Running technique and minimalist shoes

In this article I explain that you should buy your shoes based on the way you run today and with an eye on how you want to run tomorrow.  The secret is not necessarily about adopting minimal running shoes as a means to correct your running form, no such spontaneous shoe magic exists. However, evolving towards wearing minimalist shoes for some of your running can be an important part of a larger strategy to improve your running technique.  The bulk of your running should be done in a shoe that helps you run injury free with your current running technique (warts and all), however as you look to improve your running form you should have one or two pairs of aspirational running shoes to help stimulate improvements in your running technique.  The trick to avoiding injury in this quest for better technique is to not jump too far ahead of your current technical ability.

Having made the statement that running shoes are not a miracle cure for your injury woes or questionable biomechanics, there are some shoes that will help assist you to make improvements in your running technique.  My general philosophy is to move away from bulky, heavily cushioned motion controlled shoes towards lighter, firmer shoes with less cushioning under the forefoot and heel.  And as you progress look at shoes with a modest drop from heel to toe.  This reduces the instance of shoe induced heel-striking i.e. your foot contacting the ground earlier than it otherwise might, purely because of the additional inch or more of cushion under the heel.  And the removal of unnecessary cushioning and stiffness improves your proprioception.  This is a word that has many slight definitional variations, but the general thrust of it is: the ability to sense your body’s position in space and react to stimulus received by interacting with the physical environment.  In the case of running: getting a faster, more accurate sense of your feet striking, gripping and applying force to the ground.

There are a large number of shoes that are currently termed minimalist and the diagram above takes you through some of the basic categories.  In my opinion the journey to minimalism can start with the adoption of a lightweight trainer, perhaps even one with a small amount of posting (support) in the mid-foot.  If you’ve come from running in heavy stiff, stiff motioned controlled shoes then jumping into models like the Adidas Tempo or Boston for example, is going to feel pretty minimal to you – so start here and begin adapting.  Consider a pair of marathon racers (of any brand that suits you) as your aspirational pair and I would even grab a pair of Nike Free Runs or Free 3.0s as well – even if you only use these for walking or the gym in the initial stages.  Only do a small amount of easy running in these lighter less supportive shoes to begin i.e. less than 20 minutes jogging.  In my mind it’s questionable whether regular runners should risk super-minimal shoes or barefoot running.  Most of the benefits of increased proprioception and foot strength can be gained by wearing less extreme minimal shoes with much less risk of injury or accident.

The trend towards minimalist shoes is here to stay, and with good reason, the less is more principle could never be more appropriately applied as it is in running.  But before you throw away your shoes altogether, let me say that while I’m sympathetic to the barefoot ethos I don’t recommend taking things that far, especially if you have a long history of running in regular shoes and your running technique needs improvement.  You don’t need to risk adopting an all or nothing approach to running barefoot.  Just as you have adapted to running in supportive heavy shoes for many years, you need to make the journey in reverse at a steady pace and with plenty of caution.

The diagram above illustrates that a runner on the left with poor buttock and hamstring activation should not immediately begin wearing minimal shoes until strengthening and better coordination of those muscles has been proven by demonstrable improvement in running technique.  As your technique improves you can gradually move towards wearing more minimal shoes.  You can make a start and begin evolving towards wearing less shoe as part of an overall plan to train for better running technique, which includes working on hip strength and activation of the buttocks and hamstrings.  Mental cues, practice, strength training and running at reduced volumes all help, as will wearing lighter, less cushioned, more responsive shoes, which allow you to feel and react to ground contact faster and with more precision.  As I have found during my own process of improving my running form, the feeling of what is happening under my feet has been critical to enhancing my overall ability to engage the key muscles: hamstrings, glutes and quads to form a more stable and powerful extension chain from the hips, knees, ankles and feet.  The further benefit of strengthening the muscles in the feet forms a stronger, stable and springy platform from which to launch each stride.

In summary, you should consider your journey to running shoe minimalism as evolution rather than revolution: a gradual progression away from control and cushion can be made safely if you don’t take short cuts – slowly work your way down as you improve your strength, coordination and running technique.

Don’t rush into running in a radically less supportive shoe than what you are used to wearing.

Don’t believe a running shoe or going barefoot is a miracle cure for poor technique, injury or soreness problems.

Don’t stay too brand loyal – experiment with different models and makes to find the one that works best for you.

Don’t jump into barefoot running or super minimal shoes until your running technique has significantly improved.

If you do want to try barefoot, think about doing a very small amount of barefoot walking or jogging as technique training/stimulus – not running training.

Steer towards models that look, sound and feel like they make you lighter on your feet.  Buy shoes that feel good when you run in them.

Buy a second and third pair that have slightly less support than you’re used to.

Do small amounts of running in the less supportive shoes (easy jogs) until you adapt to them.  Gradually transition over 12 – 24 months.

Consider the surfaces you train on and if minimal shoes offer adequate protection.

Get your running gait analyzed to identify any flaws that might lead to injury if you rush into minimal running.

Start a program of strength and coordination training.

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