Knee-joint issues as well as constant back pain in running is not uncommon, especially in runners who heel strike because 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, the lower back also suffers under such high impact conditions, resulting in looming lower back pain and stiffness.
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, compounding both the brake force and the spontaneous impact peak transient force more quickly with each step. Knowing all this may strongly suggest that the human body isn’t well-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!
A really smart way to begin is to run with a forefoot strike, not a heel strike, and to do so wearing minimalist shoes –shoes that do the necessary job at mimicking the barefoot condition, getting the feet to work on their own and getting you more dialed in to feeling the ground, so you can feel how and where you’re landing on your foot during running.
Out of all this comes stronger feet that’ll give you a bigger boost in balance control as well as more natural impact-adaptations such as forefoot striking during running which will help bring down impact on the knees and back.
More hard evidence showing that minimalist shoes, like the Vibram FiveFingers, may give you the results you want and that thick cushioned running shoes aren’t always reliable in preventing injuries, came from a 2013 study in the journal Footwear Science which reported that runners in the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila had better outcomes in knee and back pain as compared with runners in the Nike Pegasus 28 and the Nike Free.
Both the Nike Pegasus 28 and the Free are running shoes propped up on a thick slab of firm cushioning that thickens and stiffens even more at the heel and overall, has the underfoot structural support as most traditional running shoes, which again, has been linked to causing increases in footstep instabilities.
What’s worse, Nike markets the Free as a minimalist shoe that’s suppose to facilitate better, more ‘natural’ running form 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 which completely disqualifies the Free as a valid minimalist shoe. 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 runners in the Vibrams and Nike Pegasus 28!
Bottom line, the researchers analysis revealed an association between increased underfoot cushioning and a greater likelihood of knee and back pain during running which suggests that thick cushioned running shoes don’t always work to prevent injury as thick underfoot cushioning and common running-related injuries, such as runners knee, are linked together far too often in the scientific literature.
This research also hints that efforts to reduce impact-related injuries in running should focus on reducing underfoot protection rather than increasing it as there is a special relationship between thinner underfoot cushioning with less downward foot-strike force.
More on How Less is Really More
Like most barefoot-inspired footwear, the Vibram FiveFingers 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 FiveFingers get the feet working independently, enables the feet to improve upon and retain more optimal function. Another functional benefit is that the thin sole provides the plantar (foot) sensory input good for bulking up foot strength and is an overall reliable way to provide a better sense of the ground. These sensory cues set the reflexes in motion for faster responses in adjusting ground-contact intensity, setting the stage for safer positioned footfalls. Thus, when the feet are functioning properly and when they can feel the ground more fully (which is also part of their natural function) it can correct mechanical errors almost immediately, making it easier to double down on efforts to avoid injury.
Conversely, because plantar sensory input is significantly lower in thick cushioned running shoes and because of their clunky, stuffy fit, freedom of movement for toe-splay is tightly limited and poor contact-feel of the ground results which causes big reductions in plantar muscle activation and engagement. The rest eventually follows poor muscle tone, collapsed arches, compromised function and overall, unhealthy-looking feet.
Understanding this is crucial since poor foot health harms balance because the feet are like stability anchors that, when healthy and strong, provide secure footfalls and also prevent dangerous rises in impact. But once the feet become weak and less functional, a chain of instability is initiated up the leg, which may explain why thick underfoot cushioning seems to contribute a greater extent to injury risk than barefoot-like shoes.
Its for all these reason that experts are now recognizing barefoot running shoes as a way out of suffering from the ground up.
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.