathon training program 12 weeks before a marathon and be successful. I’m sure people have done it before, and I’m sure they will do it again, but most people need a lot more time to adapt than a standard marathon training plan allows.

Minimalist running requires you to switch from the typical heel striking pattern to a mid-foot striking pattern. This mid-foot strike changes the impact absorption from your knees, hips, and back to your feet. Our feet were designed to absorb this impact, but they do this by using the arch muscles and tendons that atrophy as we age and wear shoes most of the time. When I started minimalist running, I got a pair of VFFs and I started running in them 1/4 mile at a time. Initially, even 1/4 mile would leave my feet tired and sore and my calves tight.

So start small and short. Go for 1/4 mile run. Wear your VFFs (or go barefoot, or use other minimalist shoes) and go for a walk every day. Work on your form. Add mileage slowly. Start adding just 1/4 mile at a time. No more than 10% a week and I’d even suggest being conservative for the first few months and add 5%/week.

Barefoot Exercises

There are some great exercises you can to do help strengthen your feet and help you progress on your training plan faster. First, roll up a hand towel lengthwise and lay it on the floor. Now use your toes to pick up the towel. You don’t have to lift it very far, the point is just to use the muscles of your foot and arch to grip the towel. Repeat 10 times for each foot.

Start running the stairs barefoot. It’s nearly impossible to run up stairs while heel striking. Now go down stairs on your midfoot as well. Be careful going down though! Find a stairway with a railing just in case.

Practice balancing on one foot. Stand for 30 seconds on each foot. You’ll be using all of the muscles of your lower legs and your feet and engaging your core in order to keep yourself steady. If that’s easy for you, then hold a baseball or a medicine ball in your hands out in front of you while doing it. Engage your core to hold yourself steady. Repeat 3 times for each leg.

Building On a Good Foundation

Once you’re running 2-3 miles at a time, you can start working on a standard marathon training program. However, be prepared to take some extra time with the plan. Just like I’d tell anyone doing a couch to 5K program that there’s no shame repeating a week of the program here and there, marathon training plans are no different. If you need to repeat a week, or take an extra day off once in a while or shorten a couple of runs here and there, do it. The last thing you want in the middle of your marathon training is an injury.

Next week we’ll talk a bit more about injuries, how to tell the difference between good pain and bad pain, and what to do if you’re injured.


  1. Jessica

    March 25th, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    I'd also suggest doing your “barefoot” portion of your run either at the end of your run, when you're warmed up, or in the middle. I usually run a few miles, take my shoes off and either carry them or stash them, run 1/4 to 1/2 a mile barefoot, then slap the shoes back on and resume my regular run. Sometimes, I'll intersperse 2 short periods of barefoot running – especially when I come across either some great grass to run on, or really smooth pavement. Feels soooo good!


  2. Manny D

    February 22nd, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Nice article! I chose to apply the age old adage “Walk before you run” I first walked in my shoes (VFFs) and yes feet and calves did hurt, but now my VFFs are my everyday shoe. Since i knew i was going to be running a whole lot less, I cross-trained with other activities while wearing my VFFs. I lift weights in them, I do an hour each of row machine, elliptical and spin class with them. I also agree with taking it slow. It has taken me 6 months to comfortably run 3 miles and that is only twice a week.


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