Barefoot and minimalist shoe running is gaining increasing attention from runners. But is it as simple as ditching your shoes entirely or switching to a minimalist shoe with no cushioning?
Good form is part of healthy running.
- Is barefoot/minimalist running the cure-all for runner’s injuries?
- Is buying a pair of minimalist shoes going to make you a better runner?
The short answer to those questions is definitely “No”.
There are many reasons to try barefoot or minimalist running:
- it feels tremendous
- there is a greater connection with the ground
- it is more natural, and
- it increases strength in the feet and lower legs (compared to wearing conventional shoes),
- it improves balance and agility,
- and the list goes on.
Running technique problems
But what happens when you’ve been running in cushioned shoes whole your life, and suddenly you ditch your shoes?
You generally carry over the running technique you’ve been using in your cushioned shoes to your new non-cushioned way of running. You may be also expecting to be able to carry over your mileage, too. This is a recipe for potential injuries.
The most important thing to focus on is good form always, no matter what we wear or don’t wear on our feet.
The typical running form in cushioned shoes can be described as a heel-striking overstride, which means that you land on your heel ahead of your center of gravity. Because conventional running shoes are padded in the heel area, this form is easy to maintain when wearing shoes.
Take the padding away and try running this way and all the impact that the padding absorbs goes straight into your heel and travels up your leg through your shins, knees, hips, and lower back, which can easily cause impact-related injuries to these joints and tissues.
More info: Running form – Heel or Forefoot Strike
What typically happens when you ditch your shoes and try barefoot or minimalist running, is your brain automatically reacts to the increase in impact. That switches your gait to more of a forefoot landing rather than landing on your heel.
Landing ahead of your center of gravity
But what about the overstriding? Taking off your shoes does not change the muscle memory you’ve developed over the years you’ve been overstriding in your cushioned shoes. So what ends up happening is now you’re landing on your forefoot but still landing ahead of your center of gravity.
Why is landing ahead of your center of gravity such a big deal? Because it adds unnecessary stress to the areas of the body involved in landing. It is potentially causing a different set of impact-related injuries depending on where you are landing on your foot.
If you land on your heel ahead of your center of gravity, whether you’re wearing shoes or not, as mentioned above, that impact can cause shin splints, knee pain, IT-band strain as well as hip and low back pain. If you do not have the added protection of a padded heel shoe, that impact is intensified.
If you land on your forefoot ahead of your center of gravity, the foot rotates inward due to the biological design of our legs and feet, causing you to land on the outside edge of your foot. This is called a lateral forefoot landing, usually between the 4th and 5th metatarsal bones of the foot. These bones are relatively thin and not dense compared to the width and density of the 1st metatarsal bone.
Therefore, a lateral forefoot landing can cause stress fractures of these lateral foot bones, especially the 4th and 5th metatarsals.
Elastic structures of your feet
What about the flexible structures of your feet, the plantar fascia, and the Achilles tendon, when you land ahead of your center of gravity while running?
Because the foot is on the ground for a long time between landing ahead of your body, moving your body above your feet, and then lifting your foot behind you, the elastic structures of your feet are carrying all the load of running for a long time.
This isn’t a problem if you’re walking because the load forces involved in walking are half what they are while running. Therefore, if you land ahead of your center of gravity while running, you are adding extra stress to these flexible structures, which can manifest as injuries to these structures, also known as plantar fasciitis and/or Achilles tendonitis.
Change our running form
Therefore, to prevent these types of stress injuries to the lateral bones of the feet and the flexible structures of our feet and lower legs, it is imperative that we change our running form.
Two crucial aspects of barefoot or minimalist running form, or a more natural running style, are foot posture and cadence.
Healthy running is about maintaining good form, just as safe driving is about not hitting other cars.
Natural running foot posture is one where you land more on the inside of your foot than the outside or on the medial side between your 1st and 2nd metatarsal boneheads. You still want to land on the forefoot but between the big and second toes as opposed to the 4th and 5th smaller toes. And you want to land under your center of gravity and not ahead of it.
Increase your cadence
This aspect of natural running is a lot easier when you increase your cadence to about 180 steps per minute when counting both feet.
With a cadence this fast, it’s difficult to have enough time to land ahead of your center of gravity, and it reduces the stress on your foot and lower leg elastic structures because they are stretched for a minimal amount of time.
Some do run with perfect form no matter what they wear for footwear.
A faster cadence than this starts to reduce running efficiency, so use 180 steps per minute for best efficiency. That encourages a shorter stride, under your center of gravity, and minimizes loading stresses on your plantar fascia and Achilles tendons.
Running form needs to adopt
Getting back to the original question: Is barefoot or minimalist running as simple as ditching your shoes? No.
It might take months to adjust even if your stride and landing on the forefoot come naturally.
It is crucial that your barefoot or minimalist running form adopts the changes necessary to prevent impact- and stress-related injuries. You no longer have any cushioning protection under your feet.
It’s important to educate yourself as to what changes you need to make to your running form to prevent these injuries.
Your body needs to adapt
It is also essential to give your body a chance to adapt to these new changes.
- If you have significant changes to make to your form, you will probably not be able to continue running at the same mileage that you enjoyed while in your cushioned shoes.
- You are going to be using different muscles that are not accustomed to being used in this new way.
- You may also be requiring your flexible structures to stretch further than they have been used to stretching.
Give your body time to make these adjustments. Reduce the length and frequency of your runs, until your muscles become stronger. And also wait for your flexible structures to become more flexible.
Go out and run, and think how much fun it is. Isn’t that what running should be? Have fun.