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How You Can Stop Worrying About Injury and Learn to Love Minimalist Running Shoes: A Short FAQ Guide

Posted on 21 January 2014

by Jim Hixson.SKORA-SS14-CORE-Mens

     Q.    What is the basic difference between minimalist and traditional running shoes?

A.   A lot, and it’s not simply a matter of philosophical differences.  Minimalist shoes fit the anatomy of the foot, allow the foot to move through its natural range of motion without restriction, and enable the sole of the foot to receive as much sensory information as possible while protecting the foot from dangerous objects and extreme weather.  Nobody can seriously defend traditional shoes that have a heel, stiff midsole, narrow toebox, and thick cushioning.

Q.    Whoa there, isn’t it difficult to make a sweeping generalization that everybody should be wearing minimalist shoes?

A.    Is it difficult to recommend a healthy diet for everyone? Should everyone attempt to exercise regularly?  Steven Robbins, MD, a pioneering footwear researcher in Montreal, has stated that the three most important variables that affect our overall health are diet, exercise, and footwear.  The first two variables are fairly self-evident,  but most people do not realize the effect that footwear has on their biomechanics, posture, and sensory experience.

Q.    What do you think of the “minimalist” offerings made by the major shoe companies?

A.    First, realize that the large shoe companies have never had any desire to embrace the concept of minimalist shoes, since these shoes did not match the rest of their line. Second, even if these companies had decided to be swayed by the argument in favor of minimalist shoes, there remained the core problem of continuing to explain the merits of the traditional cushioned, stability, and motion control shoes which they what undoubtedly keep in their catalog. Third, they realized that they were losing a percentage of their sales to non-traditional running shoe companies:  Merrell, Newton, Vibram FiveFingers, Vivo Barefoot, Altra, Inov8,  etc.  Although these companies are not as big as Nike, Brooks, and ASICS, they were still taking sales away from the larger brands; and it looked as if this trend would continue, since minimalist shoes and natural running were hot topics.

Q:  Then, for the average runner  you’re saying that what is a truly minimalist shoe often is not?

A: By redefining the term, the big companies have been able to marginalize the truly minimalist shoes produced by the companies that I mentioned earlier. By simply claiming that some of their new shoes are minimalist, that company gains entry in to the category while, simultaneously shoes that are truly in the category are partially sidelined or not sold in large running shoe stores, because they are declared to be too different from what is acceptable. For example, a Brooks Flow is not a minimalist shoe, and neither is a Saucony Kinvara, yet those are probably the two most popular shoes in the category.

Q.    If minimalist  shoes are superior to traditional shoes, then why is it relatively common for runners wearing minimalist shoes to either have a difficult transitioning to them or suffer injuries?

A.    Many runners continue to run with their old form, even in minimalist shoes.  Their old shoes had so much cushioning that their own biomechanical mistakes were often disguised, and as a result, they developed muscle memories that continued to influence their running, even after they had switched shoes.  I’ve seen runners in VFFs running heel first, but I can almost guarantee that they are certain their form has improved since switching shoes.  These runners are painful to watch.

Q: That seems like a blanket generalization that assumes runners lack the ability to improve their form.

A:    Other runners do change their form but their new form is still not totally correct.  They might have been heel strikers and now they’re running forefoot/midfoot first, but they’re still overstriding and hitting the ground with their heel still too high.  With this combination of form flaws it is common to see injuries to the Achilles tendon and calf muscles, as well as to the metatarsals in the foot, the areas which are overemphasized when running forefoot/midfoot incorrectly. Then, there’s those that do change to a correct form of running, but they rush the transition that it takes to running in “less shoe,” thereby overtaxing their lower body’s limited strength and flexibility as well as not fully possessing the sensory responsiveness necessary to reduce the chance of injury.

Q:  And the most ideal scenario is what?

A:  Runners who go through a proper transition to less shoe, adopt proper form, and pay attention to the increased intensity of the sensory signals now available to their feet. I should add that critics of minimalist shoes try to put everyone in the first three groups, but many runners can be in this fourth group over time.

Screen shot 2014-01-21 at 3.26.52 PMQ.    Are proponents of minimalist shoes partially responsible for the higher injury rates and current criticism of minimalist shoes?

A.    To some degree, yes.  They’ve often underestimated the degree and difficulty of the transition. Many were convinced that runners who changed their foot strike would automatically correct other gait flaws, such as overstriding, insufficient hip extension and flexion, and poor upper body mechanics. But many runners are not accustomed to concentrating on their form, possibly because they often insist that everyone’s “unique” style is theoretically correct for that individual.

Q.   Are sales of minimalist shoes going down? Is the trend over?

A. No.  Sales have steadily increased in stores that actively educate consumers about the function and purpose of minimalist shoes, and online purchases of minimalist running shoes have increased significantly each of the last five years, because many runners are forced to buy these models on the web when they are not available locally. Merrell, Vivo Barefoot, Vibram FiveFingers, Altra, and Inov8 continue to expand their choice of models. And last year a new company like Topo Athletic was able to raise the sufficient funding necessary to enter the market.  Even sales of minimalist casual shoes are impressive, considering the few suppliers that can satisfy this growing demand.

Q: What about barefoot running?

A:   Many of us tried to include support of barefoot running as part of the debate about minimalist shoes, but that simply enabled critics of minimalist shoes to attack barefoot running, which was an easier target.  Barefoot running is the default running form for humans, but barefoot running is not an easy topic to explain or understand.  In certain situations there are legitimate reasons to wear minimalist shoes instead of being barefoot, just as there are good reasons to wear work gloves in certain situations.  (For example, would you wear heavy gloves if you were at the computer or trying to text someone on your cell phone?) Wearing minimalist shoes and running barefoot do not provide the same experience. Minimalist shoes can be an important piece of protection from the elements, and often allow us to run places and in conditions that would otherwise be inaccessible of dangerous. The next time the wind chill drops the temperature  5° below zero, I’ll try to remember that we were not born with shoes, and then I will wear a pair of minimalist shoes.

***
Jim Hixson, who is a regular contributor to the Natural Running Center, has been a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist since 2002. He’s currently the general manager at Feet for Life Motion Center in St Louis. MO.

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11 Responses to “How You Can Stop Worrying About Injury and Learn to Love Minimalist Running Shoes: A Short FAQ Guide”

  1. Cody R. says:

    very nice interview, spot on answers

    in fact, these answers are so nice that i can reference these if in need to

    much easier :D

  2. Jim Hixson says:

    Thanks for reading (and agreeing!). I started researching minimal shoes, barefoot, and natural running ten years ago when I had plantar fasciitis and couldn’t understand the doctor’s prognosis, which was a lifetime of support. After a while very little of what I had been taught, and had rarely questioned, made sense anymore.

    • Cody R. says:

      interesting, seems like that’s what happens to a lot of people though in different ways to experience an, “everything i know is a lie,” when it comes to running lol

      i should add i just finished a spartan race yesterday, i THINK i was the only one barefoot…finished top 48th in my age group (20-24)

      my brother ran it in his merrell vapor gloves, but said he could have done it barefoot, got 7th in his age group (18-20) though he was sore from track workouts lol, it WAS a rough week lol

      I got Mononucleosis (and didn’t know for like 8 months!) when I was 17 (21 now) and only at the very end of 2012 did i START to feel like myself though i’m still not who i was (thanks mono >:(), but back in 2010 when i found out i had been SO frustrated cause i didn’t know what was wrong, I kept getting worse and worse and i didn’t know why

      so i finally got diagnosed and did nothing for 2 months to wait it out basically, i looked to rebuild myself

      I had been reading on minimalist stuff since I was 15, searching about VFF and all that, reading on studies, questions and all that…coached myself a bit and made the change just before my 18th birthday with some huaraches and then VFF…unfortunately my senior year didn’t turn out the way i’d hoped with an awesome comeback, or my freshman year of college though i was better, i still didn’t have my mental toughness (which was destroyed by Mono IMO) or my “kick”

      but going minimal/barefoot has made running so much better, I even got to start converting and coaching others successfully :D

      when explaining my choices…i forget stuff on the spot sometimes but i almost have it all down lol, these responses are virtually my opinions (but a smarter version of them :D )

      thanks again

      • Jim HIxson says:

        I’m glad you were encouraged to be interested in minimal shoes and natural running when you were still in high school. I became interested when I had plantar fasciitis, in 2003, and was unimpressed with the lack of thinking that went into my podiatrist’s prognosis. At that time, there were very few articles in the popular press and those in the academic press were known only to specialists in the subject. The situation is much different now, with probably hundreds of articles published each year, all touching on the same points, but rearranging and interpreting them in different ways. Two of the best are Joseph Froncioni’s “Athletic Shoes and Running Injuries” (2007) and Steve Magness’s “Why Running Shoes Do Not Work” (2010)

  3. Paul says:

    Hi Jim,

    Great article, really liked your points. I have been a sucker for transitioning too quickly and managed to damage a metatarsal very badly, so much so, I had to wear a sandal for two weeks until the swelling in my foot reduced.

    However I have stuck with it since, and have slowly become a minimalist/barefoot(non-shod) runner and the movement feels truly wonderful, so much better than anything I had experienced before. Thankfully, due to a site like natural running center, I have been able to incorporate drills and skills to eliminate knee and foot problems and run stress free and just have fun. As a result I have gained significant speed improvements at a lower heart rate. Very cool.

    I must admit, it can be difficult running non-shod and getting so many looks from on lookers, this is not a comfortable thing for my to deal with, but I do it for the rewards I get running free.

    What are your thoughts on racing flats, such as Asics Piranha’s? I understand these shoes are pretty much flat with a zero drop between heal and forefoot. Are they a true minimalist shoe and can they compete with the likes of Innov8, Merrell, VFF and Newtons? The reason I ask, is that a number of the big running shoe brands you mentioned all deliver some form or a racing flat.

    Kind regards,
    Paul

  4. Jim HIxson says:

    Paul,

    I had the same problem with the transition, for two common reasons:
    (1) I concentrated on the forefoot landing, which caused me to emphasize plantarflexion and contact the ground with my heel further off the ground than is ideal. When the distance between the heel and the ground is minimal upon impact, the metatarsal bones and the muscles of the foot and the back of the leg are under pressure for a shorter period of time and the stretch reflex occurs more quickly, which allows for more efficient use of the potential energy stored by the eccentric loading of those same muscles.
    (2) There were two reasons I had pain in my metatarsals: (a) the angle of my foot strike placed more direct stress on this area for a longer time; and (b) the sense receptors on the bottom of my feet had lost their ability to receive and process information quickly, so the reaction of my foot to the ground and the ability of muscles further up the chain to receive this information, was compromised. The first problem can be solved by adjusting the angle of the foot from one that is plantarflexed upon initial impact to one that is neutral or almost dorsiflexed. The second problem can be solved by being patient. Muscular changes occur much faster than neural changes. The sense receptors on the bottom of the foot can be reawakened, but several months are necessary for this process. As always, watch Mark’s “Principles of Natural Running” and focus on his foot landing on the ground.

    Racing flats are fine as long as they are actually flat. According to Running Warehouse, the Piranha has a 5mm drop. The other problem associated with flats is that their tapered toe-boxes don’t fit the shape of the foot. The Merrell Vapor would be a good substitute for a flat, as would the Inov-8 Bare X-lite 150 and the Newton MV3.

  5. Tania says:

    Yes a good article. I’ve recently returned to running after nearly 30years ! In my teens I ran only on track or field occasionaly cross-country and wore light spikes. As I found all the different shoes confusing I bought a vivo barefoot shoe. It’s been fine during my beginner to 5k programme. I’ve had the expected aches & pains – mainly shin or calves usually from hillwork. So I did exercises. Then it was my achilles – so I did more exercises! About 3 weeks before I started running I started yoga after a 3 yearvbreak and this has helped with my posture. But i’m struggling with my road run – which is the only flat 6k route I have, after yesterday the muscles &/or tendons down the front of my foot have been really painful. I’ve done rice, but am rather frustrated note it’s not my shins,calves or achillles! As where I live is very remote, i’ve researched and realise that I must, more so on roads, over-pronate – the wear on my everyday footwear confirms this. I’ve recently bought some birkenstock clogs for day wear ajd they are fab – they are supposed to support your foot like walking in wet sand. When I wear these nearly all pain disappears. So i’ve given in and bought some minimalist shoes with some stability. Yes I know my posture needs work, an old hip injury has significantly improved with all this activity, but right now I feel I need that extra arch support. I really do believe in the ethos of barefoot running – any suggestions on what I can do now?

  6. Jim Hixson says:

    I like Vivo Barefoot and VFF products, but a change from a traditional shoe directly to a very thin shoe increases the chances of injuries for several reasons:
    1. Insufficient muscular strength and balance in the intrinsic muscles of the foot; also weak tibialis posterior, a key muscle for stabilization;
    2. Reduced flexibility;
    3. Existing muscle memory which interferes with the creation of new patterns; and
    4. Limited sensitivity in the sense receptors on the sole of the foot; this sensitivity is essential to process information that is being received very rapidly in a thin shoe.

    Suggestions:
    1. If you are in pain when you run, don’t run.
    2. Run on softer surfaces.
    3. Walk in minimal shoes whenever possible to slowly redevelop the strength, flexibility, and sensitivity necessary; be barefoot when possible.
    4. Run in a zero-drop shoe with a little more cushioning (ex. Merrell Pace Glove or Road Glove, Inov8 Bare-X 150 or F-lite 209)
    5. Look at the video on this site: “Principles of Natural Running”
    6. Watch the video “Are You Ready to Go Minimal?”

  7. Ed says:

    Dr Mark & team,

    I would just like to point out that the following product was advertised next to this article:

    http://gravitydefyer.com/30day_painfree_WFLXNET_PD?gclid=CKX2kJe_gb0CFa47OgodxAYACw

    I appreciate you have no control over these thisngs,I just thought that this is the WORST piece of advertising placement I have ever seen!

    • BillK says:

      agreed. google ads, not us, placed it there. we will try and put a stop to this. sorry, for this….

      –bill k

  8. Guillermo says:

    Which shoes do you recommend for race walkers.


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