Is Minimalist Running For You?

By Cindy Hull
Heartland Foot and Ankle Associates

Interest in “barefoot running” and barefoot-style running shoes has increased in the last couple of years.  Most people don’t actually run barefoot, but instead simulate the feel of running barefoot by wearing some sort of minimalist shoe.  After decades of wearing high-tech shoes with gel packs, air pockets, coils, and padding; the tide seems to be moving toward a “less is more” philosophy.  Minimalist shoes, which include the Vibram Five Finger and Nike Free, have little to no support or padding that most of us are used to.  All the shoe companies are coming out with their own version of “barefoot-style” shoes.  One can’t help but wonder if running using a minimalist shoe is better for you than traditional stability shoes.

The trend toward minimalist running was inspired in part by the best-selling book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, who studied an Indian Tribe in Mexico to find out why they could routinely run 100 miles or more every day while only wearing paper thin sandals.  Advocates of minimalist running say that running with little or no padding is more natural for your body and can allow for less injury due to a more natural position of your foot. The other side argues that minimalist running does not provide enough support or cushion for foot strike during running and therefore increases the risk of developing conditions such as fallen arches or plantar fasciitis as well as increased risk of injury due to puncture wounds, stepping on sharp objects, and inadequate foot support. 

Traditional running shoes position the foot so that the toes are lower than the heel.  This is because most people run with their heel hitting the ground first.  The minimalist shoes are designed to position your foot in a more natural position with it being more level to the ground.  With minimalist running the runner should strike the ground with the midfoot or the ball of the foot first rather than the heel.  Minimalist shoes and barefoot running do not have adequate padding for a heel-strike type gait  - it will hurt! 

Is minimalist running for you?  If you’d like to give it a try, it’s important to make the transition slowly to avoid injury.   Start out by alternating your normal running shoes with a minimalist shoe that still has some padding.    It is also important to begin on a softer surface such as grass or dirt rather than concrete since your foot will have little to no padding/ protection and is more at risk for injuries.   Concentrate on landing with your mid foot instead of your heel.  You’ll be using different muscles than before, so it’s important to gradually increase your distance as your calf and foot muscles get used to the difference in stride. The transition may take many months and will be simpler for some runners than it will be for others.

No matter what method you use to run - be it minimalist or traditional - if something hurts, stop running and tend to the pain.  It’s a good idea to check with a podiatrist prior to beginning minimalist running because this running style isn’t good for people with certain foot conditions such as plantar fasciitis, flat feet or bunions. The important things to remember are to listen to your body and transition slowly. If running using the minimalist method is painful or you just don’t like it, it’s easy to go back to traditional shoes. 

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