Barefoot & Minimalist shoes- choosing the right shoe for you

Over the next couple of weeks we’re going to be discussing a series of minimalist running topics and giving you some pointers on how and why you might want to make the switch to minimalist shoes.

Barefoot and Minimalist

The New Mizuno Wave Cursoris is a minimalist shoe with zero drop & a small amount of midfoot cushioning

2013 looks set to be the year of the minimalist shoe. New designs are set to be released by top brands including Mizuno (Be, Levitas, Cursoris), Brooks (PureDrift), and Saucony (Virrata), as runner’s look for shoes that allow a more natural running gait.

For the last 40 years running shoes have had cushioned heels and rigid support throughout the rear and midfoot despite a lack of any evidence-based research showing this reduced injury or even helped runners become faster.

Injury rates amongst runners have remained high despite the invention of motion control and shock absorption technologies. A paradigm shift is occurring in the running footwear industry as we question our relience on motion-control and cushioning. In the world of running footwer, less is becoming more. It appears than heavily cushioned shoes with raised heels may actually encourage us to land more heavily and develop lazy technique such as overstriding (lots of cushioning means that it doesnt feel uncomfortable to do this). In some respects shoe technology has come full-circle, with modern ‘minimalist’ designs being not to dissimilar to shoes that were around before modern shoe technologies.

The 1969 Onitsuka Tiger Corsair would be classed as a minimalist shoe by modern day standards

Runners and coaches alike are realising that good running form, running-specific strength and intelligent training are more realistic ways to reduce injury risk than reliance on shoe technology. Meanwhile, an optimal running shoe is going to be one that allows efficient technique whilst protecting the foot (from abrasions to the skin etc) and increasing comfort.

Minimalist shoes cover a spectrum starting with those that are very minimalist, aiming to mimic some of the benefits of being barefoot. Further along the spectrum we see shoes that offer some of the features of traditional running footwear (such as varying amounts of cushioning) whilst also providing some of the ‘barefoot shoe’ features including midsole flexibility and a wide toe box.

Ground-feel, flexibility and the absence of structure or arch support are amongst the key characteristics of popular ‘barefoot’ brands including Vivobarefoot and Vibram fivefingers.

How to choose the right shoe for you

There is considerable variation in designs available at the moment, with different ‘minimalist’ brands and models having several different features. Minimalism is evolving quickly. There is no general consensus on what constitutes a minimalist shoe but some of the features to look for include a small or non-existent heel-to-toe differential (traditional shoes generally have a difference in height of around 12mm between the heel and forefoot), midsole flexibility and a wide toe-box.

A light shoe can help with running economy and makes a quick cadence feel easier to achieve.  Reduced stack height means a more stable shoe with better ground feel and more feedback on how you’re moving.

The best advice i can give is to try them on and go by what feels most comfortable for you. The best way for runners to learn is through self-experimentation. A more extreme minimalist shoe is likely to need a more gradual progression, but, with commitment to technique practice can still be used effectively by newbie minimalists. Infact, i find that for many of the runners that i coach, ‘barefoot style’ minimlaist shoes provide a great learning environment. Once efficient technique is mastered i encourage runners to experiment with different shoes and run in whatever they find comfortable- generally at this point they choose either to stay in extreme minimalist shoes, or creep along the spectrum to slightly less-minimalist minimalist shoes! Lots end up with vast shoe collections, content that they can now run comfortably in lots of different shoes, whilst not being dependent on any.

Each of us is an experiment of one – observer and subject – making choices, living with them, recording the effects (George Sheehan, M.D.)

Simply switching the type of shoe that you wear is unlikely to significantly alter your running gait but lighter, flatter shoes can certainly allow you to run more naturally if you commit to learning and practicing good running form. Pose running clinics have long been recommending light shoes with thin soles to their students, recognising that shoes with these characteristics make it easier to perform the drills that they teach.

I’m an advocate for minimalism, but I view transitioning to minimalist shoes as an option that runners have should they desire to try it – if you are running fine in more traditional shoes then you may be just as well to stick with what is working!

If you’re used to running in traditional cushioned shoes then it’s important to transition gradually, to allow your body time to adapt.


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