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Minimalist running

'Should I be buying a minimalist shoe' has to be one of the most frequently asked questions at StrideUK. I realise that for some, this quest for running 'closer to nature' can become an obsession.  For others it's seen as a tactic to help overcome injury and improve their performance. I'm hoping with this piece to give you my own honest take, highlighting the pros and cons of minimalistic running. 

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Vibrams have hit the world running! Quite possibly one of the finest examples of a minimalistic running shoe, allowing the foot to move 3 dimensionally, with very little but a bit of rubber seperating you from the ground. The pure logic of getting your feet and toes working properly again cannot be critised, I would always encourage most people to kick off their shoes when time permits just to re-engage all the stabilising foot / ankle and calf muscles that often weaken over long periods of time whilst wearing over protective, heavily supported shoes. 

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When I talk of heavily supported shoes, at this moment I'm simply referring to the footware we use during the cold autumn / winter periods. More than often, most of us spend more time enduring the often relentless UK climate in these types of shoes than we do wearing or running in trainers. It is safe to say that a lifetime of wearing these shoes will have dramatic impact on foot and ankle stabilising muscles, therefore we become vulnerable to injury the minute the sun comes out, when we step into our Havaianas!

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And now we turn to the running shoe. A running shoe is notorious for having an overproportioned heel at the back in relation to the front part of the shoe, creating what we call a ramp angle. These cushioned heels can stem from 10mm to 45mm +.  When a foot is placed into a running shoe, the ramp angle will make your heel stand higher than your toes, which will shorten your calf / achillies, and from a 'kinematic' perspective, cause your pelvic to tilt downwards. Over time, your calf will adust to this continuous shortening causing performance and flexibility to drop.   


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Now that we've blamed the weather, daily footware and running shoes, it's only right to have a pop at the surfaces we run on too!  Taking Kenya as an example (based on the strong belief that most 'natural' runners draw a lot of inspiration from running like a barefoot Kenyan), the natural clay based porous surface complements the Kenyans ability to run barefoot, alongside their 'shoe free' conditioning from birth and exposure to walking miles from a crazy early age for education and survival! Regrettably, much of the surface we spend our lives on are man made. This surface simply gives us no shock attenuation. Another crucial set back for the Great British runner!      

Bringing it all together...

So... we've got weather that dictates the footware, the footware that weakens the feet, the running shoes that shorten the calves and a running surface as hard as Vinnie Jones. It's for these reasons why we have to appreciate the consequences of any biomechanical change should we start wearing anything different that we're not used to. 

  • In theory, the idea of attempting to retrain the ankle stabilising muscles (that over a lifetime has often weakened beyond repair) is possible, but practically, often non obtainable. 
  • The sudden calf reaction to ditching the disproportionate running shoe heel to a zero drop can be far too much for the achillies to cope with... injuries highly likely.
  • There's very little we can do to change the weather, nor the surface that we are exposed to in this country. You can always choose your running surface very carefully, but mostly all marathons and halfs are road based.
  • We yet to even consider our body weight, age, flexibility, ROM, core strength, footshape, previous  / past injury case history.
    This is the most important part we must consider before making any change in footware! 

To summarise:

I believe that we're stuck in a bit of an evolutional rut when it comes down to trying to migrate to minimalistic footware. How we adapt to this country and climate has sent us down what I call a developmental cul de sac! As stated before, I would advise most people to kick off their shoes in favour to encourage movement through their feet and toes. I certainly wouldn't suggest staying put and wait for injury to happen. Where I think we should be aiming for is wearing a running shoe that matches your very own biomechanics, whilst taking into consideration the surface that you run on. Running shoe manufacturers these days offer so much more selection to 'lower profile' running shoes offering minimal cushioning, plus a reduced yet not so severe adjustment in ramp angle. Please understand that in the bigger scope of things, running performance starts with conditioning your entire body starting at the pelvis line. Running shoes aren't truthfully all they make out to be!   

Use these to read further spotlights

Heel Striking
Forefoot running
Minimalist running
Walking lunges
Pelvic instability
Hamstring strengthening
Why stretch
Runners knee ITB
Single leg squats
Glutes, are you standing comfortably?
Squat test
Migrating to a minimalist shoe
Richard Whitehead Paralympic 200m
Medial Shin Splints
The cumulative effect
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