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20. Minimalist Running: The Running Revolution

Minimalist Running: The Running Revolution 

So what really is the story behind those ape-like or glove-like shoes that you may have seen people sporting around town?  There is a running revolution out there, which originates from the book, “Born to Run” written by Christopher McDougall.  This book discusses the evolution of footwear and the impact it may have had on the development of some common leg injuries.  Based on studying running history and investigating a tribe in rural Mexico, he proposes that the scientific advancements have altered the body mechanics of running, leading to unwanted injuries.  The new shoes have less cushioning and are thus lower to the ground than traditional running shoe, have less stride-controlling structure, and have a more gradual drop from where the heel and forefoot sit.  All of this adding up to a shoe that is the closest thing to running barefoot.

Podiatrists, orthopedists, and physical therapists have all been trained to diagnose foot abnormalities and employ treatments to correct these issues.  As a physical therapist, we are trained in normal foot function and anatomy, and we are constantly striving to achieve a normal alignment.  Our treatment approaches include exercise, taping, modalities, and use of orthotics to normalize foot impairment.  So, when first approached with this idea of minimal running, it appeared to contradict everything I learned in school.  But, being an inquisitive person I decided to give them a try.  I purchased a pair of the FiveFinger glove-like footwear, and proceeded to run over 400 miles in them.  I ran on pavement, cement, trails, hills, snow, ice, and sand. 

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this new style of footwear.  I would like to share my conclusions before you decide to run out and make the purchase.  Here are the potential benefits: 1) You will develop a more natural gait pattern.  I experienced an improvement in posture while running because I couldn’t slap my feet down without overly-cushioned shoes.  This also helped me to expand my chest cavity completely. 2) Reducing the heel lift may allow for normal length of the achilles, which may reduce calf pulls or achilles tendonitis.  But, be aware the first 2 weeks of running in minimalist footwear can damage a shorted tendon or muscle accustom to traditional footwear. 3) Runners will learn to land on the forefoot instead of the heel.  Excessive padding in current running shoes has allowed unnatural heel strike.  Forefoot landing reduces the force distributed up the leg, therefore potentially reducing injury.  4) Improved balance and proprioception (joint awareness).  With an increase in smaller muscle activation there will be an increase in balance and joint awareness.

I have also noticed a few concerns with the minimalist idea.  Here are the potential concerns: 1) Depending on the type of minimal footwear, the shoes offer little protection against rocks and running downhill.  I first started with the FiveFingers footwear, which were tough to use over rocky terrain.  I have since transitioned to minimal footwear that offers more protection.  2) You may develop achilles tendonitis or calf strains due to increasing the mileage with the minimal footwear too quickly.  I recommend beginning with between ¼ mile up to 1 mile runs to start with and only progress your mileage by 10% each week.  3) There may be an increase in plantar surface pain, especially with those who have experienced plantar fasciitis.  4) There may be blisters in the beginning.  I experienced only minor blisters, which lasted the first 2 weeks of running. 

In conclusion, I would support the revolution of minimalist running, but I would caution runners or non-runners to progress slowly with their running distances.  The idea of minimal running may not be appropriate for everyone.  You must consider previous foot, ankle, knee, and hip injuries, which the shoes may improve, but also may irritate.  Also, someone that has been running for years in traditional shoes may have a difficult time adapting.  I have chosen to continue the pursuit of the minimalist revolution to extend my running career.  If you have concerns, please consult a physical therapist or physician prior to starting a new running program.  You can contact me at Baker Valley Physical Therapy for advice or a consultation.

Written by Blake Marlia, DPT

Published April 2012

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