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Running, Minimalist vs. Padded

February 2012
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One of my favorite blogs (see my Blog roll) just posted about a couple of studies that purport to show a link between heel strike running and a greater instance of injury in distance running versus that of the new minimalist approach in which runners are meant to strike with the forefoot  or ball of the foot.  The hypothesis, that the human body already has all the cushion it needs, seems sound – it can’t be argued against, the human body is an amazing piece of work.  I wrote a little bit about this when I posted about choosing one’s running shoes carefully and I actually read a summation of the studies and prepared quite an analysis but decided to trash that in favor of remaining neutral on the issue.  I have a few good friends who have gone minimalist and they are perfectly happy with it (though some are decidedly slower because of it).  After reading the post, I decided to embark on my own analysis of the studies – a bit of a deconstruction, if you will.

Please grab a cup of coffee.  This is going to be long.  If you are a runner, it is an important issue and the detail is warranted.  Please allow me one caveat:  Christos, aka swimbikerun1 is far more accomplished and knowledgeable in Triathlon than I.  This doesn’t mean that I can’t add valuable information to the discussion.

There is one important fact that must be kept in mind with this deconstruction:  It is my understanding that minimalist shod running (running with minimalist shoes), according to those who have read Born To Run and relayed the information to me, must be done on the forefoot – eliminating the heel strike which is thought to be “bad” because it transfers shock through the legs.

I’ll go at the studies one at a time.  Let’s start with this one which states that those who wear minimalist shoes are more economical in their stride than those who wear traditional running shoes.  The glaring defect in this study is the speed at which testing took place – 3 meters per second.  This translates to 6.7 miles per hour – or slightly under a 9 minute mile (8.95522388) [10.8 km/h or 5.555556 minutes per km].  Let’s face it folks, nine minutes per mile is slow – that’s my leisurely pace for 10 miles (I completed the Crim 10.1 mile in 89 minutes – and I started out slow on purpose, and ran it leisurely – my goal was 90 minutes:  (1) 9:45 (2) 9:17 (3) 8:48 (4) 8:40 (5) 8:43 (6) 9:02 (7) 8:41 (8) 8:41 (9) 8:39 (10) 8:23 (0.1 more in 37 seconds).  It makes sense to me that the scientists were perhaps shooting for an average runner’s speed, they don’t say.

In the end, translating the science speak, the results were that running in minimalist shoes were “slightly but significantly” more economical (in terms of energy expended) than standard shoes…  HOWEVER…

“Arch strain was not measured in shoes condition but was significantly greater during forefoot than rearfoot [sic] striking when barefoot”.  Oh how I would like to see that study for minimalist vs. traditional running shoes.  The idea of course, is that minimalist shoes are only there to protect the bottom of the foot from small imperfections in the running surface (pebbles and small rocks and such)…it would then make sense that the results would be close between barefoot and minimalist running shoes.  What this would mean is that arch strain is significantly greater in forefoot (minimally shod) running.  In other words, if you suffer from plantar faciitis in standard shoes (and you shouldn’t – that’s usually a sign that you’ve got the wrong shoes or pushed your miles up too fast), you’d really better be careful with minimalist shoes because the force would naturally be much greater (get out that Kong dog ball and stretch those arches if you just bought the minimalist shoes).

The second study is available here.   Remember that one important fact I listed at the beginning?   “Our research asked how and why humans can and did run comfortably without modern running shoes. We tested and confirmed what many people knew already: that most experienced, habitually barefoot runners tend to avoid landing on the heel and instead land with a forefoot or midfoot [sic] strike”.

This is hardly rocket science.  If you have a longer stride, a benefit of heel striking, the shock of impact would be fully on the heel which doesn’t have much flex to it – if any.  This impact shock would travel up the ankle through the shin and knee to the femur and hip.  I see this in plodders all the time (plodders traditionally sound like two-legged horses when I run by them).  On the other hand, if you land on the ball of your foot, as they show, with your heel in the air a short distance, the shock of landing is absorbed by the ball pad and arch (which speaks to my earlier statement about plantar fasciitis in the previous study).

The rest of the page, while informative, does a good job of sitting on the fence, or not taking a stand.  It does make sense, to an extent, that a forefoot strike and thus a minimally shod foot, would produce less of a shock to the bulk of the human skeletal system.  The ball of the foot and arch take most of the abuse, but that can present a problem in and of itself.  The final line on the site sums up what they believe in well:  “Please note that we present no data on how people should run, whether shoes cause some injuries, or whether barefoot running causes other kinds of injuries. We believe there is a strong need for controlled, prospective studies on these issues”.

In summation, I remain neutral on the minimalist approach.  I don’t use it because I don’t see a need to change.  I don’t plod when I run – I glide, therefore the impact is minimal which is witnessed by my more than nine years of happy, pain-free running (with the exception of quick mileage jumps).  What concerns me with fads that require a great degree of technical knowledge such as running with minimalist shoes and their requirement of a forefoot strike, is that the correct form is not always passed  to noobs.  In other words, if novice runners glom on to the idea of minimalist shoes because they see them at races and think they “look cool” or “retro”, buy and run in them without changing their heel strike, those folks are pooched and instances of injuries will explode (and the anti-heel strike meme will gain undo traction, a new running police branch will be required and heel strikers will naturally be shunned and imprisoned for re-education or worse, denied medical coverage by an ignorant bureaucrat).

Beyond that, I’ll stick with my philosophy:  Damn folks, whatever floats your boat and gets you off the couch, it’s all good. 



  1. Karen says:

    Nice post. I loved Born to Run and highly recommend it for a read. Anyone wanting to go minimal in their footwear should realize that they can’t just, ahem, jump in with both feet in doing so. Unless you’ve been barefoot all you life, the muscles in you foot need time to strengthen. A good friend of mine used to be a competitive runner and has been a runner all her life. When competing, she would train one day a week barefoot but no more. Recently, she started running in five fingers only occasionally and became injured. She’s had to stop running as a result and has been cycling instead until she heals.

    I love the idea of barefoot running and have met a lot of people who do it successfully. But it’s a slow road, and not fast fashion. I’m not obsessed enough about running to risk a setback and transfer to totally barefoot / minimal. I appreciate the people who can pull it off though.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I couldn’t agree more… One of my best friends runs in cheap Ked’s dock shoes ($7 a pair) just so he doesn’t have to pay the same price for the minimalist shoes (he looks hilarious). He can run in them, if you’d call it running – probably jogging, he’s incredibly slow now (10 min/mile), but he’s happy so I figure it’s all good – and he’s good to run with from time to time when I need to take it easy. On the other side of that, my buddy English Pete runs minimalist shoes and he’s close to 7 min/mile. It’s all about being happy.

  2. […] though, as I was afraid it might be.  My hips are a little sore (I explained the reason for that here – I tired out and resorted to plodding to make it to the finish line), and my calves are just […]

  3. […] absolutely correct, and would explain the difference in economy that I tried to wrap my head around here the other day.  The theory (it has been tested to a degree that should withstand scrutiny so […]

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