Barefoot / Minimalist Running

Barefoot is such a buzzword at the moment often used for running in bare feet and running in minimalist footwear. Minimalist here means footwear that offers no support. I have been running exclusively in minimalist footwear for 9 months prior to that spending years only running in racing flats

This is another area where it appears we changed what we did in the 70s/80s when we started getting ‘advice’. Prior to that running shoes were minimalist, running on your forefoot was natural and we didn’t need experts to tell us what to do.

What is natural? This can be difficult to decide since we’ve been in shoes since we could walk. However, watching young children running barefoot you can see. I see my nephews running around and here in Christchurch during track sessions we have local school kids running round in bare feet. Fast cadence and forefoot strike. In fact, I think most intuitively know that running barefoot they wouldn’t heel strike. Below are some common features of modern footwear and how they could be questioned.

Heel Higher than Toe. Most would agree that high heels are not a great idea, putting the foot in an unnatural position and shortening the Achilles tendon yet most (all?) running shoes have a heel.  This tips your body forward requiring an arching of the back for balance. Is this sensible? It also encourages heel striking. This feels counter intuitive since your toes are lower than your heel when standing. However, it’s quite the opposite: think of your foot in the shoe parallel to the ground, the heel of the shoe would be closer to the ground than the toe. Forefoot strike would require an increased tilt of the foot in such shoes. Even racing “flats” tend to have at least 3mm differential and some shoes have 20mm! Heels also tend to extend beyond the foot, this is referred to as the “Crash Pad”, that alone should make you question it!

Arch Support. Most school kids learn about the great engineering feet of an arched bridge. Its strength is because nothing is under the arch meaning the loads are transferred to either end. Feet don’t have support under the arch transferring loads to ball and heel. Does it make sense to put support under it? Surely that would weaken the muscles in the arch (flat feet anyone?) it would also mean forces are applied to the arch that otherwise wouldn’t be.

Cushioning. This seems to make sense to reduce shock. However, running across the spongy surface of a children’s playground, or on an American Football field (you do in Ironman Wisconsin), you find running feels horrible, slow and unresponsive. It doesn’t make for natural or fast running yet it’s accepted as part of a running shoe. Does it reduce load? There has been research on this showing it doesn’t but even without said research does it make sense. The way your body absorbs the shock of landing is a subconscious thing with joints bending more or less based on the fall. There are reactions to the force being felt. The shoe reduces the feedback being given to your body to decide it’s reactions.

Feet are very sensitive, I’m sure due to the number of nerves in them. Why would this be? Because we’ve evolved to need a lot of feedback from our feet? Does it make sense that in the last 30 years we’ve decided to tamper with this feedback mechanism.

Pronation Control. This has always baffled me. I can’t get my head round how the support can make a difference. Seeing someone with a pair of running shoes that are all worn on one side so the soles are at an angle makes me think the only reason they can run like that is that the padding of the shoe is allowing it. In minimalist footwear the only way they can run like that is by running on the outside of their feet.  To fix this they’re likely to be offered the very shoes that allow it to happen in the first place.

I’ve not had the courage to go completely barefoot. Minimalist shoes allow me to do something you probably wouldn’t in bare feet and that’s have you foot more forward slightly on landing. I am sure I do this and it causes some soreness. Running barefoot would probably solve this. Minimalist footwear has however had me running niggle free for a good long while now.

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