For runners pondering the minimalist approach, the Science of Sport posted an excellent piece this week from a round-table discussion on the benefits and risks of barefoot running.
The participants could be considered the kings of biomechanics.
Readers will find the leading authorities around the world are as divided on the popular minimalist trend as shoe makers and runners themselves.
My take-away from the piece is that empirical evidence on the topic remains as far off as an ultra-marathon finish line. Proper running form is elusive and vital, and moving slowly from standard running shoes to bare soles is an absolute must.
Ross Tucker, who holds a P.h.d. in exercise physiology, moderated the forum, and posted the recap on The Science of Sport web page. His conclusion: “I believe that EVERYONE can benefit from some barefoot running.
“That is, I think that barefoot running is, at worst, a good training modality that may have benefit for running performance, even when wearing shoes. We know from research and simple experience that there are significant differences in muscle activation and loading patterns when running barefoot, and these are all potentially favorable, even if barefoot running is used only as a training method. In fact, I'd go so far as to encourage all runners to try barefoot running, even if it is only during a warm-up or cool-down, or once a week for a short time.”
In the discussion, Daniel Howell, an anatomy professor from Liberty University, took the strongest stance in favor of running barefoot, as a way to improve performance and avoid injuries.
Howell spends most of his time shoe-free and argues that it is the natural form for humans. Tucker paraphrased his view, “We are not born with shoes, our ancestors did not run in shoes, and it is therefore natural for us to run barefoot too. To live barefoot, in fact.”
But should modern man attempt to recreate a lifestyle far removed from our current environment? Much harm can result from a wholesale change.
Over the centuries in shoes the great suspension system of the human foot has weakened, creating risks to those who scrap their cushioned trainers.
“In other words, weakness of supporting muscles and tendons as a result of years of disuse and TV-watching might mean that being "natural" is a more risky option that being in shoes,” Tucker writes. “There is a real possibility, as stated earlier, that some people need shoes in order to run. The notion that being barefoot works for everyone today because it may have worked for everyone a long time ago is a leap of faith.”
There is a general agreement, though, that the motion control and orthotics so prevalent in running shoes today are largely unnecessary.
Tucker notes, “The shoe industry has already picked up on this, incidentally, and the number of heavy, bulky shoes available has, at least in my estimation, come down enormously compared to a decade ago.”
Whether running in bulky trainers, minimalist flats or au natural, the key remains proper form. Landing on the forefoot rather than the heel lessens the impact of a foot strike by 700% and appears to be key in reducing injuries to the shins and knees.
The conclusion, if one can be identified, is this: “As mentioned, barefoot running is not by itself the answer. It's a means to discover the answer, perhaps, and for some people, it may go on to become the solution. But for most, it's a good way to accelerate the discovery of better running, to strengthen and condition differently, and then to benefit from that later on.”
Personal note: As I wrote in August, I have been training in a minimalist shoe, a pair of Inov8s, with very little cushioning and heel-to-toe variation. Following sound advice, I acclimated slowly, initially switching to the new shoes for only the last half-mile of a run.
From there, I started wearing the Inov8s for short outings, four miles or so, then built up to eight to 10 miles. Early on, I noticed tightness in my calves and achilles that lasted a day or two, primarily I asume because of the different landing angle and foot position.
I love the feel of them, however, and am convinced they do promote a mid-foot landing and better running form. Even in my traditional trainers, I tend to land more on my forefoot now, and work to keep my feet under my hips, increase my cadence and shorten my stride.
I don’t expect to be running a marathon barefoot in the near future, but am mindful that it took me almost two years to train for my first marathon, which I ran in Adidas Supernovas. Patience.