The rise of the minimalist movement was really kicked off in 2010 with the publication of Chris McDougal’s book ‘Born to Run‘ which, amongst other things, documented his experience of meeting the Tarahumara in mexico, an indigenous tribe who have been known to run great distances wearing nothing but sandals made from old tyres.
The book has become so ridiculously popular that it has now become a cliché to cite this as your introduction into minimalism, but I’m afraid that I must count myself as one of those who has been converted since it’s publication.
Go and pick up a pair of trainers that you own. You will probably notice that the heel is significantly higher than the forefoot (this is know as the heel to toe differential) and that the front of the shoe (known as the ‘toe box), narrows almost to a point.
Now stand on a flat surface with your bare feet shoulder width apart. Notice how your heel is at the same level as the ball of your foot (duh) and your toes spread apart slightly due to your weight? Also notice how your foot is much wider at the front than at the heel? These are characteristics of human evolution which have developed over millions of years. However in the last few decades, sports shoe manufacturers have attempted to increase performance and reduce injury rates by introducing more and more features which alter these characteristics and our natural bio-mechanics. Proponents of the minimalist movement have highlighted the lack of evidence to prove that this technology provides any benefit and questioned whether much of it is actually just clever marketing and gimmicks.
Proprioception, defined as ‘the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement’ is a vital to enable the body to make minute adjustments to optimise the efficiency and safety during movement. In running and walking, our body uses proprioceptive feedback from the thousands of nerves in the foot to make tiny (or not so tiny) adjustments to cater for minute changes in terrain. This allows us to move efficiently and protect our muscles, tendons and joints from overload and injury. Cushioned shoes may inhibit this natural process by insulating us from the surface upon which we are stepping and therefore actually increasing the chances of us getting hurt.
Many sports shoes and casual shoes also have toe boxes which taper and squish the toes in. This prevents our toes and metatarsals from spreading upon landing which is an important component of our natural shock absorption system. Over time, this may also result in foot deformities such as bunions.
Another common characteristic of modern shoes is that they have raised heels which are typically somewhere around 12mm higher than the forefoot. This feature was added to try to reduce stress on the Achilles tendon but in recent times, people have began to raise serious questions about the negative impact that it may be having on the way that we walk and run. Having a raised heel adjusts our biomechanics and encourages us to take long strides and land on our heels when we run. You can find this out for yourself by going for a quick jog on some grass, first in your running shoes and then in your bare feet. You will notice that without shoes, your body will natureally adjust your technique to land on the middle or the ball of your foot whereas in shoes, you will be more inclined to land on your heel first and then rock through onto your toes.
When we land on the middle part of our foot, the muscles and tendons in our calf act as a shock absorber, helping to reduce the impact on our body. Over striding and heel striking have been shown to produce in a spike in the impact force produce when our foot lands and many believe that this produces an increased chance of injury. Minimalist shoes on the other hand, tend to have a small heel to toe differential (less than 8mm) and this encourages us to land on the mid part of our feet so that we can fully utilse our bodies natural suspension.
In order to fully benefit from the potential advantages of minimalist running, we must also spend some time looking closely at our running technique and consider whether we need to make some adjustments.
Minimalist shoes have the following key characteristics:
At the extreme end of this spectrum, we find shoes with toe pockets such as the Vibram Fivefingers Spyridon below. Fortunately, there are also a multitude of conventional looking minimalist shoes out there…..
This is another issue which tends to polarise opinion.
Before getting into the minimalist movement, I noticed that my local running store offered free gait analysis so I thought i would go along and check it out. During the consultation, I was told that I needed motion control shoes and custom built orthotic inserts as I had problems with my running form that would pre-dispose me towards injury and disability. I was put off the idea as I felt that the way it was presented was slightly cynical and a ‘sales pitch’ rather than a solution to the underlying cause. On reflection, this was a one-off bad experience and I’m sure it is not representative of everyone who prescribes orthotics but it has stuck with me ever since.
Following this, I did some research and decided to spend several months working on my technique and transitioning into minimalist shoes. Since then, I have been running several times a week for three years and have suffered only two minor injuries which have not stopped me from training. The first was a bruised metatarsal, which was due to me being a dumb ass (see below), and the second was a hip abductor issue which occurred after I increasing my training volume too quickly.
Many advocates of the minimalist movement make the point that if we have an injury and we attempt to address it by supporting the foot with a motion-control shoe or an orthotic insert, it may provide an initial benefit but eventually the foot will adapt to it and become weaker. Then, after a while, the initial problem comes back or a new one raises its head and a different set of orthotics are required. The cycle continues and the underlying cause is not addressed.
I have come across several people in the clinic and who have become stuck in this situation and my general advise would be to ensure that the person who has prescribed the orthotics is also providing you with a plan of action for getting back off of them once the initial problem has improved. It is also really important that you play your part during the rehabilitation process by following advice that you have been given and doing your exercises. Obviously each case is different and I would certainly not recommend that every single person stop using their orthotics but I would encourage you to question whether or not they are providing a long term benefit..
Like a lot of other people, I initially dived into this headfirst like a dope, purchased a pair of Vibram Fivefingers and tried to wear them for every single run regardless of the terrain. This resulted in very sore calves and a bruised metatarsal which took me a few weeks to get over.
An adaption period is essential and minimalist footwear should be selected to reflect the terrain and your current level of conditioning. This can take many months and its vitally important to be patient and make the transition slowly. There is some excellent information on this subject at the Natural Running Centre website.
For me, Barefoot Running is a useful training tool when implemented correctly as there is no substitute to running and walking unshod to experience full propreoceptive feedback. It can provide an a important and fascinating perspective on your running form – if something doesn’t feel right then there may be a bio-mechanical issue needs to be identified and addressed.
I feel it is useful to walk and run barefoot periodically in a safe environment where you will not hurt yourself. However, I do not personally advocate barefoot running on a day to day basis. For me it is just too restrictive and impractical. In my opinion, if your feet have toughen up to a point where you can run on any surface, surely your natural ability to feel the ground underneath your feet has actually reduced so the experience will be pretty close to wearing a pair of super minimalist shoes anyway?
I try to wear shoes that are as minimal as I can get away with for the given activity and terrain. This means that if all of my shoes for work, walking and running are flat, thin and wide in the toe box. For running for short durations, I have found it helps me practice my technique if I run in flat shoes with less cushioning but this can become a little unforgiving when it comes to longer distances. For runs exceeding an hour in duration, I have found that a 4mm heel-toe differential seems to be my ‘sweet spot’. I probably have more pairs of shoes than most people as I very much believe that it is worth having the right tools for the job. This tends to mean that shoes last for quite a long time so you don’t necessarily spend more money if you have more pairs (within reason).