What is Minimalist running and what are its benefits/risks?
Minimalist running is the use of shoes with very minimal support at the arch and sole of the foot. A true minimalist shoe is very flexible and the whole shoe could be rolled into a ball to fit into the palm of your hand. One benefit of using this type of shoe is to strengthen the muscles of the foot and ankle. This is rather contradictory to previous views on what a running shoe should provide. Almost every runner at some point has walked into a shoe store and was told that they need “X” type of shoe to correct for a certain deviation occurring at the foot… usually over pronation. The medial build up at the shoe used to correct over pronation tendencies takes the job away from muscles responsible for supporting the arch of your foot. This can ultimately lead to weakness and never allows correction of the problem. A similar analogy would be having a patient wear a sling for support of the arm if the rotator cuff muscles are too weak to stabilize the shoulder joint. This is not the route we typically take for any weak muscle group of the body, so why should we at our feet? Another suggested benefit of a minimalist shoe is the tendency to change one’s running pattern. The use of minimal protection and support at the foot is thought to promote a mid or forefoot strike at the foot. Because there is little protection at the heel, runners are less likely to heel strike with running. A forefoot or mid-foot strike can decrease stress and impact delivered to the knees and low back. However, this does not mean a heel strike cannot occur with minimalist shoes, especially when fatigue sets in. Heel striking in a minimalist shoe can lead to injury.
The benefits of minimalist running sound appetizing to many but transitioning to this type of running should be with caution. There is a very conservative protocol for transitioning from a traditional shoe to a minimalist type shoe. It is extremely important to wean into this type of running to avoid injury and build up strength at the foot. Just like any type of training, you must ease into strengthening and build your tolerance gradually. Most protocols will involve building up your walking tolerance in the shoes prior to initiating a couple minutes of running. It is important to take notice when fatigue sets in at the foot as your running form will change accordingly which may lead to injury. Some of the more common injuries related to running in minimalist shoes with either bad mechanics or weak foot muscles include stress fractures, gastroc and soleus tendonitis (tendonitis of the calf), shin splints, and pain at the knees and low back. If you are looking to try this type of shoe, it is important to do your research on finding a trust worthy transition program and perform exercises to help build strength at the ankle.
The author of this article is Rachel Backhaut, PT, DPT from Athletico – South Loop.