Don’t be the hare: safe transition to minimalist running

Almost everyone would acknowledge that running is one of the most effective forms of physical exercise.  However, there remains a fear factor, even a stigma that running is inherently dangerous and heading out for a jog on a regular basis is inevitably going to lead to debilitating injuries. The default response over the past twenty years has been to fit runners into heavily cushioned shoes with motion control features with the goal of reducing impact forces and pronation. Pronation or the collapsing inwards of the feet and ankles has been linked to common running injuries such as shin splints and knee pain.

In more recent times attention has shifted from loading up runners with the most protective and cushioned forms of footwear to adopting lighter, flatter, more flexible shoes. Runners have embraced the Born to Run philosophy; the romance of running barefoot or in shoes that allow your feet to move as nature intended has proven seductive. More importantly, and ironically, these shoes designed to assuage our running hypochondria have proven completely ineffective at reducing injury rates. Consequently, the minimalist and barefoot running movements are gaining traction and built a passionate following of runners – including me.

It’s interesting that the focus on footwear as a solution for running injuries has subtly morphed into a discussion about running technique and biomechanics.  It’s hard to avoid, as changing the composition, shape and volume of material under and around the foot does change the way people run.  And so it has been proven: a recent study by popular evolutionary biologist and barefoot running advocate Daniel Lieberman demonstrated that runners who had always run without the intervention of modern athletic shoe technology tended to strike the ground with a neutral (horizontal to the ground) orientation.  Whereas those of us in western society, who are habitually shod with shoes with raised heels from early life, tend to contact the ground heel first and hit the ground harder than our natural running counterparts.

So while it might be tempting to throw away your shoes as you respond to the call of the wild, you need to be cautious, as the research about the benefits of running barefoot or in very flat minimalist shoes has yet to address the broader question about the impact on the total running technique of the athlete.  By this I mean focusing only on foot-strike patterns ignores the fact that running is predominately driven and regulated by the very large muscles that flex and extend the hip and knee joints.  These muscles, along with key hip stabilisers such as the glute medius muscle are responsible for the position of foot contact relative to the runner’s hips and torso. This means the muscles originating at the hips and pelvis control how far away or close to the runner’s body the foot will contact the ground and regulates the position of the foot relative to the runner’s hips.  Image above: the author with thigh and feet positioned relatively well in-line and under the hip joint.

There’s no doubt that wearing minimalist shoes or trying out a little bit of barefoot action can help you capture the essence of better running technique.  However, depending on where you’re coming from the shock value and risk of short term injury may negate any benefits you would have accrued with a gradual transition based around your running technique as it stands today.

The research that I reviewed as part of the writing process for my book Running Technique is very clear, the best runners in the world run with a muscle activation pattern that delivers powerful drive from the hips while maintaining knee stiffness during ground contact.  In the other words, the buttock and hamstring muscles are key drivers of good running technique.  But, these muscles, along with the core and lower back are casualties of modern life and atrophy or waste away in response to excessive sitting, wearing of shoes with heels and general lack of physical activity.  The risk with racing towards the lightest and flattest pair of running shoes you can get your hands on is that these muscles have not had the chance to strengthen and become contributors to good running form.

Runners are being bombarded with complicated and sometimes unhelpful advice and interventions. In the coaching work I am doing with Mark Gorski, we often see runners fitted out with the heaviest set of expensive motion controlled shoes and stiff orthotics that push their ankles into such an uncomfortable position they end up running on the outside of their feet.  Or alternatively people latch on to the minimalist philosophy in an all or nothing approach that causes issues as runners make the transition too quickly. Runners should consider the safe and effective middle ground that is available.

I’m talking about shoes that are light, flexible, relatively flat and allow the feet to feel the ground. There are plenty of good shoe models available that deliver similar benefits to going into extreme minimal shoes. There are also safe pathways to transition from structured shoes into minimal footwear without having to completely shock and smash your body. For example, for a runner currently wearing the Brooks Beast, the Adizero Tempo (pictured above) is going to feel pretty minimal.  Or if you’re wearing the Tempo and looking to go further, then the Adizero Adios (pictured left) or the Mizuno Ronin (pictured below) could be your next stop.

It’s only when you look closely at how the whole runner actually moves that you can make judgments about technique and consequently what sort of footwear might be appropriate. Usually there’s a happy medium that can get people moving better without getting injured.  Runners looking to move towards more minimalist shoes or even occasionally go barefoot need to think about evolving towards wearing less shoe.  This means a gradual progression so that your body and mind can get to grips with the changes in your biomechanics.

So if you swap your heaviest pair of motion controlled trainers for a slightly lighter neutral shoe, you are already making progress. Should you want the challenge of taking things further, then wearing a minimalist shoe such as the Nike Free Run for a very small amount of easy jogging  (less than 10 % of your total mileage per week) and perhaps during your gym sessions could be a good way to provide additional stimulus for better running form. The running technique tip is: be the tortoise, not the hare when transitioning to minimalist running shoes.

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