The enigmatic Anton Krupicka cut through the mumbo jumbo around minimalist running when he addressed a group of footwear retailers, running coaches and podiatrists at the recent launch of the New Balance Minimus range held in Melbourne, Australia. The legendary ultra-marathoner, who regularly competes in single day 100 mile races (and wins them), shared an interesting success story about how he came to transition towards and then fully embrace minimalist running shoes for all his training and racing. But before we get into that, a quick recap on why you might want to consider making a change to your running footwear.
What’s the minimalist and barefoot running elevator pitch?
Gradually removing cushioning, support and reducing the heel-to-toe height differential in your running shoes can help runners improve engagement of key running muscles (buttocks and hamstrings) and improve strength and control of the foot and lower leg during running. In simple terms, being able to feel the moment of contact with the ground enables the body to react faster and switch on its natural shock absorbing systems (muscles and tendons). The further bonus being faster running as your body gets better at capture, store and release of forces you generate in every stride. One example of this style of shoe is shown below, but there are literally hundreds on the market.
This less is more minimalist running has captured the imagination of the running public. However, the vast majority of runners remain in traditional running shoes; unaware, unconvinced or just plain worried about the injury risks of making a minimalist transition. Yet some early adopters are jumping the gun to drop their old heavy trainers for flat, minimalist, cushionless shoes in a single, dramatic, injury inducing step.
Transition slowly to reduce the likelihood of injury
This is where the major gap in thinking and practice seems to be at the moment: how runners can get from A to B (or some happy medium in between) safely to tap into the benefits of minimalist and barefoot running? Krupicka’s story is instructive in this regard, a frustrated and often injured college runner he wore traditional running shoes, was a heavy heel-striker and suffered a series of stress fractures that stymied his progression and enjoyment of the sport.
Anton Krupicka told of building up his capacity to absorb 250km of mountain trail running per week by gradually transitioning to minimalist running shoes. He credits the change in helping him resolve recurrent stress fractures and generally improving his running technique and enjoyment of the trail. Anton’s connection with running and the outdoors is best explained in his own words in this Running Times article that gave insight into why he shuns city living in favor of a mountain based running lifestyle.
Perhaps the problem with this is that, when I am mired amongst all of these material and intellectual pursuits, I ultimately feel a lack of an underlying foundation of pure, unadulterated action or being. A stimulating novel or a smooth road might both be nice, but neither feel real to me in the most rigorous sense of the word, when compared to say, running through a grove of ponderosa pine trees or beneath a gigantic slab of sandstone turned on end by some ages-old tectonic force.
Anton Krupicka took on minimalism as an intervention of last resort, but when he did so the approach was methodical, well thought out and professional. When I asked Anton how and how long his transition to minimalist shoes took, he was able to speak confidently about the process as much as the outcome.
Overall his transition took four months and was achieved by introducing minimalist footwear gradually and alternating wearing minimalist shoes on his regular runs with easy barefoot jogging sessions on grass. He also consciously thought about his running form and cadence as part of the approach.
Krupicka didn’t just wear the minimalist shoes and expect magic to happen. The combination of thinking about his running technique and using additional stimulus such as barefoot jogging on grass helped the transition process.
How fast and how far should the minimalist transition be?
It’s worth pointing out that a four month transition is actually pretty fast, Krupicka has two main advantages over most runners thinking of making a change in footwear, age and focus.
Don’t ignore your age, but equally don’t be limited by it. As a young man, probably early to mid twenties when he made the change, Krupicka’s capacity to adapt more quickly than an older runner is understandable. He’s had fewer years locked into poor running technique and his body’s capacity to absorb the additional stretching and strain is going to be greater than that of an older runner.
As a case in point, I started my transitioning down gradually in my mid-thirties and it has taken me three years to work down from heavy heel-striking and running in heavily cushioned shoes to doing a modest volume of barefoot running. It can be done, you just need to give your body enough time to adapt.
The famous Tan running track that circumnavigates Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens provided a fitting backdrop for Krupicka’s insights into the minimalist running trend.
It’s a learning process – more focus leads to faster results. Also devoting a significant amount of time to making the change helps, if you’ve more time and focus to throw at the problem of learning to run with better technique, it stands to reason you’ll get there a bit faster than someone who has to fit that challenge around a packed schedule of work and family commitments.
So should you embrace the minimalist running trend?
More and more runners are ditching their heavy, hi-tech, cushioned, motion controlling shoes in favor of lighter, flatter more flexible running footwear. I’m a big advocate of helping runners make steps towards minimalism, but it’s all relative to the age, strength, injury history and the shoes runners are currently familiar with and wearing.
The minimalist trend isn’t without risks, runners who’ve spent years wearing traditional cushioned trainers must take their time adapting the feet and lower calves to handle additional stretching of muscles and connective tissues and strains places on the extremities. A carefully thought out transition strategy is the way to embrace this trend and obtain the benefits without putting yourself at undue risk of injury.
It’d be idealistic to imagine Anton Krupicka leaping lightly through heavily forested, rocky mountain running trails barefoot or in the thinnest running slippers imaginable. He does, in fact carefully select his footwear to match the terrain. Barefoot running is only done on grass, thin soled minimalist shoes are worn on relatively flat and even surfaces, such as the granite sand trail around the tan. Finally, when on rockier trails he does wear shoes with a rock-plate to prevent stone bruising and injury.
While minimalist running has its place as a method to help improve your running technique and avoid injuries, it’s worth remembering that it is but one intervention you can use to work towards the development of proper running form.
Changing footwear helps the process of learning the skill of running. But you shouldn’t ignore the need to build strength, think about how you’re moving and the way you train as being just as important. Finally, on a more philosophical note, I’ll leave the last word on simplifying your running experience to Anton Krupicka:
I have found that this engaging with the natural world is, over time, very instructive. Running in the mountains creates a space – through silence, openness, a removal from distractions – in which I can come to know and explore myself.
Written by Brian Martin