statisticians would have an absolute field day observing the evolution of fitness fads over the years – when we think back to the ’80s with its tight pink shorts and workout videos (hey – some of us still rock the tight pink shorts, Boogie style!) and contrast it to our modern day sweat, it’s pretty hilarious. But within those decades of growth and change, there are smaller trends that are more easily pinpointed as the result of a certain cultural event or experience, and the perfect example of this is minimalist running. Minimalist running shoes were around well before they started being produced in a full range of highlighter rainbows; however, with the 2009 drop of Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run,” minimalism became a buzzword in running, and simple quickly got a whole lot more complicated. Now, there are hundreds of different styles of minimalist running shoes, and as tends to be the case with any trend, not always enough education surrounding how to best use them – which, in this case, can lead to some pretty serious injury.
So, what is minimalist running? Minimalist running refers to running either barefoot, or nearly barefoot, with a running shoe that functions solely as protection from sharp objects on the ground. It is thought to both strengthen your legs and improve your stride, since the extreme padding and cushioning that has become so customary in running shoes these days does unquestionably alter the natural-born human running posture, and has been shown to encourage the ever-dreaded heel strike. Great in theory… so why does it seem that every other person you talk to has some devastating injury from their experience with minimalist running? Simple – there is a pretty high likelyhood that they either didn’t transition properly to this new style of shoe, or they maintained the exact same running posture and engagement in a zero padding shoe as they had in the heavily padded one. When the minimalist running trend hit, everyone and their run-loving mothers went out to the nearest shoe store and said defiantly “give me your most minimal shoe,” absolutely declining anything other than the lowest of the low, and instantly went home and pounded the pavement with these trendy new kicks… logging the exact same number of miles as they had been before the switch. Oops. Ouch.
These fleets of baby barefoot runners soon started getting all kinds of injuries – shin splits, IT band issues, hip pain. You name it, it happened. So why? Because, like with anything in the world, growth is a process. The transition from a lifetime in a heavily supportive shoe that has literally shaped the way that you run to something that offers you nothing other than protection from sharp objects is a huge one, and one that should be made in a slow, mindful, and well-educated way. Ideally, you would probably go from a heavily supportive shoe to a lower drop, but not quite barefoot shoe (low drop simply means that there is a smaller “drop” distance between the height of the heel and the height of the toe), and spend some time training in that before switching all the way to a no-drop barefoot shoe. Understandably, many people don’t want to fork out the cash required for a multi-shoe transition, in which case you should just be extra, extra mindful of a slow posture and strength transition. Modern day running shoes make it much easier to run lazy – bad posture, core not engaged, little to no attention given to the way that the foot is striking the ground. Minimalist shoes don’t allow for these leisures, so give your body time to adjust. Even if you’re a happy marathoner, dial it wayyy down to one or two miles a day, until you really get used to all of the new muscles you’re using. Walk around barefoot when possible (so summer is an awesome time to start on this transition), which will strengthen your feet and make for a much easier shift, since most runners actually have surprisingly weak feet. Here is an awesome breakdown of the detailed process of switching between these two different styles of shoes, and I would also recommend doing a little bit more research on it before you dive in. It’s a wonderful transition to make, but like with anything, the more you know the better.
Now that you know how to have a proper and pain-free transition into a minimalist running shoe, there is still the question of “why?” Why would you make this transition, especially when it is so much easier (and cheaper) to stick with what you know? Is it necessary? The answer to that is: it’s totally up to you. Obviously, it’s not necessary at all. There are benefits to any kind of running shoe – stability, low-drop, minimal, or anything in between. The distinct benefits of a minimalist running shoe are that it offers increased strength, flexibility, and a more refined technique. Strength-wise, running with a less padded shoe will force your body to compensate for that loss of padding by developing even stronger legs, feet, and even core – which is awesome, as long as you honor the six-eight week transition period your body needs to build up that strength. Flexibility is increased because to run in this type of shoe, your body will need to develop much better ankle and calf mobility, which will be helpful for pretty much any athletic endeavor that you pursue… yoga balances, anyone? Finally, with regards to technique, minimalist running discourages heel-striking, since there is no padding to encourage the heel towards the ground before the middle of the foot, which can definitely help in long-term injury prevention. It will also encourage you towards a more aligned and upright style of running, which will be much less painful and much more efficient in the long run. That being said, a lot of these benefits are ones that I have found in a low drop, but not minimalist, shoe – so, it really has a lot more to do with the level of awareness you have surrounding your run than it does with your preferred style of shoe. But, now that you have a little bit more information under your belt, consider giving minimalist running a try!