The pros and cons of minimalist running
Posted on 26 January 2016
Is running barefoot for you?
BY DAVID REESE, MONTANA HEALTH JOURNAL
Physical therapist Brian Miller has been a runner most of his adult life.
So when the book “Born to Run” came out a few years ago, Miller naturally picked it up. And it’s changed the way he runs.
The book, from author Christopher McDougall, explores how a tribe in Mexico is able to run using very little or no shoe support. The book has led to a boom in what’s called “minimalist running” a term that describes running barefoot or with “barefoot style” shoes. But minimalist or barefoot running is not for everyone, and Miller quickly learned that when he starting using the Five Finger shoes three years ago. “When I first tried it, I thought ‘Wow, my feet need to get used to this,’” Miller said. Minimalist running mimics the way our feet performed hundreds of years ago.
Proponents of minimalist running say that as hunter-gatherer people our feet adapted over hundreds of years to use the forefoot and midfoot to run and chase game. “It forces people into better running form,” Miller said. When Nike introduced the waffle-soled shoe in the 1970s, that changed everything. The shoes allowed couch-potatoes to start “jogging” and while it did encourage physical fitness, the highly cushioned shoes encouraged people to run the wrong way, landing hard on the heels and pushing off on the toes. “It created a monster,” Miller said. “But there was good logic behind it. The shoes did help people get off the couch and into running.”
However, the shoes also tended to create injuries from pronation of the foot, as well as back, knee and hip injuries, Miller said. KALISPELL PODIATRIST Esther Barnes says she realizes the benefits of minimalist running — and sees its drawbacks. “As a foot doctor I have seen injuries when it’s not done right,” she said. “I’m not against it, but people need to be cautious, careful and slow, and under the supervision of a professional. People can run barefoot successfully and injury free, but it’s not going to be overnight. It’s a process.”
In fact, Barnes is trying it, by using a less structured shoe. Barnes recommends that anyone considering minimalist running should have their feet examined, so that they don’t worsen existing conditions like plantar fasciitis or achilles tendon issues, if they have a foot type that predisposes them. These issues can sometimes be prevented with appropriate stretching and exercises, she said. Barnes said she agrees that the theory behind minimalist running is accurate: it creates a varied running gait and better running form. A shorter running gait creates less stress on the body’s joints. However, this is something that could be accomplished with any style of shoe. “People focus on the shoe instead of the change in running gait,” Barnes said. “You don’t need a fancy minimalist shoe to do that.” But just moving to a shorter stride and placing more stress on the front of the foot can have its harmful effects as well, according to Barnes. When running in minimalist style it can put additional strain on achilles tendons, hamstrings, and even lead to stress fractures, Barnes said. “There needs to be a balance,” she said. “It’s not for everybody.”
Classic heel-strike running causes disproportionate strain on heels, ankles, knees, hips and backs, while minimalist running demands shorter strides, and striking the foot on the front or midsection. This, in turn, allows our forefeet and midfeet, which are better shock absorbers, to bear and mitigate the stresses instead of our heels, knees and hips, Barnes said.
While the minimalist style of running is a great strengthening method, Miller says people considering minimalist running should consult a healthcare professional such as a physical therapist or podiatrist before attempting it. “You have to do it carefully and systematically,” he said. There are now several styles of minimalist shoes to choose from, all the way from the Five Fingers style to flat-soled minimalist shoes. Miller runs with Five Fingers shoes two to three times a week and the rest of the time he uses a flat-soled shoe that offers him good foot protection while giving him some of the benefits of minimalist-shoe running. For people with arthritis or other foot conditions, minimalist running is likely not for them, according to Miller, who leads running clinics.
He saw how harmful minimalist running was on a person —a former marathon runner — who was in a great shape, but whose feet were used to different shoes and a different running style. The woman damaged her arches quickly after beginning the minimalist running style. “It’s all about moderation,” he said. Now that he’s had a few years to train in the minimalist style, Miller says he runs faster now than he ever has. “I always thought running was just running, but with better form I’m faster now than I was in high school,” he said.
Kalispell podiatrist Esther Barnes, DPM, says she does a lot of shoe education for people concerned about their feet. Here are some of her tips: Choose the right size. Have your feet measured. Toenail injury is a common injury from wearing shoes or boots too small. “Feet change and people don’t realize that,” she said. “They’ve been a size eight all their life and that’s what they buy.” Poor-fitting shoes can also cause heel pain, achilles tendinitis, foot numbness and plantar fasciitis, she said. “It doesn’t matter if you spend $100 on a shoe that is a size too small.” Doing foot stretches can help avoid some injuries.
To loosen your toes, Barnes recommends putting a rolled-up towel on the floor and trying to grip it with your toes. •