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Are Minimal Running Shoes Right for You?

Written by S. Nicole Davis, PT, DPT

With recent hype about minimal running shoes and barefoot running, many runners are left to ponder, “Should I switch to minimal running shoes?”  For those who have decided to try it, advice on how to make the switch is vague.  What exactly does “take some time to adapt” really mean?

Up until the 80’s, all running shoes were “minimal” with very little support or cushioning.  That changed when shoe companies started adding “features” with claims to prevent injury and to customize the shoe to fit various foot types.  Current research however is showing that despite all those high-tech “improvements” to running shoes, injuries haven’t decreased.  Furthermore, research is showing that all that cushioning the shoe companies added doesn’t actually decrease the impact forces on the body.  What does decrease the impact forces on the body, is landing further forward on the foot – midfoot or forefoot strike – something almost everyone does when running barefoot or in a flat shoe with no padding.  (In traditional running shoes, the bulk of the heel of the shoe causes most runners to land on their heel – or heel strike.)  And thus began the re-invention of the minimal running shoe.  Furthermore, running barefoot or minimal seems to improve the biomechanics of most runners as they adopt a shorter, quicker stride.  Running barefoot or minimal also improves balance and stability due to improved sensory input to the soles of the feet.

So why wouldn’t you transition to a minimal shoe?  Running on the forefoot requires increased strength in the calves and small muscles of the feet.  For feet that have been fully “supported” by medial posts, stiff heel counters, and a variety of other shoe features for a lifetime, those muscles are quite weak from disuse.

Want to give minimal shoes a try?  The amount of time to transition to minimal shoes is dependent on the runner.  Strong, efficient, natural forefoot strikers with a number of years of running can transition in 2 to 3 months.  At the other end of the spectrum, the severely over-pronating, heel striker who has only been running for a year or so, may need upwards of 9 months or more to transition.  Tissues in the body remodel in response to the stresses placed upon them.  Not only do muscles need to strengthen, but tendon-bone junctions and bones need to remodel.  While the body will adapt, it needs plenty of time to do so or injury will occur.

The best place to start is perhaps with a racing flat with a 5 to 6 mm heel-toe drop.  These shoes tend to be a bit more forgiving if you accidently land on your heel for a few strides while you are teaching your body to run on your forefoot.  However, the heels are sufficiently low to allow you to actually land on your fore or mid foot.  Running on a hard packed dirt surface, rather than asphalt, will also ease the transition.

Begin the transition by running barefoot on a level grassy surface to get the feel of running on the forefoot.  Start with 3 to 5 minutes 3 times a week and gradually increase your run time by a minute or so a week.  Let your feet and calves be your guide.  If you have any soreness, let it subside before going on your next run and decrease the length of your next few runs.  Do not increase to a longer time until you can run the current one without soreness.  After you can run 7 to 10 minutes, put on your minimal shoes and run for the same amount of time.  Continue to gradually increase your time/distance.

Who shouldn’t transition to minimal running shoes?  Anyone with current pain in the bottom of their foot, inner shin, or calves.  Those muscles need time to heal before being asked to adapt to the new stresses of running minimal.  Pain in the knees or outside shins is not necessarily a reason to stay away from minimal shoes.  Running on the forefoot can often help those pain problems because biomechanics generally improve.   A physical therapist with specialized training in treating runners can help you address any current pain issues and help you decide when to begin the transition to minimal shoes.

S. Nicole Davis, DPT is a physical therapist at Amber Hill Physical Therapy of Urbana.  Her special interests include running injury prevention and treating running injuries, particularly in youth and high school runners.  She is also the strength and conditioning coach for Lightning Running Club’s Cross Country and Distance Running and Road Racing teams.