Minimalist Running Explained

A closeup of a runners feet while barefoot running on a track

A closeup of a runners feet while barefoot running on a track
When minimalist running comes into the conversation, I’m often faced with the same response: “Yes, I do that. I minimally run. I probably go for about one or two runs a month!” Ha ha, very funny. But let’s be real for a second. I am frequently asked what exactly is minimalist running and what is my opinion on it? Well, to put it simply, minimalist running is running with the least amount of foot support and cushion you are comfortable with. What is my opinion, you ask? Love it! Do I think it is for everyone? No, but probably most people.

Let’s get down to the details…

Running coaches, personal trainers, physiotherapists, chiropractors, podiatrists, pedorthists and running enthusiasts alike will often debate about this topic. Are we made to run in big bulky shoes or bare foot like the Aztecs? We can’t deny that some of the fastest runners in the world come from places where they don’t train in shoes. So why are we bombarded daily with ads for the newest running shoe technology and faced with the ever-intimidating floor to ceiling wall of shoes at the stores? The truth is, there is no research confirming that wearing running shoes with more stability or cushion reduce the frequency of injuries in runners, yet we are made to believe that shoes that come with a long list of fancy sounding technology are what we need. Is this really true? I have been following the barefoot trend for some time now and have been working myself into wearing minimal shoes over the past year. From my clinical and personal experience, it seems apparent that for most people, running in “minimalist” shoes reduces the prevalence of injuries and increases performance.

A few weeks ago I attended a course called “New Trends in the Prevention of Running Injuries” put on by Blaise Dubois of The Running Clinic (Quebec). Blaise is a physiotherapist who works with runners of all levels, including national and Olympic athletes. He reviewed A LOT of research on the topic, as well as shared some of his clinical experiences. It seems as though over 90% of the population that have switched to minimal footwear experience less injuries and improved running performance (with the proper training on how to do so, of course).

Research has shown that wearing “big bulky shoes” (as Blaise calls them) actually interferes with the bodies natural movement pattern, immobilizes the joints in the foot and weakens the muscles of the foot and ankle. This leads to increased risk of injuries including sprains, strains and stress fractures, not only in the foot or ankle, but in the entire lower extremity. In addition, improperly fitted shoes, ie. too narrow or too short, can result in bunion formation, turf toe, hammer toe, and other structural problems.

The latest trend in the running world, and fitness training in general, is to go back to the basics – bare feet. However, this is not so easy for those who have been training for many years in big, bulky running shoes. Their body has likely become adapted and it will take some time, patience and diligence to move towards wearing more minimalist footwear. Walking or running around outside with bare feet also poses an issue of cleanliness and safety. Social standards say that we should wear shoes when we are not at home or on the beach, so you may get some funny looks if you try to go sans shoes. You also don’t know what is on the ground and may find yourself on some rough terrain, therefore you will want to wear shoes for protection. There are a number of options out there to chose from but there are certain requirements to look for when buying minimal footwear.

  1. Optimal fit – there should be no tight spots or pressure points anywhere.
  2. Flexibility – you should be able to bend the entire sole of the shoe with your hands. This will ensure that your foot will be able to move and bend naturally.
  3. Minimal thickness – the sole should not be thick to minimize interference between your foot and the ground, as well as not have a large angle (or no angle) between the heel and the forefoot. This will allow your foot to feel the ground, reconnecting your body’s sensory receptors with your brain.
  4. Avoid motion control technologies – this will allow your body to increase stability naturally.
  5. Lightness – the shoe should be as light as possible. Heavy shoes cause the muscles in your foot and leg to work harder, thus increasing risk of injury.

If you are learning about this for the first time, it may feel like this is just a trend that will be long forgotten about in a few years when new ideas and theories pop up. However, minimal footwear has actually been around for a long time and humans have been running barefoot since the dawn of existence. Cavemen probably didn’t have motion controlled shoes, right? The reality is that the research on minimal and barefoot running is very extensive, and it has been proven clinically time and time again that if we can gradually move to a flatter shoe, many acute or chronic injuries can be resolved. This has to mean something, doesn’t it?

So, how do you know if minimalist running is for you? What sort of physical characteristics do you require in order to switch? What are the prerequisites for minimal running?

Well, some believe that one should have proper range of motion of the foot and ankle, adequate muscular strength and endurance, and the ability to balance on one leg. However, although meeting these requirements would be great, it is not necessary to move towards minimalist running. The one big obstacle seems to be the tissues tolerance to the change in shoe thickness. The best way to start is to be very gradual with the process and give yourself, and your feet, time. Our bodies will begin to adapt, ranges of motion will improve, as will strength and balance. The minimalist shoes will actually provoke your body to run with better biomechanics unconsciously. It has been the experience of The Running Clinic that after several thousand prescriptions of minimal shoes, the most advice they give is to be gradual and listen to the body.

How to start:

  1. Be progressive. Begin with only 1 minute of running with the minimal shoes at the beginning of your run. Put on your traditional shoes after this “training” minute. Add 1 more minute max. of running with the minimalist shoes each day. If pain or discomfort is felt after adding 1 more minute, return back to the previous time for one or two days, then progress.
  2. Listen to your body. Structures that were not moving very much with your traditional shoes will now be moving and will be prone to injury. If you feel pain in your foot, calf, Achilles tendon, or top of the foot, you are progressing too fast.
  3. Walk barefoot as much as possible. Even if is just at home or in your backyard. Take any opportunity you can to shed those shoes and enjoy being a kid again. Be aware of the surfaces you are walking on if you are outside or on foreign terrain. Try walking on multiple different surfaces (eg. carpet, wood, tile, grass, sand) to wake up the sensory receptors in your feet.
  4. Take your new shoes for a walk. Walking in your minimalist footwear will help you adapt to your shoes without adding the stress of running. If running for 1 minute in your new, sleek minimalist footwear is too much, begin with just walking in them. Progressively build up to running (#1). If your running is progressing reasonably well, keep going.
  5. Consult. It may be important to consult with a health professional or running/training coach who has experience with minimal footwear and running.

It is important to note that although minimalist running or footwear is helpful for over 90% of the population, is not for everyone. If you have absolutely no injuries, you are completely comfortable in your footwear, or you do not want to improve your running performance, then you may not want to make the switch. There are also certain situations in which one requires more support and protection. Some examples include the following:

  • Acute foot conditions (Achilles tendonitis, fracture, acute (not chronic) plantar fasciitis, etc.)
  • Metatarsalgia
  • Advanced diabetes with peripheral neuropathy
  • Trail runner on advanced terrain or trail running at night
  • Trauma to the foot resulting in complex foot pathology
  • Certain neurological deficits

To wrap things up, it is important to remember that most people benefit from minimalist running and footwear. Just be aware to transition gradually and carefully, and most importantly, listen to your body.

Please refer to The Running Clinic website for additional tips and information on minimalist running and footwear.

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