Over the past few years there has been an upsurge in the idea of “minimalism” or “barefoot running”, particularly in the USA. The concept has now reached British shores, with most shoe manufacturers designing their own type of “minimalist” running shoes.
The idea of bringing the foot lower and closer to the ground, and therefore adapting a more “natural” running style, is not without merit, but any potential converts to minimalism must be warned that for most people it should actually be done carefully and with gradual training to avoid long-term injury. Whilst the idea of being virtually barefoot may appeal to romantics, it has to be remembered that we now live in a world of hard, artificial terrains, and most of us will have to use a road or pavement at some point in our runs, even if it is only to get to fields or footpaths for the main part of our run. Running shoes have been engineered over the past fifty years to absorb impact and shock and protect the joints as much as possible, and taking this protection away – or reducing it suddenly – should not be done lightly.
Reducing the heel:toe ratio (which is generally 10-12mm in normal high-mileage running shoes) increases the effects of exercise on the calf muscles and achilles tendon, thus the potential to strengthen and improve these muscles for faster, stronger running is maximised. HOWEVER, do not throw away your old running shoes and immediately replace them with a minimalist pair, and expect to be Mo Farah by Christmas… training muscles which have – until recently – been cushioned by lovely, shock-absorbing, running shoes needs to done carefully and is fraught with the risk of strains and injuries.
Developing the calf muscles too rapidly can cause lots of pains and problems, including notorious shin-splints – whereby the muscles on the front and inside of the leg, which naturally develop slower than the calf muscles, may strain. This can result in the tendon microscopically tearing away from the shin bone causing those nasty sharp pains and swellings synonymous with shin-splints.
In short, a true minimalist shoe will put a lot of extra strain on your leg muscles, and you should expect some aches and pains in the first few months anyway, but with respect and structured training the risk of anything serious occurring should be very small. Ideal candidates for minimalism are those who are already mid-foot or fore-foot landers when they run, as this is how the foot behaves naturally. For heavier, slower, heel-striking runners, minimalism should be tackled very slowly.
Saucony have produced a helpful guide to minimalist running, to accompany their latest range of minimalist shoes, and we have them in the shop to give out to any runners interested in incorporating this type of training into their running regime. They generally recommend doing your normal run in your usual road shoes, but then tacking on an extra 5 minute run at the end in a minimalist shoe (a racing flat may also give the same result). Do this a couple of times the first week before gradually increasing the length of time spent in the minimalist shoe if no pain occurs. If the muscles feel strained or sore do not attempt to increase the runs until the muscles are happy and relaxed again.
For more advice or information, or to try a minimalist shoe for yourself, come on in and see us!