FORM Not Footwear

Barefoot and minimalist shoe running is gaining increasing attention from the media and runners alike but is it as simple as ditching your shoes completely or switching to a minimalist shoe with no cushioning? Is barefoot/minimalist running the cure all for runner’s injuries? Is buying a pair of minimalist shoes going to make you a better runner? The short answer to those questions is definitely “No”.

There are many reasons to try barefoot or minimalist running: it feels terrific, there is a greater connection with the ground, it is more natural, and compared to wearing conventional shoes, it increases strength in the feet and lower legs, it improves balance and agility, and the list goes on. But what happens when you’ve been running in cushioned shoes for a long time and suddenly you ditch your shoes? You generally carry over the running technique you’ve been using in your cushioned shoes to your new non-cushioned way of running and might be expecting to be able to carry over your mileage, too. This is a recipe for potential injuries.

The typical running form in cushioned shoes can be described as a heel-striking overstride, which means that you land on your heel ahead of your centre of gravity. Because conventional running shoes are padded in the heel area, this form is easy to maintain when wearing shoes. Take the padding away and try running this way and all the impact that the padding absorbs goes straight into your heel and travels up your leg through your shins, knees, hips, and lower back, which can easily cause impact-related injuries to these joints and tissues.

What typically happens when you ditch your shoes and try barefoot or minimalist running, is your brain automatically reacts to the increase in impact and switches your gait to more of a forefoot landing rather than landing on your heel. But what about the overstriding? Taking off your shoes does not change the muscle memory you’ve developed over the (potentially) years you’ve been overstriding in your cushioned shoes. So what ends up happening is now you’re landing on your forefoot but still landing ahead of your centre of gravity.

Why is landing ahead of your centre of gravity such a big deal? Because it adds unnecessary stress to the areas of the body involved in landing, potentially causing a different set of impact-related injuries depending on where you are landing on your foot. If you land on your heel ahead of your centre of gravity, whether you’re wearing shoes or not, as mentioned above, that impact can cause shin splints, knee pain, IT-band strain as well as hip and low back pain. If you do not have the added protection of a padded heel shoe, that impact is exacerbated. If you land on your forefoot ahead of your centre of gravity, the foot rotates inward due to the biological design of our legs and feet, causing you to land on the outside edge of your foot. This is called a lateral forefoot landing, usually between the 4th and 5th metatarsal bones of the foot. These bones are relatively thin and not dense compared to the width and density of the 1st metatarsal bone. Therefore, a lateral forefoot landing can cause stress fractures of these lateral foot bones, especially the 4th and 5th metatarsals.

What about the elastic structures of your feet, the plantar fascia and the Achilles tendon, when you land ahead of your centre of gravity while running? Because the foot is on the ground for a long time between landing ahead of your body, moving your body above your feet, and then lifting your foot behind you, the elastic structures of your feet are carrying all the load of running for a long time. This isn’t a problem if you’re walking because the load forces involved in walking are half what they are while running. Therefore, if you land ahead of your centre of gravity while running, you are adding extra stress to these elastic structures, which can manifest as injuries to these structures, also known as plantar fasciitis and/or Achilles tendonitis.

Therefore, in order to prevent these types of stress injuries to the lateral bones of the feet and the elastic structures of our feet and lower legs, it is imperative that we change our running form. Two important aspects of barefoot or minimalist running form, or a more natural running form, are foot posture and cadence. Natural running foot posture is one where you land more on the inside of your foot than the outside, or on the medial side between your 1st and 2nd metatarsal bone heads. You still want to land on the forefoot but between the big and second toes as opposed to the 4th and 5th smaller toes. And you want to land under your centre of gravity and not ahead of it. This aspect of natural running is a lot easier when you increase your cadence to about 180 steps per minute when counting both feet. With a cadence this fast, it’s difficult to have enough time to land ahead of your centre of gravity and it reduces the stress on your foot and lower leg elastic structures because they are stretched for a minimal amount of time. A faster cadence than this starts to reduce running efficiency so 180 steps per minute optimizes efficiency while encouraging a shorter stride, under your centre of gravity, and minimizing loading stresses on your plantar fascia and Achilles tendons.

Getting back to the original question: Is barefoot or minimalist running as simple as ditching your shoes? No. It is imperative that your barefoot or minimalist running form adopts the changes necessary to prevent impact- and stress-related injuries because you no longer have any cushioning protection under your feet. It’s important to educate yourself as to what changes you need to make to your running form to prevent these injuries.

It is also important to give your body a chance to adapt to these new changes. If you have significant changes to make to your form, you will probably not be able to continue running at the same mileage that you enjoyed while in your cushioned shoes. You are going to be using different muscles that are not accustomed to being used in this new way. You may also be requiring your elastic structures to stretch further than they have been used to stretching. Give your body time to make these adjustments; reduce your mileage and/or frequency of running until your muscles become stronger and your elastic structures become more flexible.

8 Responses to “Why It’s ALL About FORM and Not Footwear”

  1. Well, I agree with you in principle. Healthy running is about maintaining good form, just as safe driving is about not hitting other cars.

    And you have a better chance of not hitting other cars if your eyes can see – are not blindfolded – just as you have a better chance of maintaining good form if you feet can “see” – are not shod.

    Perhaps Luke Skywalker could have driven blindfold. But I’m not about to try it.

    • Tina says:

      Hi Ashish,
      I still enjoy running barefoot, I just do it where it is safe for me to do so. I prefer to run on trails and find wearing minimalist shoes to be a safer option for me. I think the most important thing to focus on is good form always, no matter what we wear or don’t wear on our feet.
      Thanks for you comment,
      Tina

  2. tracey Whittington says:

    very interesting article.I have been note running in five fingers for over 2 years now. It took around 6 months for me to adjust although I found that my stride and landing on the fore foot came naturally. It was the rather alarming swelling of my feet in the first few Weeks as three muscles started working that was the issue. I could not imagine running in conventional shoes now. I have had no joint pain, in my knees or hips which was my original reason for the swap.

    • Tina says:

      Hi Tracey,
      Thanks for your comment. I can’t imagine running in conventional shoes anymore either, although I do have clients who run with very good form no matter what they wear for running footwear. I enjoy feeling the contours of the ground, especially on trails. That’s interesting to read about the swelling in your feet; I don’t remember that when I switched to minimal shoes, but I do remember the lack of joint pain in my knees and hips that came with the switch, too. :)
      Tina

  3. Jerry Gentry says:

    I started my conversion to minimal about 7 months ago. The URL above will give you some history. It would have been great to have found your site when I started, but at least I did do enough research to know to take it slow and start with barefoot. Thanks to global warming, I had a pretty good winter to build the strength in my feet.

    This post is exceptional and really explains exactly what is going on in a natural running gate. I will be referring to it in my next blog. I hope you don’t mind. It is well written as well as informative.

    After 40+ years of running in shoes I have rediscovered running and the pure joy of moving with your legs. I now run 7-10 miles anytime I go out and I end the run thinking how much fun it was. Isn’t that what runnign should be? My foot, ankle and calf muscles continue to develop, but that is the kind of pain I get from any good workout. Nothing chronic, just developmental.

    Keep up the good work! I will be recommending you.

    jlg

    • Tina says:

      Hi Jerry,
      That is the nicest comment anyone has ever left in response to something I have written. Thank you so much! Congratulations on your successful transition.
      I started reading your blog and am hooked; I can’t wait to read more.
      Thanks again,
      Tina

  4. Anne Rosbottom says:

    Hello,
    I just wanted to say what a fabulously informative article this is, I really enjoyed reading it. I have posted a link to it in a barefoot running facebook group I am in. Thanks for writing it!

    Anne

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