This is a guest post by Aaron O’Connor, who runs, writes, and is an amateur fitness trainer in Washington state.
Lately, running shoeless has been all the rage amongst runners. New foot coverings have been developed that are little more than that: simple encasements that cover the foot but that do not provide any support as you run. Whether you are just setting up an indoor routine after perusing treadmill reviews or running outdoors, many people believe that these minimalist shoes are beneficial in preventing the stress- and impact-related injuries that can be caused by regular running shoes.
After running in shoes like these myself for more than half a year, I’ve learned a bit about their pros and cons. In short, the major advantage is that they encourage you to practice good form and strengthen foot and leg muscles that tend to get left out by running in regular shoes. On the other hand, their reduced or nonexistent support can lead to injury if you’re too used to or transition too quickly from regular running shoes.
The truth of the matter is that humans are not perfect. Many people do not run with an ideal stride. Physical predisposition or bad habits lead us to run with slight quirks and unbalances, and especially if you are running multiple miles every day, this can cause severe injuries over time. Regular running shoes are relatively heavily padded, especially in the heel, with the idea of cushioning the footfall (especially in heel-strike runners) and stabilizing the foot by supporting the arch.
This is why older runners are sometimes told to refrain from wearing minimalist footwear. As the body ages, it becomes more and more prone to repetitive stress injuries. In fact, the injuries that are most common among older runners, such as hip and knee pain, are often caused by imperfections in running stride. As such, it is thought that the thicker build of regular running shoes is preferable for its padding and support.
However, this is not the best solution for everyone. In fact, regular running shoes have their own drawbacks. Because of their heavy padding and the running habits they encourage, they can lead to injury as well. The key to running safely in any shoes is to ensure that your form is correct. If you tend to land on the balls or the middle of your feet when you run, then your body may be less affected by stress injuries as your feet hit the ground, no matter how thin the protective coverings on your feet. Because of their thickly padded heels, regular running shoes allow you to run with a heel strike without feeling the discomfort that would cause without the padding. Even so, that padding doesn’t actually eliminate the force of impact in the heel strike, which puts a great deal of stress on the knees especially. With good form, it’s possible to run with a heel strike and avoid injury, but now some biomechanics researchers and proponents of minimalist running believe that the heel strike enabled by heavily padded shoes is responsible for the high instance of injuries among runners since the advent of Nike in the 1970s.
On the other hand, running with minimalist footwear precludes the heel strike (try running barefoot and heel-striking for a few strides on asphalt or even softer turf and see how that feels). Running with a fore- or mid-foot strike builds foot strength, and helps you develop key muscles in your shins and calves, reducing the likelihood of injuries such as shin splints that can arise when these areas are inadequately exercised, as tends to be the case with regular shoes.
The key remains good form, and inasmuch as minimalist shoes necessitate exactly that, they can help runners of any age develop and maintain good running habits and avoid injuries common among many runners. Because the bodies of all runners degenerate over time, older runners stand to benefit a great deal from adopting the careful, technique-focused approach of minimalist running.
However, this approach is definitely not without its own hazards. A major one (that I’ve experienced myself) is related to the issue of foot strength. Specifically, running with a forefoot strike puts a lot of mechanical stress on the foot (because of dorsiflexion, the bending upward of the foot), which can lead to micro-fractures in the bones above the toes. This is responsible for the common complaint of ‘top-of-foot pain’ among minimalist runners. This injury usually isn’t serious, and can be avoided by running with a mid-foot strike and shorter stride length more of the time. The problem is that it takes time for feet to develop the strength needed to run stably and without this sort of injury, and most people who haven’t run before or are used to running in regular shoes won’t have this strength to begin with.
This gets to the heart of the matter for anybody considering minimalist shoes for running. The transition must be made carefully, especially for older runners, to avoid injury and develop the strength and form that’ll allow you to continue to avoid injury. You can try switching to minimalist shoes in a moderate manner to make the transition as smooth as possible. For instance, you could choose to run in your minimalist footwear one or two times a week, using your regular running shoes for your other workouts. This allows you to begin to exercise a greater range of your leg muscles while reducing risk of a stress injury in any one area. You can also begin to practice a mid-foot strike in your regular shoes during this transition time.
Every runner is different, and the only way to know whether or not minimalist running is beneficial for you is to give it a try. However, you must be aware of the signs that your body gives you. Remember that if you run with good form, it shouldn’t hurt. If you start to experience unusual pains or soreness after running with minimalist footwear for a few weeks, then stop. If you’re transitioning from running in regular shoes, this pain means your body is used to the extra support or different running habits, and you’re pushing it too much.
Ultimately it is important to remember minimalist footwear is not something everyone can take up instantly. Some people's bodies need the correction that is offered by traditional running shoes, and this is especially true for many older runners accustomed to regular shoes. Indeed, if you’ve been running a long time in regular shoes without any injury issues, you’re doing fine and should run on. However, older runners should not completely dismiss minimalist running, especially if you’ve struggled with stress-related injuries in the past. If you’re willing to work on your foot strike and running form to reduce repetitive stress injuries, then you will likely benefit from the usage of minimalist shoes, no matter what your age. Furthermore, transitioning runners can use minimalist shoes with moderation to ease into the different technique and test the waters. As long as you approach minimalist running in a safe and mindful manner, you will be able to learn (or re-learn) how to run without experiencing injury.