Why Barefoot or Minimalist Running?

I’m sure by now we all have seen runners in the Seattle area without shoes and have shook our heads and thought “those crazy hippies” or, more frequently, we’ve seen those funny-looking five-toed running shoes built for minimalist running. Why did this idea of barefoot or minimalist running become so popular? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this technique?

 While runners are always looking for an edge to get lighter, faster, and more efficient, or decrease risk of injury, many immediately thought that the barefoot or minimalist running style was the answer to increase speed and efficiency. Many runners made the switch without understanding the science behind this technique, and without allowing their bodies to adapt at a safe pace. Many studies have followed runners transitioning from running shod (with supporting shoes) to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes and realized that, while there may have been improvement after a period of time, some of the only changes that occurred were the types and locations of injuries in the calves, ankles, and feet of the runners. Some of these common injuries are foot stress fractures, calf tears, and Achilles strains.

 Without going into great scientific detail about factors such as running economy and speed, oxygen consumption (VO2), ground contact time, and stride frequency and length, we can learn and understand a lot by knowing that in each foot there are 26 bones, 33 articulations, 111 ligaments, and more than 20 muscles. We were created and designed to run without shoes for hunting and survival purposes. However, over time, we believed that support and cushioning from protective little ‘houses’ for our feet was the best way to protect them from rocks, cold, heat, and other dangerous elements. This may be true, but people don’t often realize that, just as protecting an injury over a long period of time will result in decreased strength and functional efficiency, our feet and ankles have become weaker, and are at a greater risk of injury, especially if we transition quickly from running shod to running unshod or with minimal support.

 As we’ve now provided some background information on barefoot and minimalist running let’s look at the specific pros and cons of this style of running.

 PROS:

·      Potentially strengthened muscles, tendons, and ligaments, and may allow one to return to a more anatomically natural gait.

·      May improve balance and proprioception of our feet as it allows the many nerves and small muscles in our feet to work as they were designed to work, providing us information about the level and texture of our ground surface, and allowing us to feel more connected and grounded. Toes can also expand and form contact to a greater surface area.

·      Research shows that it is more natural to strike the ground with our forefoot, as opposed to our heel. However, many people have developed a heel strike due to the excessive padding and support of running shoes. Running with a forefoot strike allows our arches to work as they were designed to, as natural shock absorbers.

·      By removing the padded heel in shoes and running barefoot or with minimalist shoes, the Achilles tendon and calf muscle will become stronger and more mobile, which can decrease risk of calf strains or Achilles tendinitis.

 

CONS:

·      Running without shoes or in minimalist shoes greatly increase the risk of scrapes and cuts from ground debris, as well as burns from heat, and frostbite in cold and snowy conditions.

·      Transitioning from running shod to running barefoot or wearing a minimal shoe can be a shock to the foot and requires a time period of transition. The foot will feel sore and overworked, and these factors increase the chances of suffering injuries such as Achilles tendinitis or calf strain.

·      The sole of the feet (or plantar surface) in many individuals are typically soft and unaccustomed to close or direct contact with the ground and all of the hidden, painful dangers that our shoes protect us from. It takes time to build up tough skin and callouses. Plantar fasciitis is a common side effect of rapid transitioning from running shod to running with no or minimal protection.

 

How to Train Safely: GRADUALLY!

If you have decided that you’d like to try barefoot or minimalist running, there are several things to remember before starting to run. Begin with walking for a few weeks to strengthen the muscles in your feet and ankles and toughen the skin on the bottom of your feet. Then start running for 5-10 minutes a couple of times each day. When you have built up greater foot, ankle, and calf strength you can significantly reduce the risk of injury. Finally, after continuing to run barefoot or in minimalist shoe support, you will notice that you have longer strides and a greater spring in your step! In order to learn more about the pros and cons of barefoot or minimalist running, check out articles listed here! http://www.runnersworld.com