You'd have to be a pretty committed sofa dweller or living under a large rock to have missed minimalist running shoes and their promise of fewer injuries, better strike action and enhanced 'feel' for the ground.
But not everyone is convinced, so we asked two of our contributors to throw down and persuade you, our reader – is minimalist running a good idea?
If you’re injury free and running well, I subscribe to the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ school of thought (says Nik Cook, freelance writer and experienced competitive multisporter). But, if you’re plagued by niggles or suspect your stride is inefficient, a more minimalist approach could help.
Let’s start by debunking an important minimalist myth. It’s not about developing a forefoot strike. It’s perfectly possible to be a heel or mid-foot striker and have a fast, economical and efficient running style. The key is where your foot strikes the ground in relation to your centre of gravity. Too far ahead, as encouraged and facilitated by heavily cushioned shoes, and you’re creating a braking force with every stride. Minimalist shoes tend to encourage a footstrike more directly under your centre of gravity.
But it’s not a quick fix so get some advice and guidance on correct form. You’ll probably be given drills to work on and expect to have to significantly drop your mileage. Try running barefoot on a firm surface to get a sense of how it should feel, and try to replicate it when running shod. You’ll need to gradually introduce the minimalist shoes, maybe just 3 x 5mins initially and slowly build, so you’ll probably need to do specific strength and flexibility work too. A safe transition should take three to six months.
Is it worth the effort? Well, many people, myself included, have found that adopting a more minimalist approach to footwear has improved their speed and reduced injury occurrence. If nothing else, minimalist shoes are considerably lighter and, when you think how many times you lift your foot in a 10km, let alone a marathon, those energy savings definitely add up. It’s not an instant cure-all, though, and takes hard work, but, done properly, it can be worth it.
For many years, people in Western society have been wearing some kind of footwear (writes Andy Bullock, two-time 220 coach of the year award winner). And this footwear is likely to have had a drop from heel to toe, a softer sole to offer cushioning and a support mechanism to limit movement. But humans are very adaptable creatures, and the more we perform a particular act, the stronger the habit becomes and therefore the harder it is to break.
This extends to movement patterns, too. The body’s biomechanics change to fit these habits, so the longer you’ve spent wearing shoes with particular characteristics, the more used to them your body will be. Now think about the amount of time that you spend wearing normal shoes compared to how often you train in minimalist shoes – there’s a huge disparity. All this means that a sudden change to a minimalist run shoe can cause injury, mostly via two key areas.
Firstly, worn over a prolonged period, footwear with a heel-toe drop can cause a shortening of the Achilles and the calf. Making the sudden change to a shoe with no drop means the body has to re-learn how to move, and how far it needs to stretch with every step. If the muscles and tendons aren’t long enough they’ll stretch too much, and this will increase the potential for injury.
Secondly, removal of the support elements results in the muscles and tendons in the foot, lower limbs and, in some cases, even the hips and lower back having to work harder to stabilise the impact when running. If the muscles aren’t strong enough they’ll fatigue quickly, which also leads to injury. Minimalist running is an idyllic concept, but many of us haven’t had time to adapt to a new style of running for the many years that it requires.
Who convinced you? Was it Nik with the lure of lighter footwear and fewer injuries, or Andy with his argument that they need years of adaptation? Let us know in the comments below!