Knee-joint issues as well as constant back pain is not uncommon in runners, especially in runners who heel strike as heel strike running produces 2 intensive impact force variables (brake force and spontaneous impact peak transient force) which have been well-reported to wear-down the knee-joint. Not to mention, these impact variables also repeatedly slam into the lower back, causing looming pain and stiffness to the area.
Another fact that doesn’t get enough attention is that cushioned running shoes cause you to mistakenly heel strike harder, with greater downward force onto the ground which compounds the brake force and the spontaneous impact peak transient force more quickly with each step.
Knowing all this may strongly suggest the human body may not be naturally adapted for heel strike running as well as for running in thickly cushioned footwear.
Knowing all this also comes back to the question: is it even possible to run safely with less impact threatening the knee’s and back? The answer is yes!
To be on the safe side of running, try running with a forefoot strike instead of a heel strike and do so wearing minimalist shoes ~shoes that do the necessary job at mimicking the barefoot condition which in turn gets your feet to work on their own which will help strengthen them and gets you more dialed into feeling the ground so that you can feel how and where you’re landing on your foot.
Out of all this comes stronger, more tolerant feet and ankles as well as better mechanical effectiveness that’ll altogether give you a bigger boost in balance control and more natural impact-adaptations, such as forefoot striking during running which is on record for bringing down impact loads on the knees and back.
More hard evidence showing minimalist shoes, like the Vibram Five Fingers, may give you the results you want in improving your running form as compared with thick cushioned running shoes, which aren’t always reliable in preventing injuries, came from a 2013 study in the journal Footwear Science. The study reported that runners in the Vibram Five Fingers Bikila had far better outcomes in knee and back pain as compared with runners in the Nike Pegasus 28 and the Nike Free.
The Nike Pegasus 28’s and the Free’s are running shoes propped up on a thick slab of firm cushioning that thickens and stiffens at the heel. These shoes overall have similar underfoot structural support as most traditional running shoes which have been notoriously linked to increases in footstep instabilities and downward and push forces of the feet with the ground during running.
What’s worse, Nike markets the Free as a minimalist shoe designed to specifically facilitate the barefoot running style (i.e forefoot running, increased knee flexion) while supposedly strengthening your feet along the way. The hard truth is there’s no reason to classify the Free as minimalistic because the shoe has similar structural baggage as most traditional running shoes. This is why I think the Free’s should be disqualified as the true minimalist shoe that its marketed for. This remains a case in point as the researchers found that the runners who ran in the Nike Free had a 192% uptick in relative injury risk than the runners in the Vibrams and Nike Pegasus 28s!
Bottom line, the researchers analysis revealed a solid association between increased underfoot cushioning and an increased likelihood of knee and back pain during running.
Not to mention, thick underfoot cushioning and common running-related injuries, such as runners knee, are linked together far too often in the scientific literature, which suggests that thick cushioned running shoes don’t always work to prevent injury because they don’t always work to prevent impact and correct poor mechanics. If they can’t prevent all the impact and your mechanical flaws, how can they prevent all the injuries? However, when you can feel the ground more fully at the feet, like you can in thinner soled shoes, improves sensory functions in the feet which in turn gives you better neural and reflexive control of your stride length and foot strike placement and posture in ways that help you avoid overreaching (over-striding) with your foot at touchdown while avoiding a hard-hitting heel strike. These are mechanical corrections that play a leading role in reducing heavy loading off the knee and back.
This research also hints that efforts to reduce impact-related injuries in running should focus on reducing underfoot protection rather than increasing since there is a special relationship between thinner underfoot cushioning and improved neural control of movements that lead to a reduction in net forces.
More on How Less is Really More
Like most barefoot-inspired footwear, the Vibram Five Fingers play a pivotal role in the architectural dictum: form follows function, meaning that in the context of running, function dictates form whereby constraining or limiting function results in the breakdown of form.
Because the Vibram Five Fingers get the feet to engage independently, induces significant functional recovery in the foot and the payoff regarding this is more immediate than you think, and the stronger your feet, the more steadied you are as a runner. Another way Vibrams makes you feet functionally stronger for running is the shoes paper-thin sole is delivers important underfoot sensory input (ground-feedback) that stimulates greater muscle tone which is a prerequisite for bulking up foot strength and muscle, soft tissue and fat volume as well.
Equally important, heightened underfoot ground-feel directly puts impact-avoidance reflexes into motion for faster, more accurate responses in adjusting ground-contact intensity and sets the stage for safer positioned footfalls.
The gist of ALL this is when the feet are functioning properly which includes their ability to feel the ground more fully, it may correct mechanical impairments almost immediately, making it easier to double down on efforts to avoid injury.
Conversely, underfoot sensory input is significantly reduced in thick cushioned running shoes, meanwhile the tight narrow fit of most of these shoes restricts the forefoot and toes from expanding to their natural state. This loss of ground-feel and function results in big reductions in the foot’s muscle activation, resulting in lower levels in muscle tone which is a common cause of collapsed arches and overall weaker feet, making increased running mileage most stressful on the foot, regardless of how supportive your running shoes are.
Understanding the strong connection between ground-feel, foot strength and good biomechanics is crucial because the more you deprive the feet of ground-feel, the more they become weak and less functional which may unleash a chain of instability up the leg when you run, which may explain why thick underfoot cushioning seems to contribute a greater extent to injury risk than barefoot-like shoes.
If you’ve enjoyed this content, you’ll love my content over at my YouTube channel, here, where I talk at lengths about the benefits of minimalist footwear and being barefoot!
Its for all these reasons many experts are now recognizing barefoot running shoes as a valuable intervention in helping runners get more tuned-in to their running form; helping efficiently engage foot strike and leg swing mechanics, making it easier to progress, not regress.
Ryan, M., Elashi,M., Newshan-West and Taunton, J. Examining the potential role of minimalist footwear for the prevention of proximal lower-extremity injuries. Footwear science, 2013; 5(1): S31.
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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.