Physical Therapist, Winner of 38 marathons worldwide including the 1993 IAAF World Championships, and owner of Boulder Running Company, CO
I am originally from South Africa and competed in the Zola Budd era. In my physical therapy practice, I treat athletes ranging from five hour marathoners to Olympic athletes and gold medalists. I have been observing the minimalist and barefoot running trend over the last two years, and feel it might be time to clarify some issues relating to barefoot and minimalist footwear. The debate of barefoot running could be closed due to the mere fact that 95% of runners train and race on asphalt, pavement, concrete, and trails. However, listed below are the obvious and relevant facts about barefoot and minimalist running:
- Running barefoot/minimalist strengthens the intrinsic or postural muscles in the feet and lower leg.
- Running barefoot/minimalist increases proprioceptive awareness and balance.
- Running barefoot/minimalist forces changes in mechanics by adapting to forces on the feet.
- There are no clinical trials that show effects from barefoot/minimalist running for a prolonged period of time.
- There are no research studies that prove that wearing traditional running shoes increase injuries or that barefoot/minimalist running reduces injuries.
No one, including myself, can contest the above facts. If a runner trains exclusively on soft trails and/or grass, then by all means eschew running shoes as long as mechanics and gait allow it. Walking and running barefoot certainly can be useful to strengthen muscles and increase proprioceptive awareness, but the transition should be done gradually, and with the guidance of a professional.
With this topic also comes the issue of gait and the best way to run. Most people run (and walk) by landing on the heel and toeing off on the big toe. The anatomy of the foot reinforces this technique because the calcaneus, the largest bone in the foot, has the largest fat pad in the foot underneath it. The metatarsals are small bones and have much less fat pad protection when compared to the calcaneus. These small bones are not designed to accept three times the weight of the body. The real issue we have to address is mechanics. Far too many people overstride and land with their center of gravity behind the foot strike, which leads to a braking effect and impact up the chain of the body. This type of running is also commonly mislabeled as heel strike running. Correct heel strike running occurs by shortening the stride, increasing the cadence, and landing with the center of gravity over the feet. This greatly reduces the impact forces and enhances forward propulsion. This type of running is true heel strike running, but the contact point is not at the back of the heel but rather directly underneath the fat pad. Many people are trying to achieve this type of gait by modifying footwear, instead of learning the proper mechanics.
At In Motion Rehabilitation and at the Boulder Running Company, we see hundreds of runners each week. People come to us not to buy a pair of shoes, but for help finding a tool that will allow them to run with the least risk of injury. At this point, it is important to point out the major distinction between people who are able to run barefoot or wear minimalist shoes, and the people who are not. Due to ligamentous laxity and/or biomechanical inefficiencies, 65 to 75% of people are not able to run barefoot/minimalist. When customers/patients walk into the store or clinic, we ask them to take off their shoes and weight bear one foot at a time. If the longitudinal arch collapse and the navicular bone on the inside of the foot becomes prominent and moves medially towards the ground, no amount of strengthening is ever going to lift that navicular bone. The ligaments cannot support the bones in normal alignment anymore. It would be irresponsible for me, or any of the staff, to recommend barefoot/minimalist shoes to these customers. We do have customers who have great mechanics and good foot structure, and we certainly place them in the appropriate neutral/minimalist footwear. Our goal is to place the customer in the appropriate footwear and to correct any gait inefficiencies that they may have, while fitting them in a shoe that doesn’t change their gait.
At the Boulder Running Company and In Motion Rehabilitation, we certainly do not always get it right each and every time, but we try to learn from our mistakes. For more than 14 years, we have helped thousands of runners and walkers continue to do what makes them happy and to achieve their goals. We want runners to consult with their doctors, physical therapists, and podiatrists about their particular mechanics, gait, and foot structure before embarking on the barefoot/minimalist route. In the end, Boulder Running Company is a retailer, and whether we sell a motion control shoe, or a minimalist shoe, it makes no difference to us. Our main interest is keeping our customers walking and running with the least amount of problems possible.