3 Common Misconceptions About Minimalist Footwear and Running Form

Screen shot 2014-07-23 at 2.05.58 AMWe are happy to share the following essay from my friend and colleague Jeff Gaudette, who is the founder of Runners Connect, which is a team of expert coaches dedicated to helping runners train smarter, stay healthy and run faster.  Jeff is one of the forward thinkers in natural running movement  as well as a health practitioner of massage therapy, coach, and writer. I have had the privilege to teach alongside Jeff at the Boston Marathon Sports Medicine Conference. We shared a presentation on mobility and strength for runners. Jeff knows his stuff and has learned from his own experiences. He is a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier in 10,000 meters and marathon, and former member of Hansons Distance Project. He is now based in Boston Massachusetts. Thank you Jeff for sharing.

3 Common Misconceptions About Minimalist Footwear and Running Form

by Jeff Gaudette

It’s a natural tendency in our society to try and simplify complex training ideas and topics into one-size-fits-all recommendations. Even the most knowledgeable of athletes can’t resist headlines that claim to have found the “hack” or the “secret” to better training. I think it might be ingrained in our DNA. This tendency has now made its way into how many runners view running shoes.

Specifically, many runners have been lead to believe that switching to a minimalist shoe will automatically improve their form, reduce injury and make them a more efficient runner. Minimalist footwear has become the one-size-fits-all “hack” to running with better form.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.

That’s not to say footwear plays no role in your current running mechanics or how you approach improving your form; but, they are not a panacea. Footwear is simply one of the many tools in your repertoire to improving mechanics and reducing injury.

Here are three common misconceptions about the role of footwear when it comes to changing running form and a more thoughtful approach to how they can help.

Minimalist shoes will automatically turn you into a forefoot striker.

Many runners mistakenly believe that slipping on a pair of minimalist shoes will “force” them to run on their forefoot. But, it’s not that simple.

Consider a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina. When researchers interviewed 35 runners who wore minimalist shoes and asked them whether they were heel or forefoot strikers, all 35 responded that they were forefoot strikers. However, after analyzing footstrike patterns with a slow-motion camera, 33% of the runners were actually heel strikers.

How can this be?

Not only were these participants wrong about the foot strike they perceived themselves to have, but heel striking runs counter to the belief that minimalist shoes force forefoot striking.

What’s really going on?

Rather than magically forcing you to run with a certain foot strike, minimalist shoes help you develop the proprioceptive awareness to land with your foot under your center of mass to reduce impact (more on this later).

The improved feedback and awareness that comes with less shoe and more “feel” for the ground allows your feet to send better signals to the brain about where your foot is in relation to itself, how it lands, and the space around it.

But, even with all the proprioceptive awareness in the world, you still need to first be able to get your foot under you – and this has nothing to do with your footwear. This accomplished via hip extension.

By improving your hip extension (how much your leg and thigh travel behind your body with each stride) through strengthening and flexibility, you give the leg the physical tools it needs to stop over striding and land with the foot directly under the ground.

Footwear can help you feel when you’re not generating hip extension and over striding, but they are not a magic bullet.

Minimalist shoes reduce impact forces and prevent injury.

The misunderstood theory is that running in minimalist footwear decreases the impact forces on your legs because the lack of cushioning encourages you land on your forefoot and allow the foot to absorb more shock.

This isn’t quite how it works.

It’s not your footstrike that is paramount to shock absorption, but rather where your foot strikes the ground in relation to your center of mass.

As we’ve previously discussed, minimal shoes don’t automatically mean you forefoot strike.

More importantly, if you wear minimalist shoes and you don’t change where your foot strikes the ground (i.e. you continue to heel strike due to over striding), research shows that vertical loading rates can be up to 37% higher than heel striking in traditional shoes.

It doesn’t take a PhD to realize that increasing your ground impact with each step by 37% can lead to some serious injuries.

What’s really going on? Again, it’s not about footstrike, but rather where your foot lands in relation to your center of mass.

By landing with your foot closer to your center of mass (under you, rather than in front of you, i.e. over striding) you can dramatically reduce your impact loading rate.

One of the easiest ways to land with your foot directly under you is to improve your cadence.

Minimalist shoes help improve cadence because, without the raised heel and additional shock absorption of traditional shoes, it’s easier to feel yourself over stride.

But, again, shoes are not a cure-all. It’s still possible to over stride with minimal shoes.

They key is improving your cadence by making a conscious effort to count your steps or by improving you hip flexor, glute and hip flexibility and strength.

Minimalist shoes make you more efficient.

Footwear companies love to tell you that minimal shoes will make you more efficient, but this isn’t backed up by any research.

What the scientific studies do suggest is that the weight of the shoe matters when it comes to efficiency.

The heavier the shoe, the less efficient you become. Therefore, when compared to traditional running shoes, minimal shoes allow you to run much more efficiently because they are lighter weight.

Yet, when comparing a minimal shoe to a traditional racing flat or even a lightweight trainer with a 10cmm heel-to-toe ratio, they are the same.

Therefore, in itself, a minimal shoes doesn’t make you more efficient.

What a footwear can do is allow you to better feel your mechanics and make the changes to your form that eventually enable you to run more efficiently and with fewer injuries.
Shoes are just one piece of the equation.

Posture, hip extension, muscle strength, muscle activation, proprioception, etc. all contribute to running with better mechanics.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a specific shoe will cure all your problems. Remember to look at your form and mechanics with a holistic view and work to improve every piece in the puzzle.

4 Responses to “3 Common Misconceptions About Minimalist Footwear and Running Form”

  1. Jim Hixson says:

    The points that you make are very important and should have been emphasized by all of us who have advocated minimal shoes over the past decade, ever since the Nike Free was released in 2004. The goal has always been to run with good form, which is the key to reducing injuries, improving efficiency at a given speed, and improving performance. Many times the media and others incorrectly showed a direct cause and effect relationship between wearing minimal shoes (or running barefoot)and running naturally.

    There is a correlation between wearing minimal shoes and running with good form, but these shoes do not cause good form. To positively change one’s current form requires an understanding of proper form, an accurate analysis of one’s own form, the intention to change form, and the attention to form while running. There is, however, a much stronger correlation between running with traditional running shoes and running with poor form. In my opinion, there is no justification for wearing this latter type of footwear.

    One minor point: I don’t consider shoes to be “tools”, since a tool enhances an ability we already have. For example, a hammer extends the lever arm; a pair of piers strengthens grip; a drill increases torque, etc. A pair of shoes should be seen as a piece of protective clothing, just like a pair of work gloves. This is especially true when considering the nature of the skin covering the sole of the foot and the palm of the hand. The main characteristics of this “glabrous skin” are durability and sensitivity, which are evolutionary proof that they are supposed to come into contact with the physical world. Our hands give us tactile information with everything above the ground and the soles of our feet give us the same information with the surface upon which we are standing or moving.

    Our natural state is barefoot, but sometimes we need protection, traction, or a little cushioning, so we can extend the area in which we can run without discomfort or danger. When we decide to wear shoes we want to preserve as many of the characteristics of being barefoot as possible, while satisfying the specific needs we have for a given environment. This description essentially matches the design of shoes that were used for running until the advent of the “modern” running shoe in the 1970s.

    I, too, have seen runners with minimal shoes, including FiveFingers, run heel first, and I have seen others wear these shoes and have correct foot placement, but no hip extension or flexion. Although minimal shoes don’t increase efficiency, running correctly does!

    • MarkC says:

      Thanks Jim…good points. at the very basic level a shoe should allow us to run and not enable us to run (thanks Dr Nick for this quote). so strength and form are the goals. with a fixed anatomic problem a shoe can provide protection and adaptation for the runner but this should be the exception and a situation we all aim to prevent. Mark

  2. Edgar says:

    Hi Mark , great article, I have come to the conclusion that shoes in any category are kind of a necessary bad thing to wear, at least for my generation. I am 34, i grew up on the EVA, Air, Gel, Marshmallow,toe spring, high drop era, and with no doubt we all got some or all of the running form flaws, weaknesses and mobility issues that the lost of propioception, restrictive, bad functioning footwear brought in small letters and we are now finally seeing (plus western way of living). But believing that by just changing that piece of gear to a more natural spec one (minimalist) would magically bring back all of that precious lost we had during lot of years is as wrong for me as keeping the bulky shoe on (i lived it myself).

    So for me the more i read and study plus my trial and error issues i have tried, it has become a way of thinking that a shoe should be worn until one develop the mobility, coordination, strength, and form necessary to not wear any. So the shoe to wear is the less shoe possible for the capacity of the weakest link (mobility, strength, form, etc), and work yourself to the level of freedom you decide to. The best way i found is to walk my day into the most minimal natural shoe, everyday. keeping the whichever shoe i had for running. with enough time and strength, form development protocol, i started very soon to feel the bulky shoe BULKY, and then i started taking out stuff from the shoe, heel drop, cushioning, posting, more heel drop, more cushioning , until the limit is hit or zero drop, no cushioning is achieved (or rotation between the ladder).

    Now i also do believe that when someone go and run all the way into minimal shoes, some biomechanical and gait adaptation occurs, if the shoe is into the real minimal category. now i don’t know if enough to accomplish a whole transition with a low injury risk. I read a study after reading a post from peter larson in runblogger. The study was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, authored by Michael Ryan,titled “Examining injury risk and pain perception in runners using minimalist footwear”. Story short. Mislead results as usual, it was more a transitional study more than a minimalist vs conventional foot wear study. but the cool thing is that when you read the study, no evidence was relevant, inclusive for this transitional study that more injury risk
    was present between the VFF and Nike Pegasus. but a high incidence was shown for a less minimal shoe as the free 3.0. In my opinion that mean that when a full range propioceptive shoe is worn, some biomechanical and gait pattern and adaptation has to occur. Not the same with a “not minimal not conventional” shoe as the Nike free, where the cushion and less propioceptive platform, just kept everything the same but in less shoe, increasing injury risk.

    Thank you for all the support on this process.

    Natural Running Venezuela.

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