Minimalist running benefits and risks

In theory and practice minimalist running has many potential benefits. These range from increased strength and mobility in the lower leg and foot through to just being a more enjoyable way to run.

But what characteristics does a minimalist shoe bring in comparison to a traditional running shoe? Purists would argue that a minimalist shoe needs to have zero cushioning, no heel raise and have no physical structure or stiffness to support the foot. In a literal sense we don’t disagree, but in the real world of coaching recreational and competitive runners, who have adapted to wearing cushioned and structured running shoes, the answer needs to be more inclusive and holistic to prevent injuries.

In the coaching work we do we consider minimalist to be relative to each individual runner, so if you have been wearing the heaviest, stiffest, most controlling shoe on the market then a step down to a lighter-weight trainer will still require adaptation and be a useful stimulus for improving your running technique. General benefits of a gradual progression towards wearing a bit less shoe can include:

Ground feel, reaction to contact and muscle activation

Less cushioning, single density cushioning and more flexible mid-soles all make for better ground feel. This means your feet sense ground contact faster and with more precision than your otherwise might in a more structured shoe. The benefit of this is faster feedback to the central nervous system to fire the muscles needed to absorb the forces of ground contact and drive a stronger, more stable running stride.

Natural range of motion of the lower leg

The lesser heel-to-toe drop of many minimalist running shoes allows increased stretch and release of calves and Achilles tendons. When the transition is too aggressive this can lead to soreness and injury. However, there’s an argument to be made that allowing the calf and Achilles to work through a more natural range of motion could reduce the instance of chronic calf and Achilles tendon injuries. More research and practical experience is required to understand how this could benefit runners.

Stronger lower leg muscles and feet

The ability to plantaflex (stiffen) the foot with strength is a key aspect of running that is often overlooked. You cannot maintain a healthy, strong and stable stride if your feet are weak and floppy when you are driving through the ground. Stiffer, more structured shoes do some of this work for you and can make your feet and lower legs a bit lazy. So wearing shoes with less stiffness and a de-constructed sole such as the Nike Free for some of your running can improve strength. Your foot and lower leg muscles are forced to work harder to maintain this stable, springy platform from which to run.

Reduced incidental heel-striking and over-striding

It seems logical that by adding much more cushioning volume under the heel relative to the forefoot that more incidental contact will be made by the heel even in runners that might otherwise have a neutral forefoot strike. For some runners (not all) the removal of additional cushioning and support can spontaneously lead to changes in foot and ankle posture. See the examples below.

With supportive shoes and orthotics

Without in a Nike Free Run 2

Less cushion lower impact

Finally, adding more cushioning doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll hit the ground with less force, in fact it has been shown that reducing cushioning can actually reduce ground contact forces. Perhaps counter-intuitive but true.

Minimalist running risks

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence and gleeful commentary from some professionals that treat running injuries around the risks of minimalist running. There are certainly big risks for runners who don’t take the time to make a gradual transition combined with looking to improve their overall strength and running technique.

There are also some runners that won’t be suited to running in extreme minimal shoes or barefoot because of how they currently run. For these runners the risk of injury is much higher and is discussed in this article.
Some of the injuries that have been reported from running in extreme minimalist running shoes and/or barefoot include:

  • Stress fractures in the feet (metatarsals)
  • Achilles tendon and calf injuries
  • Top of foot pain
  • Shin splits and stress fractures of the tibia

There’s no way to gloss over it, these risks they are real, but they are usually the result of mistakes made by the runner fueled by media hype and outlandish promises by manufacturers of extreme minimalist running footwear.

The key is to make a gradual transition that begins only one step away from the shoe you’re currently doing the majority of your training in. You can also introduce a training tool or aspirational shoe for a very small amount of running and/or for doing complementary strength work.

Whatever your take on the minimalist running trend, it is here to stay, but perhaps not in the form many strident advocates first thought. There will be fewer runners at the extreme end of the spectrum wearing Vibram Five Fingers foot gloves or zero drop, zero cushion models and more runners in the happy middle ground occupied by lighter weight trainers, marathon racing shoes, Nike Frees and cushioned lower profile shoes such as those produced by Saucony, such as the Kinvara.

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