"Give light and the people will find their own way " - motto of the old Birmingham Post-Herald newspaper
The other day, I was running along with my friend Jim, and in the matter of 5 minutes he told me 1) he had received a pair of Nike Free's (very minimalist shoe) from his brother and wanted to begin running in these, 2) liked what I had to say about Hokas (maxi-cushioned with a low heel drop) and wanted to know where to buy them, and 3) told me he was having no problems with his present shoes, the Nike Air Pegasus! The pace picked up and the conversation became rather one sided. My immediate answer to him was why all this change when things are just peachy? As far as the Free's go, Jim explained he had read "THE BOOK" (Born To Run) and was buffaloed (my word, not Jim's) by the pro-barefoot arguments, but on the other hand, he was impressed by my endorsement of Hokas and wanted to try them. But Jim, there is NOTHING wrong with your running now! I tried to explain the pros and cons of the minimalistic movement, but I don't think it worked. I have written in the past about my feelings about the minimalist movement, trying to stay as objective as I can as a 30+ year runner, a coach, and as a Physical Therapist.
Before I go any further, let me make one quick point that is very pertinent to what follows: I am not "against" minimalist running! I train and race in Hokas that are designed mostly for cushioning, and protection of the toes from kicking rocks, which is very handy on the trails. Although they get me WAY off the ground, it has a very low heel-to-forefoot drop (4mm)... not minimalist, but do get me to more of a midfoot strike than a heel strike. I've been running long-distance for 34 years in a row, at distances from 2 miles to 111 miles and most of my joints are still healthy and intact (daggum ankles are another story, hence the cushioned Hokas).
One principle minimalist argument declares that running in shoes promotes heel striking, so therefore the "shock-absorbing" forefoot striking isn’t a practical option in shoes. But all of the minimalist brands go on to clarify that a prolonged adaption or break-in period is needed to run barefoot without excessive soreness or injury. So, if you're going to take a learning curve period with minimalist shoes, why not use that period to learn to strike somewhere other than the heel while wearing technologically advanced shoes? All major shoe brands are now designing shoes specifically to facilitate fore- and mid-foot striking by building them with a smaller height differential between the toe and the heel (heel-drop). I explained in a previous post (click here) that as you drop the heel lower, the muscles on the back of your calf must lower your heel to the ground (with ALL of your body weight) in the milliseconds after your forefoot strikes the ground. Then the posterior calf must immediately explode to push your body weight back up to propel you forward. Hence, one of the drawbacks of minimalist running can be a rip-roaring case of achilles tendinitis if you don't adapt correctly and patiently. Running in a shoe with a moderate heel drop requires next to zero eccentric work in those (posterior tibial) muscles. Now, looking at this from a training standpoint, this additional stress makes barefoot running a great training tool. It subjects the body to this increased load and introduces a new and highly specific type of strength training that most people have never experienced because typical running shoes prevent it. And again from a PT's viewpoint, never pooh-pooh the opportunity to strengthen all muscles around an active joint.
Some shoes are designed to help runners strike the ground with their mid-foot or forefoot, while others tend to promote heel striking. If you aspire to a mid- or forefoot striking gait, shoes with a low rise from the toe to the heel can help. Although many studies have attempted to show that forefoot striking, not barefoot running, reduces the shock experienced upon impact with the ground, this is not universal. Some heel strikers can run with relatively little impact, while I've seen some forefoot runners who could probably crack a walnut with their ground strike.
As "THE BOOK" so eloquently describes, our barefoot great-ancestors would chase and poop out their future dinner by chasing them over many miles until they literally died (which I've done in many races). But, if these persistence hunters from before the days of projectile weapons somehow came upon a pair of modern running shoes, would they have failed to catch the animals they pursued? Of course not! Persistence hunting is a comparison of the relative endurance capabilities of two different species and does nothing to highlight the differences between shoed running and barefoot running. It only proves that people can run long distances. Applying the "born to run" argument to running is akin to saying that at one time man didn't have clothing so we should roam around naked to give our bodies an opportunity to adapt to be able to better protect us from the elements. I guess this makes sense if you're hoping to be the last one in the nudist colony who's able to stay outside when the sun dips below the horizon on a winter afternoon. But no matter how much you get your body to adapt you're not going to be as warm as the dude next door who has on a pair of down pants and a down jacket.
I like that the "craze" has turned so many new folks on to running, but I don't give a rat's tail what cavemen did when they ran. What I care about are the options available to me. I can either put my feet down on a couple centimeter thick piece of foam that has been engineered and re-engineered by thousands of shoe developers for the exact purpose of absorbing the impact of these hundreds of thousands of footsteps, or I can put my foot (or my foot wrapped in a foot glove) down directly on roots, rocks, pavement, gravel, or whatever else I encounter over the course of a run. Any guesses as to which one I'm going to choose?
Now, here's the whole point I'm trying to get at. Don't decide if shoes, foot-gloves, or nothing at all is what's right for you because you read it in some book that just happened to be fortunate enough to hit the "Tipping Point". How do we know then what is the right amount of shoe for us? In my mind there's no better method than good old trial and error. When you have the right shoe you'll know it. A natural foot strike should be one that feels natural to you. Whether its heel, forefoot or midfoot, it should feel comfortable and unforced. For many years, PT's, coaches, and many know-it-alls were trying to correct every Tom, Dick, and Mary that pronated their feet during running. Then someone a tiny bit smarter said "Whoa, everybody pronates and it's not always bad, so don't correct it unless it's causing problems!". What you will know right away is when you have the wrong shoe. If you're looking for somewhere to start I would say to go to a reputable local Running Store and talk to them about the goods and bads of all types of shoes. Most of these guys love what they do and stay up to date on the latest technology (Yes, minimal shoes ARE technology). They want to sell shoes to you and they don't want you to get hurt so you'll come back and spend more money.
If you've taken everything I've written here 100% serious: I'm sorry. My intention here was simply to touch on the general question of what type of footwear makes sense. If you want to run barefoot, run barefoot, but do it because it's the best for you, not because you read a book and now you think you're kin to a running tribe in the Mexican canyons. I think the minimal effect is here to stay, but the "fad" part will fade away, and most will find what is best for them. Your head is the farthest part of your body away from your feet, but you better use your noggin to keep those feet happy.
Everybody, have a good run today, tomorrow, and by using the right footware for you, all the tomorrows ahead of you. Hopefully, we'll make the right choices and I'll see you all on the roads - AL
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