Over the last few years the idea of running barefoot or in shoes that offer minimal support has become increasingly popular. Should we all change the way we run and do other activities to match this trend? There are certainly those who would argue that we should. Lets look at some of the ideas behind this style of running.
First, the foot is allowed to go through a more natural motion when running. If you were to remove your shoes and socks and watch your feet while you walk around you might notice that your foot and toes spread out or “splay”. When you wear typical shoes this splay is minimalized. One of the major arguments in favor of barefoot/minimalist footwear is that this should be happening more. Minimalist shoes have more space around the toes in the “toe box” to allow this motion. This extra space can reduce the occurrence of bunions and other foot conditions caused from wearing shoes that are too tight.
Additionally, removing the cushioned sole of a typical running shoe may allow the body to follow its natural tendencies during gait. Having the heel and the ball of the foot at the same level may also allow normal stretching of the Achilles tendon, which may decrease the occurrence of injuries.
The second major idea behind minimalist/barefoot running is that it forces the body to adapt and strengthen the muscles of the legs. This may also prevent a variety of injuries. Since the small muscles of the foot and the lower leg are used primarily to strengthen the long arch of the foot they should be allowed to do their job. Having an unnatural support for this arch may weaken these muscles over time and result in injuries like plantar fasciitis.
These arguments make sense, but I hesitate to say they are valid in every situation. Some people already have enough room for their feet to spread in a traditional shoe or they never have problems from the lack of foot splay. It may also be the case for some individuals that the extra stretching of the Achilles will result in an injury.
In some cases the arch of the foot may be unusually high or low. This might not be possible to resolve by strengthening the muscles of the foot. It may require additional support from an orthotic or more supportive running shoe.
I like a lot of the ideas behind this new minimalist movement. I personally wear a minimalist shoe for almost all activities now. I like the way they feel and I don’t have any problems as a result of changing shoes. However, if you are considering changing, transition slowly. Start by walking in your new minimalist shoe (or barefoot) for just a few minutes at a time. If this does not cause you problems then you can try running short distances. If you still have no problems then this might be a great option for you.Researchers are looking into the benefits and drawbacks of these different styles of running. So far the results seem to be inconclusive. Some people have reduced injuries when they change their footwear, while others have new injuries.
Mild muscle pain that lasts only a few days may be a natural effect of the muscles being used more. On the other hand, if you experience new pain that lasts more than a few days, minimalist shoes may not be the right choice for you.
Dr. Eagar is a dual credentialed provider with degrees in sports medicine, chiropractic medicine, and exercise science. Dr. Eagar owns Active Advantage, a private sports medicine practice with an emphasis on rehabilitation and chronic injury management. He enjoys answering questions and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more general information you can visit his website http://www.activeadvantagechiro.com.