minimal footwear

Jae Gruenke Interview


Jae_Gruenke_head_shotThe interview series keeps on rolling with Jae Gruenke of The Balanced Runner and Intelligent Exercise. Jae is a Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner and running form expert who has helped runners from beginner to Olympian to  relieve pain and improve their performance, and she specializes in helping runners whose problems have persisted despite medical treatment. Jae has a very unique (and very useful) lens on running form, performance, and injury recovery, so I was glad to have a chance to download her brain, so to speak, on this subject.

If you want to skim or to see a more detailed outline of our conversation, you can scroll below the video to find the timeline. Meet Jae:

1:32 Jae’s unique “hardware” vs. “software” approach to help people to learn how to move. In Balanced Runner (and Feldenkrais) they work with what you know about how to coordinate yourself in movement, or the “software” you are running; i.e. the movement habits that you bring to running.

3:38 We are evolved to do this movement [running].

5:00 The number of people who are coming back to running in general (and barefoot or minimalist running in particular) right now after having left it because they thought running was bad or their doctor told them not to run anymore.

6:26 Jae talks about how they find that it is not necessary for people to run in orthotics. They become unnecessary as people learn to run appropriately. “Maybe there are 1 in 1000 who have a real anatomical abnormality that make orthotics truly necessary, but I haven’t met that person yet.”

8:12 One of the big problems with orthotics is that your arch is one of your major springs; it absorbs impact and then returns it to you. That’s where a portion of your momentum comes from, and not just the arch but the whole spring system through the body’s the connective tissue [yay fascia!]. It is responsible for storing as much as 50% of the energy from each stride and generating the force that you need for the next stride. So if you’re running on a stiff support that prevents your arch from doing a normal natural pronation, all that free energy that you could have had from your feet you now have to generate from your muscles. And over the counter orthotics have been shown to create stress at the knee.

10:20 A medically responsible orthotic, for running especially, but even for everyday activity, should have some flex in it.

11:13 If your pelvis is moving properly, you will shift your weight to the weight bearing portions of your feet, and instead of overpronating, you will appropriately pronate. It is actually that easy.

12:16 Jae tackles the buzzword “pelvic stability”: it has been interpreted to mean that the pelvis does not move, or that the pelvis moving around must be unhealthy. Jae explains how if you succeeded at not moving your pelvis you wouldn’t be able to run. So all runners move it some, but if you don’t move it enough, it’s almost impossible to not overstride and so you end up with one of 2 versions of runner’s knee.

14:19 How iliotibial band syndrome happens, and how it makes people appear to be over-pronating and wind up with those orthotics, when really it’s about your pelvis not moving appropriately.

15:55 If you let your pelvis move properly, you are less likely to overstride, and the energetic cost of running goes down. People always PR after learning how to do this in addition to their pain going away.

17:15 what does the Balanced Runner approach look like?

19:31 The best defense against bad advice is the ability to feel what you’re doing and to trust your own sense of what you know to be most comfortable and right for you, regardless of what anyone tells you. And you can always improve the accuracy of your ability to feel yourself.

22:08 What does a Feldenkrais session a la Balanced Runner look like?

24:54 The key thing for people to know who want to transition to minimal footwear or to barefoot running should know is that stress is good for our bodies, it makes us rebuild stronger, but you have to have the stress applied at a rate from which you can recover. So take it slowly. If you want to be running fully barefoot skin adapts within a few weeks, soft tissues in a few months, and bones over a matter of years just as a result of cell turnover. So go slower in the transition than you think you need to.

25:45 Form-wise regarding barefoot running, people usually try to switch from a heel strike to a forefoot strike, which often results in a prancing action which is very stressful to the metatarsals, or they don’t change their heel strike overstriding and so they develop achilles tendinopathy. You have to change what your whole body does.

26:58 What Jae says is the worst advice for barefoot running.

27:15 The basic elements of healthy running form (a list for all you runners who want to know the basics).

28:00 If what’s happening from the hips up is working right, you pretty much won’t overstride. But if you try to fix your overstriding from the ips down you will be unsuccessful.

30:29 Jae’s personal story of how she went from hating running (it felt horrible to her body), to falling in love with it. How Feldenkrais lessons taught her to feel great as a runner, and how no one was talking about what she had found made people comfortable as runners, so she started Balanced Runner!

Safe transition to minimal footwear

[Side note from Brooke: this is a great addendum to the last DIY Friday on eradicating foot pain, which is a review of Katy Bowman's fab book. And for those of you who are minimal footwear curious (no they don't all have to show your toes in all their glory...), some great brands to check out are: Vibrams 5 Fingers, Vivo Barefoot, Merrell Connect, New Balance Minimus, and AirwalksEnter Jillian: 3731945345_fcc530cc96_bSo, spring is here and soon it’s gonna be summer. I’ll be out walking every day, and I’m sure you will too. Right? Promise me you’ll go out walking every day because it’s one of the best things you can do for your health! Good. There’s a big trend right now toward minimal footwear, like the famed 5 Fingers.

It is a trend that I am more than happy to follow. For some people it can be hard to catch up and jump on the bandwagon though, because their feet are already so screwed up. It can be discouraging to start wearing minimal shoes and then discover that they are way harder on the feet and increase your foot pain. You thought these shoes were supposed to be good for you! Trust me, they are good for you, but if your foot is really weak and tight (which most feet are) it can be downright damaging to the foot to wear minimal shoes . But don’t worry! As long as you don’t have gangrene  you can whip your feet back into shape and you can transition to minimal shoes. I’m going to give you some tips on how to do this, so you can experience all the rad-tastic benefits without busting up your parts.

First of all, why is minimal foot wear so awesome? Because it allows the foot to move. Movement is the key to health in any part of the body. Movement increases circulation, it stretches tight muscle, it strengthens weak muscle, provides fresh oxygen and increases lymph flow to the area in motion, which in turn decreases inflammation and pain in the area, it keeps the bones strong, blahblah you get the idea. This is really important for the feet, since they are the base you stand on. If you have hurting feets, it’s gonna be really hard for you to get in any of the movement the rest of your body requires for health. Standard foot wear, especially shoes with an elevated heel (which is anything that isn’t 100% flat, I’m not just talking about high heels) does not let your foot move, and the heel maintains an incorrect joint angle in the ankle and knee while you move around. Ouch. It’s like stuffing your foot in a cast, day after day, week after week…30 – 80 years go by and you have bunions and plantar fasciitis and you can’t even walk to the car, let alone go hiking on a woodsy trail. Now, because your atrophied foot muscles can’t bear the weight of your body anymore and everything hurts all the damn time, you get stuck in really supportive shoes and orthotic arch supports. Here’s the killer though, the more supportive the shoe, the more your muscles will atrophy  and the worse the problem gets! All the support you’re putting around your foot is basically telling your muscles to shag off and go on vacation. The less supportive the shoe, the more your own foot has to move and work to support you, and the healthier it becomes.

The first step is admitting you have a problem. Hehe. No, the first step is getting into some flat footwear. Start going barefoot around your house, and start transitioning to wearing flats all the time. If you’re having a lot of pain, try wearing low heels for a while, and then wear flats more often.


These Sketcher’s Go Walk shoes are a nice transition shoe for someone who is used to wearing high heels all the time. They are NOT flat, but they are flexible. I wouldn’t wear them forever, but they’re a really nice step between high heel and flat shoe!


This stretch on a half roller or a rolled up towel will help you get into flats more quickly.

Even going from flat shoes to minimal shoes is tricky. I have wonderfully healthy mobile feet, but after just 1 hour in my new shoes, my feet were really feeling it. I discovered a muscle on the bottom of my foot that controls my pinky toe. Evidently, ALL your toesies are important for walking. A little bit of foot training goes a long way when trying to get used to shoes with less support.

Finally, go easy on yourself. Don’t decide one day that you’re just going to wear minimal shoes all the time after years of wearing high heel shoes. You have to prepare your foot, and then get in the water slowly. Wear your new minimal shoes for short walks at first, and when you’re not wearing minimal shoes make sure to keep wearing flats so you don’t undo all your hard work.

A final tip: really minimal shoes work best on natural surfaces. They’re great for going hiking in the woods, or walks on gravel trails, or over fields, etc. Not so great for long walks on pavement. Your muscle and bone was designed to thrive in a natural environment. Walking or running around on pavement (in minimal shoes) can be harmful to your feet, and even your bones. It’s not the shoe’s fault. Minimal shoes are still awesome and great for you, but if you stuff your atrophied  tight, weak feet into a pair and then go for a long walk on pavement, you’re asking for trouble! Prepare your feet, don’t undo the work by wearing elevated heels, take the transition slowly, and don’t spend long times on pavement or concrete in minimal shoes.

Vibrams photo by The Witchery 

Re-posted from the original post Safe Transition to Minimal Footwear, With a Video! with permission from Jillian Nicol


About the Author

red dressI’m Jillian.  I’ve been a fit person for as long as I can remember, walking and exercising have always been some of my favorite pastimes.  So it made sense that when I became pregnant, I remained fairly active through my entire pregnancy,though I had pain in my tailbone which was crippling at times and lots of foot and leg pain.  After the delivery of my daughter, it was 10 days before I could even stand again, let alone carry on with my previous active lifestyle. It became clear to me that although I was an extremely fit person, my body wasn’t really working the way it was supposed to.  My back hurt all the time, I had pelvic pain, and what seemed like the beginning of arthritis in one knee and one hand.  I no longer felt comfortable in my own skin, and thought that age and childbirth were to blame.

Then I found the Restorative Exercise™ program, and felt like I had unearthed some kind of treasure.  Here was a way for me to get my own health back and an opportunity to spend my time helping other people increase their well being, too.

Now, as a certified Restorative Exercise™ specialist and certified Healthy Foot practitioner, I am dedicated to helping others learn about the impact of movement patterns on their health.  It’s my mission in life to help people understand that what we consider normal aging of the body is not inevitable, that pain doesn’t have to be a part of everyday life, and that many diseases can be reversed without drugs or invasive surgeries.  My goal is to bring this information and the Restorative Exercise™ movement program to people of every level of mobility and health.