Have you seen people out on the street with what look more like gloves than shoes on their feet? Those odd-looking shoes are worn by minimalist runners.
Minimalist running refers to the process of running barefoot or with minimal footwear that mimics how you would run if you were in fact barefoot. Proponents of this type of running believe that the bare foot is well suited for running, without the need for footwear. Although some people may still actually run barefoot in some parts of the world, if you’re interested in barefoot running in this country, you’ll likely still have some type of footwear covering your feet.
Why forego traditional running shoes for foot gloves, racing flats or no shoes at all?
Proponents claim this type of running allows you to maintain a more natural stride, and that by changing the way your foot strikes the ground, there’s less force on your body. Researchers at Harvard University found that most barefoot runners tend to land on the front of the foot or midfoot and avoid landing on the heel. This does not cause the sudden and forceful impact that occurs when you strike your heel on the ground. Runners who wear shoes with elevated or cushioned heels are more likely to strike the ground with their heel, which puts more pressure on the body.
Claims have also been made that less weight on your feet can increase your speed, which may be important to you if you’re an elite racer, but otherwise probably won’t impact your performance much.
Barefoot runners are still a small minority of all runners, even though there’s been a lot of hype in recent years about the value of running in minimalist running shoes. This is because most runners believe there is value in the modern footwear designed for runners. Running shoes protect us from dangerous debris on the ground, address issues such as overpronation and provide support. Plus, it’s what we’re used to, so suddenly changing things up can lead to injuries.
If you want to give minimalist running a try, here are some things to keep in mind:
Find the right shoes
If you want to run as close to barefoot as possible (without risking being out on the streets with no protection whatsoever), then foot gloves may be for you. These shoes offer minimal protection and no heel cushion – they’re almost like wearing a glove on your foot. Prefer a bit more cushion or support? Then a racing flat may be more your style.
You can’t just decide one day that you’re going to swap out your regular running shoes for minimalist running shoes and then immediately change the way you run. You need to give your body time to adapt to this new way of running because it will feel different compared to what you’re used to. You may feel some muscle soreness in your feet, calves and lower legs as your body adapts to this new style of running. You also need to build up foot strength or you risk injuries like stress fractures or tendonitis.
Choose your terrain
It’s difficult to begin barefoot running on asphalt or concrete because the surfaces are hard on the body. Better to start out on a more forgiving surface, like dirt or grass. Your body will learn to adapt to both hard and soft surfaces by adjusting leg stiffness, so once you get the hang of the technique, it shouldn’t matter how hard or soft the surfaces beneath your feet are.
Beware of dangers
Of course, the less your feet are protected from the elements and outdoor hazards, the more you have to be vigilant so you don’t get hurt. Keep your eyes in front of you so you avoid stepping on pebbles, broken glass, nails or any other objects that can cause pain or injury. If the weather is very cold, make sure you don’t lose feeling in your feet or toes. Consequently, if temperatures soar, pay attention to how quickly the ground underfoot heats up.
Don’t assume it’s all good
Sure, proponents of barefoot or minimalist running will tell you that when you take off those highly cushioned running shoes, your feet can move in a more natural way and you will adopt a forefoot or midfoot strike, which results in a gentler landing and is easier on your body. But there is no scientific research to back up the claim that you’re less likely to get injured if you adopt this type of running.