I switched to minimalist running thinking I would run more naturally, with a forefoot strike instead of a heel strike, but this led to injury. Then I came across an interesting study that explained all the things that could go wrong if you wear the wrong minimalist shoe, that is, a minimalist shoe that is not completely flat, for forefoot running. This is when I realized I needed to run barefoot more and to also wear zero-drop minimalist running shoes to ensure I landed properly on my forefoot with greater control and less foot strike and stride variability.
Always Run Barefoot Before Going Minimal
Because they encourage stronger feet and ankles, minimalist shoes are better than cushioned running shoes. And, it has also been heavily assumed that because of their ‘barefoot-feeling’ construction, minimalist shoes will drastically help a runner run injury-free by allowing safer, more efficient forefoot running mechanics. However, a new study has found evidence to the contrary of which reinforces the idea that it is better to run barefoot before going minimal, and to make sure your minimalist shoes are completely flat (0-mm heel-toe differential) if you wish to have good biomechanics.
Transitioning to minimalist shoes will increase the risk of injury if you fail to adopt the proper forefoot strike mechanics (Ryan et al.), this implies that minimalist shoes may allow sensory impairments to persist, resulting in poor adaptability of the forefoot running gait.
A new study by Fuller et al. 2015 found that transitioning to minimalist running shoes from conventional running shoes, may result in unhealthy adaptable mechanisms that increases the risk of injury. For example, most of the runners (the runners were natural heel strike runners) in the study adopted a midfoot strike landing, but none adopted a forefoot strike landing when they switched from conventional to minimalist shod running.
The researchers investigated the effects of minimalist shoes on biomechanical adaptability in natural heel strike cushioned shod runners and found that minimalist shoes influenced a non-heel strike landing, but resulted in weak stride interval long-range correlations, which means that the body was less adaptable than expected to the minimalist footwear which may increase the likelihood of lower leg injury.
- The minimalist shoes used in the study was the Asics Piranha SP4 which has a 5-mm heel-toe differential, so these shoes are not zero-dropped like a true minimalist shoe for forefoot running should be.
The researchers found that these minimalist shoes evoked greater dynamic instability at faster running speeds of 15 km/hr. Through mathematical formulations, the researchers found that running fast in minimalist shoes with a 5-mm heel-toe offset increased the system towards the state of greater randomness, or a ‘loss of structure’ that was similar to that of a neurodegernative disorder sufferer, and thus deviated from healthy adaptability of the body. This means that the body was unstable when the minimalist shoes induced changes in the runners’ gait (i.e. from heel strike to a midfoot strike landing), resulting in unregulated movement patterns that may result in injury.
Based on their data, the researchers concluded the following:
“The loss of adaptability in running stride observed in the minimalist shoe runners could make runners switching from conventional heeled footwear to minimalist shoes less likely to adopt to changes in the running environment and more likely to sustain an injury”
This is where barefoot running comes in handy because it corrects for unwanted biomechanical variability.
Run Barefoot to Get Your Forefoot Strike Right!
The best way to develop movement strategies that improve more stable self-regulated running mechanics is through meeting the foot’s extreme sensory needs, that is, to run barefoot before going minimal, so that you know you are landing on your forefoot.
- When going from cushioned running shoes to minimalist footwear, sensory difficulties still persist in runners. Avoiding highly stimulating environments, such as running barefoot, when learning forefoot running is harmful. This is because all shod runners suffer from some form of plantar sensory processing disorder which causes distress on the body due to the unpredictable nature of biomechanical responses when these runners go minimal for the first time.
A key difference between minimalist running and running barefoot is the amount of proprioception delivered to the foot. Since barefoot running is associated with the greatest amount of plantar multi-sensory stimulation, barefoot running interventions can result in immediate adaptable changes with more optimal outcomes.
Remember, the feet are one of the most highly sensory-driven parts of the body, and the reasons that converting from cushioned running shoes to minimalism has limited effectiveness is the lack of potency in plantar stimulation. Running barefoot will give you more opportunities to maintain self-regulatory landing behaviors and attain positive outcomes without getting injured.
More From Run Forefoot:
Fuller et al. The effect of footwear and footfall pattern on running stride interval long-range correlations and distributional variability. Gait and Posture, 2015; 42(4): 1-22.
Ryan et al. Examining injury risk and pain perception in runners using minimalist footwear. Br J Sports Med, 2014; 48, 1257-62.
BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.