The current trend in running footwear is towards shoes with carbon-fibre plates and more cushioning than a sofa. The Nike kicks worn by Eliud Kipchoge when he broke the sub-2hr barrier for the marathon last year had a stack height in excess of 40mm – enough to induce a bout of vertigo in Born to Run author Chris McDougall.
But is there still a place for minimalist footwear? A new study by Dr Peter Francis at IT Carlow certainly thinks so. Entitled From barefoot hunter-gathering to shod pavement-pounding. Where to from here?, the paper investigates homo sapiens barefoot beginnings and ponders the role that modern running shoes may be playing in the depressingly high injury rate among runners.
One of the suggestions made by the paper is that traditional running shoes, with a tapered forefoot, arch support and toe spring, are weakening the foot and changing the way we naturally move. The result, says the paper, could be knee and lower-leg injuries. The researchers are not alone in this conclusion. A previous study found that walking in minimalist footwear improves foot strength, while another that wearing conventional shoes can lead to a collapsed arch.
So, what can runners take from this? The answer is not to burn your running shoes, head to the Copper Canyons and begin a chia-only diet. The message from barefoot advocates in 2020 is more moderate.
‘There was a lot of excitement around barefoot running about a decade ago, and some people were swept up by it and thought it was the answer to everything,’ says Ben Le Vesconte, a running coach at Vivobarefoot. ‘The reality is that barefoot is not a quick fix.’
If people want to transition to a barefoot running shoe, says Le Vesconte, they should first walk in a barefoot shoe. ‘I’d rather people wore a barefoot lifestyle shoe and then ran in whatever they like, rather than the other way round. In fact, spending all day in a tapered shoe and then running in a barefoot shoe is actually the worst thing you can do.’
What Le Vesconte does believe, however, is that when people reengage with their feet, better movement patterns tend to be the result. These movement patterns needn’t be high-speed running, either. Another study found that older people exhibited better balance when wearing a minimalist shoe compared with a built-up one.
If you are interested in running in a barefoot-style shoe, however, there are some things to bear in mind. ‘Don’t think about speed to begin with,’ says Le Vesconte. ‘And build up gradually. If you’re transitioning to a more barefoot-style shoe, you don’t have to do all your runs in it.’ Similarly, think about surfaces. Grass is far more forgiving underfoot than concrete, ‘but aim for hard grass where you will receive accurate feedback,’ says Le Vesconte. ‘Too soft a surface will enable sloppy technique. Most importantly, mix up the terrain with undulating surfaces as often as possible.’
Finally, regardless of which side of the barefoot vs shod debate you come down on, having stronger, more flexible feet is undoubtedly a good thing for runners. Here are some ways to creat them..
Barefoot bullet points
- Go barefoot as much as you can, and wear minimalist footwear when you cannot.
- Reconnect with your feet, feel how the weight is distributed throughout your feet, aim for an even balance across heel, balls and toes.
- Practise toe, ankle and whole-body flexibility exercises daily to improve range of motion.
- Hold a deep-squat position a few times a day.
- Practising skilful jumping at 180 rhythm helps to improve your shock absorption and elastic recoil. This translates into lighter, springier running with shorter ground contact times.
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