Barefoot Running and Minimalist Shoes-A Good or a Bad Thing?

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Barefoot training and minimalist footwear have experienced a popularity surge in the past few years, and many companies have produced minimalist shoes to answer the demand. The trend is credited with strengthening the extrinsic and intrinsic foot and ankle muscles that are supposedly neglected by shoes with excessive support.

Strengthening these muscles, in theory, should help prevent common injuries due to weaknesses brought on by too many years of shoe support. Barefoot or minimalist footwear enthusiasts point out that for over 10,000 years, humans didn’t have supportive shoes, if they had any at all.

In an age where it seems everyone has a pair of thick-cushioned running or cross-training shoes in their closet, are the minimalist enthusiasts right? Should we all be going barefoot or running in flat, thin-soled shoes?


Bare Feet/ Vibram FiveFingers

Barefoot running and training is just that, barefoot, unshod. Some folks would prefer a protective layer between their skin and potential ground hazards, however, which is where the Vibram FiveFingers shoe comes in. The ‘shoe’ fits like, well, a glove, but on your foot, and is tough enough to ward off damage from rough ground without offering unnatural support. We will refer to both types as ‘minimalist.’

The benefits of minimalist running are in the way the foot strikes the ground. The heel strike shifts to a forefoot strike, which creates less and slower reactive ground forces to channel back through the body. The result is less impact on the knees, hips, pelvis and spine.

In theory, unshod runners should experience fewer injuries because there is less impact on their body; the theory is sound, but the research data confirming this is still thin. Minimalist runners also believe their training methods strengthen the smaller supporting muscles of the feet and ankles, and they are right. However, running with shoes does this also, just to a lesser degree, and using a different motion.

One reason for common running injuries while wearing shoes is the repetitive and limited action of plantar flexion that can lead to muscle imbalances. Runners who fail to address these imbalances risk developing Achilles tendon issues, shin splints and plantar fasciitis to name a few.

How does one address these muscle imbalances? Try running barefoot or in Vibram FiveFingers, for starters. The forefoot is striking the ground first, so different foot muscles are being used, and the stabilizing muscles are forced to work harder.

Running with Shoes

In an article about the perils of barefoot/minimalist running, one author pointed out the explosion of injuries linked to minimalist training. He interviewed several doctors and physical therapists who confirmed and unprecedented influx of minimalist running injuries.

This does not mean running without shoes is a bad idea, but as one marathoner pointed out, it is a gradual process. An instant switch to running unshod is a bad idea, however. Several common methods for transitioning to minimalist running are suggested in professional literature:

-Start by walking barefoot for short periods of time.

-Start with very short periods of barefoot running; 30 seconds a day after your typical run in the beginning, building up to 5-10 minutes at a time.

-Walk or run on soft surfaces such as grass and sand.

Professionals agree, some people should not be running without solid, supportive shoes and orthotics in certain cases. Among the reasons listed for keeping your shoes on were biomechanical disadvantages such as:

-Weak forefoot stability

-Overpronation

-Supination

-Severe flat feet

-Severely high-arched feet

-Diabetics with poor sensation in their feet

Regardless of who tries minimalist running, the golden rule is to proceed with caution at a gradual pace.

MBT and Shape Ups

Another facet of minimalist footwear is not minimal at all. The unstable MBT and Skechers “Shape-Ups” shoes are examples of shoes with a lot more, but designed to support the foot a lot less. The shoe’s bottoms have an anterior to posterior curvature, a ‘rocker’ that is designed to turn everyday flat walking surfaces into unstable challenges.

Even standing is a challenge in these shoes. So far, both anecdotal and initial scientific research supports company claims that this design strengthens the smaller and often neglected stabilizing foot and ankle muscles. Over time, stronger feet and ankles should perform better and resist common injuries.

Real Benefits?

It is certainly possible to strengthen the foot and ankle muscles to the point where shoes can be discarded for life. However, people with problem feet should see their doctor first. Everyone starting barefoot training needs to transition gradually to prevent injury. As one coach put it, any sudden change in the training program should begin with very little volume and introduced over an extended time period.

MBT and Shape Up shoes, intended to impart the same benefits as going barefoot, should also be worn for short periods of time at first. As with minimalist footwear, these unstable ‘rocker’ shoes can be beneficial for strengthening neglected foot and ankle muscles.

What if you’re not willing to part with those stylish running shoes? Then keep on running! Just be sure to keep the muscles balanced with additional exercises when you are not on the road or track.


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Comments 12 comments

THEHuG5 profile image

THEHuG5 4 years ago

This is a very interesting article. I always wondered what was up with those feet "shoes" and people running around without shoes on period. I hike often and I keep seeing more and more people actually hiking with those weird feet shoes on lol. Thanks for writing this. Voting up :)


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

Great hub! I have minimalist shoes from Merrell - the Trail Glove model, and they do take some getting use to. I always feel like I am trying to walk/run in rock climbing shoes. The key to "barefoot" running is to take it easy, watch your step, and forget everything you know about running in regular shoes.


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

Agreed -- I use Vibram FiveFingers and enjoyed it so much that I wrote a hub about it. I especially like it for weight training because it eliminates the feeling of falling forward, which you get with regular sneakers. Voting this Up and Interesting.


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Hey Hug5! Yup, one of my friends likes to wear those on the trail too. Your soles are protected but I don't like the idea of stuffing my toes into an individual cocoon, y'know? Thanks for commenting:-)

Outbound Dan, I agree, forget everything you know about running in shoes. The good part is that when you learn how to do it (sans shoes) it really is lower impact, for me at least. Cheers!

Alocsin, I definitely like going 'barefoot' or minimalist for resistance training. I will usually deadlift or lift stones in flip-flops! Right or wrong, I feel more stable and comfortable. I checked out your hub, great review:

http://hubpages.com/health/No-Death-by-Feet-A-Pers...

Cheers!


stessily 4 years ago

MosLadder, As someone who has run barefoot as often as possible throughout my life, I find this a very interesting hub. For "minimalist shoes", I once ran a race wearing jellies while everyone else was decked out in fancy-dancy running shoes.

Thank you for covering this topic.


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Hello stessily! Thanks for commenting. Really? In jellies? Impressive, and I guess that explains why my daughter wanted to wear those everywhere when she had them. Btw, am I mistaken or is that a relatively new avatar? Nice work.


stessily 4 years ago

MosLadder, Yes, definitely in jellies, and I loved every second, every inch, every mile (kilometer), because the wind tickled my toes and massaged my feet as it flowed through the jellies; the jellies were pink!

Thank you for the compliment on my avatar. It's my first drawing with Paint. I'm left handed but I maneuver the mouse with my right hand; I tried to move the mouse left-handed but could not exercise proper control or achieve desired effects, so I switched to my right hand, and the drawing flowed from hand to mouse to screen. (My sister Deedee [Derdriu here on hubpages] is right handed but maneuvers the mouse with her left hand! Go figure!)

My original avatar was a Japanese wood cut of a frog in water, which I retained until replacing it with the Paint avatar sometime in 2011. I did Deedee's current avatar, which shows her with her adorable kittycat Augusta Sunshine ("Gusty").

Thanks for the compliment on my avatar as "nice work." It was fun, and I hope to do some more Paint drawings, hopefully some day with my left hand.

Kind regards, Stessily


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Stessily, it's interesting you draw with your right. I'm left-handed (no surprise, huh?) and it seems like it would be a hard transition. Obviously it works great for you. Hope to see more!


stessily 4 years ago

MosLadder, I draw in Paint right-handed because I am inept with the mouse left-handed. There are some things that I do right-handed --- mainly those things which are not easy to do left-handed, such as cutting with scissors which are more easily available for right handers than for left handers.

All other artwork --- drawing freehand, quilting, stained glass, etc. --- I use my left hand.

I've considered switching over to using the mouse only with my left hand, but I've gotten so accustomed to right hand that it feels strange with my left hand.

Are you 100% left-handed?


Derdriu 4 years ago

MosLadder, What an informative, innovative, intelligent summary of the benefits and joys of running barefoot in the park and elsewhere! The information calls to mind the South African racer Zola Budd, who ran all her competitions bare-footed. All of my life I have been admirer of bare-footed living, and your article confirms the healthy appeal of this shoeless passion of mine.

Thank you for sharing, voted up + all,

Derdriu


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Hi stessily, no not 100%, but drawing, writing, and quite a few other actions would be very awkward with my right. Using a mpuse on the right is ok, but it feels better on the left.

Hey Derdriu, thankyouthankyou! Yes I'm with you, I'm barefoot or in flip-flops whenever possible. I read a little about Zola Budd in my research, very interesting. Cheers you two!


B. A. Williams profile image

B. A. Williams 3 years ago from USA

I hate shoes and it was good reading this other side of the coin, not wearing any. Its the first thing I do when coming home, off with the shoes. Although a physical therapist's belief is wearing shoes even in the home is useful for any recovery or injury. I certainly like this article's point of view better. Well done.

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