Barefoot running warning

Mitchell Phillips of Stride UK explains why, if you want to go minimal, you should transition with care

Barefoot running

©Trevor Brown, Jr./Trevor Brown Photography

For many, minimalist running symbolises the high watermark of natural, injury-free running. It is important, however, to consider the possible implications prior to pulling on your barely-there trainers.

Minimalist running shoes allow the foot to move naturally, often with nothing but a slither of rubber separating you from the ground. The logic of getting your feet working properly again is impossible to fault. However, a lifetime of wearing boots and shoes designed to compliment the western climate can have a dramatic impact on your ankle-stabilising muscles and cause a whole load of new injuries if you go au naturel too quickly.

Meanwhile, the running trainers we have worn in the past have almost certainly caused unwelcome anatomical changes, too. Take the typical running shoe, which will have a significant heel-to-toe drop. This will make your heel stand higher than your toes, which in turn will shorten your calves. Over time, your calf will adjust to this continuous shortening, thereby causing a reduction in flexibility.

Now that we’ve blamed the weather, daily footwear and running shoes, it’s only right to have a pop at the surfaces we run on. Taking Kenya (mindful that most inspirational running books refer to the barefoot Kenyans), the natural clay-based, porous surface compliments the Kenyans’ ability to run barefoot (alongside their shoe-free conditioning from birth). Regrettably, much of the surface we spend our lives on is manmade and incredibly unforgiving. Pavement and Tarmac give us no shock absorption – another crucial setback for the UK runner.

So… we’ve got weather that dictates the footwear, the footwear that weakens the feet, the running shoes that shorten the calves and a running surface as hard as Vinnie Jones. It’s for these reasons that we have to appreciate the consequences should we start wearing minimalist trainers. How our bodies have adapted to this country and climate has sent us down a developmental cul-de-sac. It’s far from the best scenario, but we certainly shouldn’t react by changing too quickly and going extreme with our footwear purchases. The question I always ask myself when prescribing a running shoe for a runner is, “Is this the most important component to be concentrating on to improve performance?” In 99% of cases, the answer is “no”.

Although running shoes play an important role in protecting your feet from the hard, unforgiving surfaces, my advice would be to look about three feet further up and to focus on strength, flexibility and conditioning. Running, after all, is about far more than what your feet are doing.


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