Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The case for minimalist running

Disclaimer: I am not a barefoot fanatic. I am just a curious beginner. I've only run in my Vibram Five Fingers a handful of times. I'm not sold yet. The following is information I've gathered from books and around the Internet, so it is absolutely not meant to convert anyone. Just some food for thought. I've included some links in the text and at the end of this entry that provide much more information than I can hope to offer.

Why am I writing this?

When I decided to get serious about running, I went to a serious running store to get some serious running shoes. The kind of store where the staff are shoe experts and promise to sell you the best shoe for your foot. They tested my feet. They made me run on a treadmill. I, like the vast majority of runners, overpronated. I tested a couple of different shoes to find out which ones felt right, and I ended up going home with an expensive pair, that would provide support for my pronation and cushioning for my knees.

Photo by Screenpunk

A couple of months later, I got runner's knee and couldn't run for over 9 months.

Then I was back in the game and everything went well for a while. As I increased my mileage, I got a different pair of shoes with even more support and cushioning, because I figured my joints would need that, in order to manage the extra kilometres. A couple of months later, my Achilles tendons got so tense, I could hardly walk. After purchasing the latest model of those shoes, that are supposed to be among the most supportive and cushioning in the market, I got Plantar Fasciitis. Most of you reading this blog might have noticed. I haven't stopped bitching and moaning about it, since I got it back in November.

Needless to say, the expensive running shoe's failure to protect my body has urged me to explore other alternatives, so I've been doing a lot of reading.

Humans run. That's what we do.

We are meant to run. And we have had thousands of years' worth of practice. A theory that early humans used running as a method to hunt down prey and ultimately ensure survival has become more popular after the publication of Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run (2009). In his book, McDougall describes among other things how early humans had an ability to run down their prey, covering great distances to do so.

Photo by mgjefferies

While tracking down their prey in the desert heat for several hours, humans were able to get rid of excessive heat through sweating, while animals suffered from overheating and later died. What humans lacked in speed, they made up in endurance. This is called persistence hunting and it is still observed in some tribes today.

The modern shoe

So running is natural for us humans. Long distance running in particular. We have the bone structure, the tendons, the muscles, the shock absorption system for it. We've run barefoot or in minimalist shoes up until the 70's; we've managed before. Why is it suddenly necessary to have so much support and cushioning?

Well. What happened in the 70's was that running shoes companies started developing more and more advanced shoes, with all sorts of bells and whistles. Ever since then, they have been trying to convince us that we need these expensive shoes in order to prevent injury. They have been implying that humans are built wrong, that our bodies can't cope with running by themselves, that we need assistance to successfully carry out an activity that we've been engaging in without problems for thousands of years.

Photo by mollyali

My personal experience, however, that expensive running shoes have failed to prevent me from getting injured, is supported by recent studies, which show no link between such shoes and reduced injury risk. In fact, the amount of injuries suffered by runners has not been reduced at all since the 70's. A reported 30% of runners still get injured every year.

Some people even suggest that such shoes lead us to unconsciously alter our natural way of running, landing on our heel instead of the middle of the foot, and much harder than we would have done if we had been unshod, the impact sending shock waves across our whole body. By landing on our heel, we remove one vital component of our shock absorption system: the forefoot. The impact on our knees is greater this way.

Running shoes, with all their cushioning, also block signals that the ground and our feet are sending us, that might otherwise serve as a warning that we're about to get injured. They give us a false sense of security, in other words. This way, they might even cause an injury. In addition to this, these shoes don't let our feet work the way they should; they restrict them, do their work for them, make them lazy. As a result, the muscles and bones in our feet atrophy.

So, question is: why keep using brick shoes when they don't seem to offer any injury prevention?

Minimalist and barefoot running

Barefoot running has become a movement, a reaction to the overwhelming (and undeserving, according to some) success of the running shoe. If, however, the thought of baring your soles (ha!) to pebbles, twigs, glass and the like puts you off, there is a gentler alternative. Minimalist shoes. Shoes that are not much more than a thin rubber sole. Vibram Five Fingers, that were the first ”glove shoes” to hit the market, have been getting a lot of hype lately.

The VFFs' success is evident in the amount of competitors coming out of the woodwork with similar products. Even running shoe giants are trying to get a foot in the market, excuse the pun). The market is being flooded with products that are meant to satisfy a new kind of customer: one that has tried the heavyweight shoes with no luck, and is now going back to basics with the featherweight alternative.

No matter what the brand, minimalist shoes are here to stay. They offer some protection against debris, without taking too much away from the natural, barefoot feeling. That allows the foot to ”sense” if there are any problems. They are light. They force you to take shorter, quicker steps and land on your forefoot, all of which are landmarks of a good running style. If used properly and carefully (examples for getting started here and here ), they can lead to injury-free running.

Photo by Daniel C Bentley

All the above probably makes it sound like I am 100% on the barefoot/minimalist bandwagon. But like I wrote at the beginning of this entry, I still have some reservations. Mostly because there is no research yet that compares the long-term effects of shod/unshod running, or the minimalist shoes' ability to prevent injury contra the established running shoes'. All there is is common sense, that we don't need crutches in order to do something we've been experts at for so long. That, and how enjoyable and natural it feels to run in minimalist shoes.

But don't take my word for it. Google barefoot running and minimalist shoes. Do your own research. Here are some links to get you started, with arguments both for and against barefoot running:

The evolutionary basis for minimalist running

Christopher McDougall on TED

How NOT to start running in minimalist shoes

Born to run

Expensive running shoes - are they a waste of money?

A fictional interview with a barefoot skeptic

Barefoot running pros and cons

A case against barefoot running

Running barefoot is bad

The barefoot running injury epidemic


  1. Jag har börjat undra om inte mina dyra fina, av löplabbet utprovade skor med pronationsstöd har en del i det löparknä jag fick ett par månader efter att jag bytte skor och som nu envist har hängt i drygt två månader, trots noggrann vila, stretching och rehabövningar.. man känner sig lite lurad.

  2. Tråkigt att höra att du fick löparknä! Man kan ju inte bevisa att det just var skorna som orsakade problemet, men de hindrade inte det i alla fall. Och är det inte precis det som alla dessa dyra skor ska göra? Skydda oss från skador? Klart man känner sig lurad...