Maybe It’s Not (Entirely) the Shoes: Thoughts on Minimalist Footwear

by nomeatbarefeet

At least since the release of Born to Run, the debate over whether to ditch your shoes and go au-natural has reached a kind of deafening hysterics. However, I will shelve the whole debate over whether you should run barefoot or in shoes (even if they are barefoot-style or minimalist shoes). There does not appear to be any consensus one way or the other. My purpose here is to write what I know—and I know minimalist shoes.

To wit, anyone who has read our blog knows that Katie and I are firm believers in the benefits of minimialist footwear—especially Vibrams. Minimalist shoes have served us very well, and, I believe, helped to prevent any real substantial injuries. Add to this the transition to trails and you can see how running has become fun and playful for us. But should our minimalist shoes be given all the credit for keeping us injury free?

(I will give them credit for keep us happy and playful because, come on, when you have your Five Fingers on you just feel happy and playful :))

Back to the question: to paraphrase Mars Blackman from the old Nike commercial, “Its gotta be the shoes?!” Right?! Well, a lot of recent discussion has centered around this issue*, and I think the general consensus seems to be that while getting out of traditional running shoes is important, the major issue all runners should focus on is form (and, arising from this: cadence).

So what’s so important about form? What kind of form is correct? What the heck is cadence?

There are lots of different running styles out there (e.g., Chi-running, the POSE method), and I think all of them seem to capture the basics of what constitutes the correct form (In the included visual I have combined 1 and 4; why? because I can):

  • Keep your feet underneath you. This is the most important thing to keep in mind. Don’t reach your stride out in front of you. Doing this leads to what I want to label as “blatant heel-striking.” (More on this in a bit). You want to try and land on your forefoot or your midfoot. Peter Larson talks about a coach who said to land your feet behind you—this is impossible, but if you keep that thought in your head you will begin to shift your feet back in towards your body.
  • Run with a tall, strong stance. Don’t bend at the waist; bend slightly forward from the ankles.
  • I found that once you begin to keep your feet landing underneath you you will naturally increase your cadence (i.e., your foot turnover). You won’t be able to lop forward at a “bam…bam” kind of pace; instead you will find develop a much quicker “tap, tap, tap, tap” pace. Try and shoot for 180 bpm (beats per minute); that’s 90 steps for each leg per minute. It doesn’t have to be exactly 180—everyone is different, so find your sweet spot. The easiest way to do this if you don’t have a hightech watch is to find a bpm sound online and download. Eventually it will become ingrained in your muscles.

You should always try to be conscious of your form; which, let’s be honest, can fall to crap at the end of a run. If you can keep attending to it, however, eventually it will take longer and longer to fall to crap (and hopefully you will just run with good form all the time).

One reason that I titled this post “Maybe It’s Not (Entirely) the Shoes” is because on their own minimialist shoes are not some kind of magic wear-these-and-you-will-not-be-injured solution. Katie and I love them because they work for us…buuuuut, they work for us for a few key reasons:

  • Minimalist shoes are a tool for maintaining correct form. Traditional shoes were designed for a heel-strike. Period. While you certainly can heel-strike in Vibrams (or any minimal shoe) the absence of a significantly cushioned heel forces your foot to stay closer to your center of gravity (underneath you) and thus it helps to keep you from overstriding. However: don’t try and keep your heel from hitting the ground! Running on just your toes can lead to all sorts of calf and achilles problems, and can be just as bad as blatant heel-striking. Your heel will touch the ground, and that’s ok. You want to try and land as flat footed as possible. I think its hard to really explain this, but if you try and keep your feet underneath you the less your heel will be striking the ground first, and thus there will be less direct impact on it (which can be like putting on the brakes while trying to move forward).
  • It is very hard to run with proper form (i.e., forefoot or midfoot landing) when you are running in a “high-heeled” shoe. When you wear a shoe with a substantial drop from heel-to-toe (I just heard of a shoe that has a 20mm drop! Yikes!) your feet are already positioned at major down-slant. Trying to then land on a flat foot would be really difficult. Opting for a shoe with a smaller heel-to-toe drop or a zero-drop shoe is the best option for maintaining a midfoot or forefoot landing.
  • While there is no clinical evidence that tradintional running shoes cause injury, there is abundant correlational data that traditional shoes (with big stack heights and big heel-to-toe drops) may contribute to the staggeringly high number of running injuries every year. What is great about a lot of this data is that it comes from people who are both investigators and runners. (Both Dr. Peter Larson and Dr. Mark Cucuzzella are great examples of people investigating these topics who are also very accomplished runners.) While many such people remain critical of traditional running shoes they also agree on another point: this does not mean that you have to change shoes. If you are are happy, having fun, and are not suffering from injury then don’t change. Don’t change what isn’t broken. That said: Katie and I found that running in more minimal footwear (though requiring some transitional time) helped to alleviate many of the injuries we suffered from previously. We needed a change and it was wonderful for us. You need to try and find what is right for you, and that require listening to your body.

Please notice what I said: You don’t have to change your shoes. If things are working for you, great. There is no best shoe for every runner. If things are not working out for you then perhaps a change of shoes might help facilitate not only a change in form, but also a move towards happy, fun running and away from injury.

I will continue to advocate for minimalist footwear. I love running in all of my minimalist shoes, especially Vibrams. (If I had the money, or was able to become a tester [hint, hint, Vibram!], I would continue to buy new and different shoes.) Minimalist shoes are great—but the reason they are great is that they function as a tool: a tool to enable better running form. The primary focus, then should be on maintaining good running form: fix your form and you can fix a lot of common problems that have become associated with running. Shifting to a more minimal shoes can help to make a fix come easier since such footwear eliminates many of the barriers built up by traditional running shoes.

Run más.

*The impetus for this post comes from two great sources of running information: Dr. Peter Larson (runblogger.com) and Dr. Mark Cucuzzella (trtreads.org and naturalrunningcenter.com). They are much more eloquent and explain things in much greater detail than I do, so please check out their sites. In fact, you can listen to their podcast interviews over at Trail Runner Nation. Dr. Mark has been on a number of times (here and here and here), while Dr. Peter Larson was just on recently (here). Their discussions seem to fit together very well. Plus, both of these guys give some of the best interviews on running. I highly recommend giving them a listen because not only are they super informative, they are also just plain fun to listen to!

**Also checkout a great recent post by Jason Robillard about the changing landscape of Minimalist shoes. You can find it over at Barefoot University.

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