Ever since the release of Christopher McDougall’s ‘Born to Run’ there has been an explosion in the popularity of minimalist running. We are finally at a point where we can start to evaluate the impact that minimalist running has had and if it’s truly the best way to run.
A Quick Background Lesson
The concept is simple, you should run just like people have for thousands of years. This means either shoes that have very minimal support and soles or no footwear altogether. When you run like this you are forced to change from heel-striking on your landing to a mid or forefoot strike.
The benefits are supposed to be numerous, with increased efficiency, improvements in foot and leg strength, and decrease in injury frequency as some of the more prominently noted expectations. On top of that it’s intended to be more enjoyable, after all who doesn’t love the carefree barefoot frolicking that they used to do as a child.
What has the Running Community Seen?
Claims are one thing, but reality can often be very different. In this case there has been a set of very mixed reactions that has resulted in some running communities staunchly opposing minimalist running and others in full support.
What science and anecdotal experiences have shown in the last few years is that with this shift in technique there are significantly less cases of hamstring pulls from not having to reach forward with the leg when landing. Also, some runners even experienced their chronic cases of plantar fasciitis disappear. All good right? Unfortunately it seems that you can still get injured as a minimalist runner, just different injuries are more common, especially Achilles injuries.
What Remains to be Studied
While five years seems like a long time at first, it’s a relatively short time in the scientific community. What seems fairly evident at this point is that the transition from typical padded running shoes to minimalist or barefoot running is the most important phase. This is a phase where injury rates are by far the highest and performance suffers.
How to Transition Properly to Minimalist Running
Considering that most people want to switch to minimalist running in order to fix injuries or avoid new ones, it is absolutely crucial that the transition is done intelligently. Even if you are an experienced runner it can still take some time, patience is the key that always needs to be kept in mind.
Ideally start with extremely short runs with your new footwear or lack thereof. These runs should be less than 10 minutes for your first few runs. You’ll notice the next day that even with the short run your calves will still be incredibly tight and sore because you’re working new muscles that aren’t used to carrying as much of a load while running.
Different people will adapt at different speeds, which means you must pay attention to your body to determine when your next minimalist run will be. This could range all the way from a day to a week depending on your previous technique and footwear. Over time you want to slowly work up to your regular volume until you are comfortable with your new running style.
Now while you are making this slow transition it doesn’t mean you can’t run like you normally do. Many runners have made a successful transition by doing their minimalist work first and then popping on their old shoes and finishing up a longer run. This way you won’t get frustrated by the short duration of the base-building runs.
Injuries as a Minimalist Runner
As mentioned before, the Achilles tendon is often hurt when runners do too much too fast. Think about how your foot sits in a shoe normally, where there is a drop from the heel to the toe. Considering you spend most of your standing and running time in shoes, over the years the Achilles tendon shortens.
When you run with minimalist shoes you get rid of this drop almost entirely. What this does is put an extra stretch on the Achilles tendon every step. Now imagine runners who get their new minimalist shoes and excitedly go run 5 or more miles. How do you think their Achilles tendons are going to feel?
Your tendon will eventually stretch back out over time to its intended length. You may feel like you’re comfortable with your new technique because your muscles aren’t sore anymore, but this doesn’t mean your tendons have fully recovered since tendons can’t adapt as fast as muscle. When in doubt increase your running volume slowly.
Many runners have experienced great results from transitioning to minimalist running, but if you wish to pursue this style of running you must do it intelligently. If you’re training for a big upcoming race and do not have the time to be methodical do not attempt to rush the transition. Instead, put it on hold and clear some time after the race, ideally at least a few months. More complete studies will be done in the next 5-10 years on the effects of minimalist running, so keep your ears and eyes open to learn more about the long-term effects of this exciting style of running.