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Set Your Feet Free With Minimalist Running Shoes

Minimalist sneakers have exploded in popularity, but are they really the best way to run?

| April 5th, 2013
From left to right: courtesy of New Balance/Nike
Set Your Feet Free With Minimalist Running Shoes

Waffled treads and a slew of standard, stride-correction features built into running shoes since the 1970s haven’t reduced the risk of running injuries—up to 80 percent of runners report being sidelined with at least one lower extremity injury. That’s why some experts say it’s time to toss out highly structured kicks and set your feet free.

“Traditional running shoes are so stiff and padded that they do too much of the work your joints were meant to do on their own,” says Irene Davis, Ph.D., director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard Medical School. “This can leave your feet and ankles weak and susceptible to injury.”

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As Davis explains it, running in typical training shoes with a cushioned midsole encourages you to land on your heels. By comparison, an ultra-light “barefoot” or “minimal” shoe that’s been largely stripped of padding exposes your heel to impact and promotes a shorter running stride so you land closer to the ball of your foot—the way the foot was meant to move.

Sophisticated treadmill tests Davis performs in her lab show that an up-near-the-toes running style diminishes the initial impact peak of foot strike. That is, the initial force that shoots up through your ankles, knees and hips when your foot hits the ground. In theory, removing this force prevents injury.

However, studies show that the average barefoot runner’s stride is about seven centimeters shorter than normal. Over the course of the marathon distance, this translates to about 7,000 additional footfalls above the 40,000 steps a typical racer takes to cover the 26.2 mile distance. In other words, there’s less force per step but 7,000 additional opportunities for something to go wrong.

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So which is it? Does switching to a more minimal shoe prevent or increase the chances of achy Achilles and gnarly knees?

A new study from a team of exercise science professors at Brigham Young University found that runners who transition too quickly to minimalist shoes may be in for trouble. After 10 weeks of running, subjects who ran in minimal footwear experienced the greatest increases of inflammation in their foot bones and suffered more stress injuries than those who ran in traditional shoes.

And the runners who tended to have the most problems while wearing the minimals? Women.

Davis says while this was a good study, it doesn’t prove that light and lean shoes leave you more prone to injury. Rather, it underscores the need to gradually transition into minimalist training shoes after a lifetime of wearing traditional running shoes.

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“Your bones and muscles need a chance to rebuild some of their natural strength, and this doesn’t happen overnight,” she explains.

Diabetics or anyone who doesn’t have full feeling in their feet should probably steer clear of the minimal shoe trend, Davis advises. Otherwise, if you’ve got the patience to do several months of foot and ankle strengthening exercises and slowly adjust to minimal shoes and a new running style, Davis believes you may be able to avoid and even correct many of the joint problems that plague the average runner.

If you’re interested in trying out this new trend, check out our review of five of the most popular minimal running shoes to see which ones might work for you.

 

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