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Minimalist running...what you should know before you give up your old running shoes for toe runners

Updated on June 19, 2015

Olympic Trials runner Steve Pifer gives natural running demo in Savannah

Learning to run naturally comes unnaturally for some!
Learning to run naturally comes unnaturally for some!

Learning to run naturally with Newton shoes and Steve Pifer

You would think that running naturally would come naturally, so why would you need to go to a clinic to learn how to do it?

If anyone is a current runner and keeps up to date with the latest shoes and running trends, they will know that minimalist running, or running in shoes that put your feet closer in contact with the ground without a built up heel and thick foam and gel padding, is the latest running craze, but is it right for you?

How do you run naturally? The best way to find out is to take a bunch of barefoot young children and have them run toward you and see where their foot hits the ground first.

Research has shown that humans naturally walk by planting the heel of their foot on the ground first. Bears, apes and other primates also walk this way, while horses, dogs and cats tend to walk on their toes.

When sprinting or going uphill or up and down stairs, humans tend to push off and land on their toes or balls of their feet in the padded region behind the toes. This allows them to have better balance and more thrust and control. It sort of follows on the same theory of tennis and volleyball where you are told to be on your toes and ready to move in whatever direction you need to go.

Research shows, that when it comes to walking though, the heel strike, toe push off is more efficient, less tiring and more ground covering than walking on the front part of the foot alone, but what does the research say about running?

Let's face it, not everyone is designed the same. What is natural for one person may seem awkward for another.

Some people run with their feet turned out or in and some people lean forward while others lean back. Some run up on their toes and never touch their heels to the ground, while some run on their toes but allow their heels to touch after. Some land about in the middle of their foot and others land on their heels and push off on their toes. It's all relative depending on the person, so after attending a natural running clinic with Steve Pifer of Newton shoes, we decided to review the research on which style of running is more efficient and safe and see if we weren't the only runners out there being guilted into springing around on our toes like spooky gazelles about to be eaten by hyenas.

There are actually two studies on barefoot/forefoot running and heel running and both found differing results with one study showing, it did not matter so much if you ran leading with your heel or toe, as much as if you kept your stride under your body (in other words you weren't reaching out too far in your stride... something typically associated with heel runners) and you were landing softly rather than pounding down on your foot.

Studies by Laughton et al in 2003 compared forefoot and rearfoot strikers and found that there was less braking force on the lower leg when runners ran with a heel strike, so greater force on the tibia in the forefoot strike, which would make sense if you have ever stubbed the toe of your running shoe and felt the shock wave run up your lower leg. They also found greater knee stiffness in forefoot runners.

This research was done before barefoot running and toe running became popular in 2009.

Most of the research on forefoot running comes from studies done by Lieberman in 2010 which shows that there is less impact on the body when the forefoot strikes first. This study is the most frequently cited and he claims that barefoot forefoot runners can reduce the impact on their bodies by up to 60% over padded shoe heel runners.

To the best of our knowledge all the studies have been done on treadmills and over short distances.

Laughton's study also suggested that humans could be trained to alter their gates to land softer no matter which style of running they did, allowing some of the shock to be taken up in knees, ankles, hips and the muscles surrounding the joints.

If you have ever run with a heavy landing runner who scuffs their shoes on the ground, you will have no doubt believing that it is possible to learn to run more lightly no matter what shoes you wear or don't or what part of your foot strikes the ground first.

Research has also looked into how the foot rolls once it lands on the ground with most people rolling slightly over to the outside of the foot on landing and pronating inward slightly on push off.

Runners who are not toe or forefoot runners who try to run long distances on the forefoot report calf muscle strains and cramping in the arch, with some even reporting strain in the Achilles tendon, perhaps because they are shortening both the calf and the tendon and forcing themselves to stay up on their toes, rather than allowing the heel to drop and the calf to stretch (which one would think would be natural, but...)

So, the research is inconclusive, but first hand experience would say to go slow if you plan to change your running style and if you have any forefoot problems or strained tendons, it is probably better to gently modify your running style to what is comfortable for you verses what the shoe experts are telling you to do.

There is some research to back up that a shorter, faster stride is more efficient than a long reaching stride, but again, if you are comfortable with the way you run and are not suffering injuries, there is no shame in hanging on to your thick heeled gel and foam filled running shoes or letting your heel strike the ground before your toes and rolling over your forefoot rather than on it.

It wasn't that long ago that runners running in flat soled shoes were looked down upon as uneducated and not everyone is designed to be a barefoot runner. Let's also be realistic that some toe runners, especially women, tend to look like they are bouncing up and down as if jogging in place and hardly look natural!

Still, natural running should mean what feels natural to you and what your body is most comfortable doing.

Though there are more efficient ways of running and it might not hurt to try a new style and see what you think, don't let the research, often done by people hoping to gain monetarily off their findings, influence you to go out and spend $175 on a pair of Newton running shoes, even though they are pretty nifty looking and have some pretty neat technology behind them.

Do you remember the big hype about the rocker shoes a few years back that were guaranteed to make you lose weight and tone your butt and thighs and improve your balance just by walking normally on them a few hours a week?

Chances are new research will come out shortly stating that toe running can cause severe injuries to heavy weight runners and that barefoot running causes arthritis and splayed feet.

Run in what you are comfortable running in and don't feel pressured to switch if you like what you have now. There is no shame in running in heels, though if you have the money, by all means try out some of the more minimalist shoes for the run of it.

Just be careful to transition easily and not go out and run five miles in a new set of shoes and end up with an injury that might sideline you for weeks and months to come.

learning to run in Newton Shoes with Steve Pifer

newton minimalist running shoes are designed to get you on your toes for running

Newton sells a shoe with a carbon rubber heel for those who still are not totally comfortable running on their toes or ball of heel alone.
Newton sells a shoe with a carbon rubber heel for those who still are not totally comfortable running on their toes or ball of heel alone. | Source

Attending a running clinic allows you to try new shoes without committing to something that might not be right for you

Savannah runners attend a Newton Natural Running Clinic sponsored by Fleet Feet Sports in Daffin Park
Savannah runners attend a Newton Natural Running Clinic sponsored by Fleet Feet Sports in Daffin Park


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    • bje117 profile image

      bje117 5 years ago

      the guy that taught the clinic was wearing newtons in the 1500 meter trials in Washington and made it to the semi finals. Most fast track ahtletes are going to wear minimalist shoes anyway, but for long distance running, it is nice to have some foot protection.

      I've run barefoot on pavement for about a mile and a half and had not issues with it and recently switched from a really high 1 1/2 to 2 inch heel shoe to a smaller, 1 inch heel and like that, but tried a pair of flat shoes with cushioning and no heel and it felt like my feet were sticking to the pavement with no spring to them.

      The Newtons supposedly act like a trampoline to spring you forward from the forefoot and absorb shock, but I had an injury and couldn't actually try them out.

      Opinions were mixed with most runners saying they were "different" and runners with forefoot problems saying they were uncomfortable, so I think avoid the marketing and high pressure to switch and just go with what feel natural to you, not what someone claims should be natural, but feels uncomfortable!!!

    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 5 years ago from Nottingham UK

      I'm still apprehensive regarding minimalist or barefoot shoes. While a lot has been said on them they're yet to go mainstream here in the uk- the only time I really see a lot on them is on the net.

      Let's see what everyone wears for the Olympic marathon- unroll high profile athletes are wearing them successfully will we really see thir progression.


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