4 ways minimalist running shoes improve form

You don’t need to run barefoot to stimulate improvements in running technique. Here’s four ways wearing a range minimal running shoes can help improve your running form.

The overriding running technique tip in this article is that you should gradually step down into the world of minimalist shoe running.  Escaping the injury ridden doom of running in heavy, motion controlled, clunky running shoes takes a patient approach, but there’s plenty of pathways available to do this safely.  Check-out my previous article on minimalist running shoes and running technique for more information.

Running Technique Tip 1: Reduce incidental heel-striking. If you run in shoes that have a significant amount of cushioning under the heel there is a fair chance you’ll contact the ground heel first. This is especially true of shoes that have a large discrepancy between the stack height of the heel versus the forefoot cushioning.  As shoes become flatter you need to concentrate harder to avoid the heel-striking habit by adopting a more neutral posture about the ankle and foot or reducing the amount of dorsiflexion (toes pointed up).

Running Technique Tip 2: Reduce over-striding. Proponents of barefoot running technique claim that going unshod reduces over-striding, and I don’t disagree.  The impact of going minimal is exactly the same.  You can’t get away with landing with straight legs (extended knees) on your heel when you’ve given up the safety net of big cushy heels.  But going minimal is not any kind of magic cure, you really need to concentrate to activate your hamstrings and glutes a bit earlier, which encourages a propensity to run with flexed knees.  The shoes won’t do it for you, so be careful about just doing as you always did – it helps you practice good running technique.  You might also find this easy to do when you’re fresh, but when tired or trying to run fast it becomes more difficult to keep your form together, so start with short easy jogs.

Running Technique Tip 3: Get stronger feet and lower calves. Nike Free does not have a monopoly on stimulating gains in foot strength.  Run in any reasonably flexible shoe with minimal heel to toe drop and you’ll find that your plantaflexors will have to work much harder.  The reason for this is: shoes with a big drop from the heel put you in a soft plantaflexed position (toes pointing down).  This means you don’t need to work as hard to form a stable springy platform with your foot to leave the ground with purpose.  Another way of thinking about it is: the heel helping you get over your foot without you having to work as hard.  I cover this ground in more detail in an earlier article about Nike Frees and Running Technique.

Running Technique Tip 4: Get your timing and coordination right. Shoes with very flexible soles and less cushion in the forefoot are great for getting a feel for the road.  As a runner without much natural talent or coordination, getting some sensation from under the feet has been really helpful in stimulating some improvement in my running from. It’s a cruel irony that good runners move pretty well with just about anything strapped to their feet.  Runners with bad technique need the extra stimulus of feeling the ground to help get us moving better.

As I’ve continued my approach of wearing more minimal shoes I’m now finding that shoes such as the Nike Free 5.0 are not minimal enough to stimulate the kinds of running technique improvement I’m trying to achieve. These days I find wearing shoes with less heel-toe drop to be a significant area that helps me improve my minimalist running form.  Cushioning type and thickness are also important, but I’ll deal with that in another article.

I’m now running twice per week in Adidas racing flats (Adizero Pro and Adizero Rocket) which have very little  cushioning in the heel and almost no heel to toe drop (6mm).  This compares to the 11mm drop in my regular marathon racing shoes the Adizero Adios that I do the bulk of my running in. So they definitely provide more stimulus for me to reduce my heel striking habit and get a bit further towards a neutral foot posture.

Interestingly the Nike Free 3.0 has a 7mm heel-toe drop, but also feels and looks like it has a slope in the forefoot.  I run about twice a week in these shoes and find them more forgiving that the Adizero Rockets for example.  They are a good stepping-stone down to wearing flats, I found the transition from the Adizero Adios to the Free 3.0 to be reasonably comfortable and easier to make than the next step down to the Rockets or Pros.  In fact, I tend to think that the Nike Free 3.0 needs to become a bit more minimal – but that is a story for another day.

My next assignment is to drag a pair of Nike Zoom Air XC 2 cross country racers out of the cupboard.  They have a scary 3mm heel-toe drop that is not for the faint-hearted.  I’ll be going there warily. The last time I trained in these I did something uncomfortable to my peroneal tendon.  Part of the problem was launching into a set of 200m repetitions without spending the requisite couple of weeks logging some easy miles in them.  I learn … slowly.

And I’m very excited about a trial pair of New Balance MR10 Minimus that are coming my way soon.  While I’ve mentioned a few brands here I’m not particularly loyal – I’ll try and wear any shoe as long as it’s good.  All these small differences between minimalist running shoes might appear to be insignificant, but they definitely make a big difference on your run.  If you’ve come from a heel-striking background, then carefully consider the heel to toe drop of any minimal running shoe you are intending to wear. Starting with a light trainer or a marathon racer is probably the best option to avoid smashing your shins and calves in the short term.  Once you can handle these shoes in training and racing consider the flatter options I’ve discussed in this article (note: this a process of months and years, not weeks). There’s a good incremental pathway of progression for someone looking to run better in more minimal shoes, especially if you look at different shoes models from different brands.

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