There are a lot of titles I could use for this article, minimalism, running form, mid-foot running,barefoot or even just a title of running! I went with minimalism because the focus of the article is going to be on shoes that are "minimal" and how you can incorporate them into running.
A brief history of running in the west
The first real running boom occurred during the 1970's, when jogging became a new fad, and it came with brash claims from doctors that "anyone who runs a marathon will never suffer from cardio related diseases". The shoes being used at those times by runners consisted of barely anything; a very tiny flat midsole, not much of an upper. Runners just ran. If they injured themselves they either stopped or ran through the pain.
Then, running shoe companies decided to research into this emerging market, and designed bigger and bigger trainers, with cushioning, torsion, air and gel!
In recent years, with thanks to Christopher McDougall's book 'born to run', there has been a bigger shift back towards minimal and even barefoot running, and shoe companies, not wanting to be left behind, started brining out barefoot or minimal shoes!
Looking at the probably the best athletes in the world, the Kenyans and Ethiopians reveals that they almost all wear shoes. Haile Gabresellaise recently told Eddie Izard to "just put some shoes on", Adharanand Finn recently discovered that hardly any Kenyans run around barefoot, many of them preferring to train in heavier shoes because when the put their flats on, they feel lighter and faster. Many of these Kenyans and Ethiopians trained barefoot as a child, and this is important thing to note.
With all this going on, what on earth are you meant to take away from this and what is the best thing to do?
What is the aim of all this running?
You run because you enjoy it (hopefully), you want to test your body and find out how good you can be and how far you can run. When you can't run you do not like it. There is always time in the day to go for a run. There is not, however, time to run if you are injured, because an injury means you cannot train! So, the quest is for a way of guaranteeing runners to not be injured, and anyone that promises you they can do that is just a lair!
As with everything running related, I don't believe there are any absolutes. What works for one person may be disastrous for another. It is our desire for an absolute, this is the way to be, that causes such an intense debate. For me, the most responsible thing to do is give people all the facts, as I see them, and let you get on with it.
The debate now is starting to shift away from shoes and move towards form. I think this is because of the fact that hardly any of the greatest distance runners in the world train without shoes, obviously there are examples of those that did, Zola Budd and Abebe Bikila being two huge examples. If your running form is good, then you can wear whatever footwear you wish, within reason!
What is good running form? How do I get it? What if I am not injured?
Hopefully I will be able to answer those questions, or at least guide you towards the right answers for you.
We have, in the West, a relatively sedentary lifestyle. Even before we are old enough to walk, parents are putting shoes on our feet. This is where our problems may begin. When we put shoes on, we reduce the proprioception of the foot.
Try this test
Run your hands over a table, you will be able to feel everything on the table, and if you rub your hands over something sharp, for example a nail, you will instantly feel that and pull your hand away
Now put in a pair of thin gloves and do the same thing. There isn't much difference between that and the first time, however, you may be able to brush your hand over a sharp object for a bit longer, but anything your hands touch that you don't like you will pull away.
As a third comparison, put on some thick heavy duty gloves. You will hardly feel anything on the table, and likely to touch things sharp objects for a long time, possible not even noticing them.
This rather crude example but consider having shoes on:
When you are barefoot, doing something your body doesn't like means that you will stop doing it. Putting a heavy duty giant sponge on your foot allows you to push through and do things that your body doesn't like it. I am not talking here about landing on pieces of glass or hard surfaces, instead I mean that you place your leg in a position that it doesn't want to be in, overextending the leg and loading the wrong areas.
When you run barefoot, you will not land on your heel. If you ever get to see children run around barefoot, you will notice there is not a heel strike in site.
With most adults, you will find that as soon as you take their shoes off then they will stop heel striking. This is why there is a huge amount of people that advocate landing on your midfoot or forefoot, not on your heel. However, this phenomenon is not an absolute. Some adults will still heel strike, even without shoes on. This is why just changing your shoes is not enough.
By putting your foot in a shoe that doesn't support your foot as much, the foot is then required to work harder and 'wakes up'. If you have ever seen someone's foot after they have run around barefoot for a few months, it looks quite different. Your toes spread out and the foot becomes stronger. However, years of not using these muscles and ligaments has meant that they have become dormant, and it will take a while time to wake them up and for the foot to function as it can!
If you look at the picture below, you can see how wide that lady can spread her toes!
There is a product called Correct Toes, and they are designed to help spread the toes back out to their 'natural' position…..•Review here*
By spacing the toes out more and allowing them to spread, you improves proprioception, which then allows the brain to better promote balance and optimal muscle function. The human foot is designed such that the toes are spread and extended. This allows for optimal balance and stride. In industrialized societies however, the foot’s natural shape changes over time. The toes become elevated and pinched together, resulting in weakened flexor muscles combined with overly tight extensors. Subsequently, natural gait and balance are compromised.
Take a look at our review of correct toes online.
The argument that we are unable to change our running motion or that it is a natural movement and doesn't need to be corrected is a fairly easy argument to dispel. Simple outside influences, including shoe choice, will dramatically affect your gait. Living with cushioned shoes all our lives, as argued above, will certainly make a difference to your mechanics.
The problem for most people is that we want it all now, we live in an instant society, and want everything yesterday. If you want to make an improvement to your running, you should think about how you run and make improvements over time.
I do not believe you need to be barefoot to run with proper form, all those Kenyans run with good form and wear heavy trainers, but it can certainly help the process by allowing you to feel your way a bit more.
There are always arguments against changing your form. What you need to think about, as Andrew Jones (Paula Radcliffe's physiologist) said, is "changes to form that take a massive amount of effort take away from the actual training, and that's a problem". There are examples of countless runners who look rather ungainly when they run, but am I suggesting that Paula Radcliffe would be better if she didn't run how she does? Would Haille be quicker if his arm carriage was a bit straighter? I am talking about two of the world's greatest ever distance runners (arguably the greatest) and I am not suggesting that I can improve their form!
Dathan Ritzenhein is a really famous example of a runner who tried to change his form. His coach, Alberto Salazar, wanted to reduce the injuries that Ritzenhein was suffering from, as Ritz said "it took a while and it takes quite a bit of effort. Even on a nice normal run you have to think about what you're doing." Ritzenhein still suffers from injuries, and irritated a left Achilles tendon after a hard track workout.
Jack Daniels, a legendary coach and physiologist, videotaped 20 runners adn sent those tapes to a group of coaches and physiologists and asked them to rank the runners in terms of running economy. None could!
Blaise Dubois, a Canadian physical therapist, is one of many who believes that most injuries are the result of overtraining, not biomechanical flaws.The problem is, no one has really defined what good form actually is.
Emil Zatopke, arguably the greatest olympian ever, ran with what one would consider 'bad' form, he famously said "I shall learn to have a better style once they start judging races according to their beauty".
As Full Potential founder and former Commonwealth Games Marathon Runner Keith Anderson said: "Are you not better at becoming as quick as possible the way you run currently, by training hard, rather than spend hours trying to change your form and compromising your sessions?!"
As a new runner, it is often easier for you to think about working on your form, especially if you are suffering with an injury. However, a veteran runner, with no history of injuries, faces a much tricker decision.
Your body is very good at adapting to you! Especially if you have done something one way for a number of years, your muscles, bones and ligaments will have adapted to accommodate for that movement. Start to change your form, and stress other parts of the body, the calf and achilies for example, and unless you slowly adapt to these movements, you will get inured.
A full body makeover
There are a few rules which should be applied when thinking about changing your gait:
Thinking about running quietly is very useful. By reducing the sound you foot makes when it hits the ground, you will run with less force stomping the ground.
•Cadence - give it a go
Changing ones cadence is a really interesting option. 180 strides a minute is held as this golden rule that we all should aspire to. This came from Jack Daniels and his observation that most elite runners run at a cadence of between 180 and 200 steps a minute. The important fact to keep hold of here is that your cadence will change depending on the speed you run. To speed up, your cadence will increase. That is why I don't think there should be one golden cadence to aspire to. Instead your cadence should range from 170 to 190.
By having a quicker cadence, Heiderscheit et al. 2011, showed that a faster cadence reduced loading on the knee and hip, by shortening stride length is reduces braking impulse of the leg.
Trying to change your cadence is however not easy. It can make you feel sluggish and feel rather awkward. I think that most people do run with a cadence that is too low, but the increase in cadence should occur naturally over time as you get quicker. It should be done progressively and gradual. Using a footpod to measure cadence is a good way of tracking it during your training.
•Do not get obsessed with heel strike.
There is a massive shift towards the focus of the footstrike being on your midfoot and keeping off your heel, and the more 'barefoot' you are, the more you are likely to force a midfoot strike.
In terms of elite athletes, take a look at this video
It is from the Boston marathon 2011 and show the top 3 women and their footstrikes. What is really interesting is that the first two runners do strike with their midfoot, whilst Davila is heel striking. However, if you look at where here body position is, she doesn't land with here foot that far forward of her. She has a minimal heel impact, and it is not a ground pounding over-stride, which is a different problem all together!. What is really interesting is that the first two runners do strike with their midfoot, whilst Davila is heel striking. However, if you look at where here foot lands, the footstrike is not too far in fornt of her body. If it was a ground pounding over-stride, then it would be a different story. However Davila lands with her foot almost underneath her hips, suggesting the midl heel strike isn't that bad at all.
When thinking about your gait, you want the following things to happen:
Should occur as close to the centre of body mass as possible.
The leg should be slightly bent, not reaching out in front of you with the foot pointing forward, as this will cause the foot to act as a break during the gait cycle
Don't try and paw back the foot by bringing extending it out and bringing it back before your foot lands. All this does is engage the hamstrings and other muscles to a greater degree than necessary.
Keeping your hips from falling down is really important. If you sit on your hips, then it is much harder to lift your hips off the ground
The extension of the hip is where the power comes from
Try bringing the rear leg up behind up, you will then get more driving force you will get from the rear leg when it comes though and you can drop the foot down right in front of you.
Don't kick your butt for the sake of kicking it with your heel. This will waste energy. Don't actively move the leg. The more hip extension you get, the closer the lower leg will be to the butt.
When pushing off,the rear leg should be extended as much as possible, with the swing leg underneath you.
Keep it straight. Any movement in the trunk will affect how the legs are moving. Twisting can force the legs over extend.
The trunk should upright, with a slight lean forward from the ground, not from your waist
The arms work with the trunk and drive you forwards. Keeping the shoulders relaxed, and driving from the shoulders so that they don't turn or sway.
It is possible that an issue with the legs, is actually the result of the arm movement. If you over-stride, it could be down to a delay in the arm swing that causes the delay in the opposite lower leg.
Overview (thanks to Science of running for this)
1. Body - upright, slight lean from ground. Head and face relaxed
2. Feet - As soon as the knee comes through, put the foot down underneath you, close to the center of the body
3. Arms - control the rhythm, no side to side rotation, forward and back from the shoulder
4. Hips - Extend them and leave them alone
Changing your mechanics
How does one go about changing their running form? Drills are a good starting point. They mimic running action but if they aren't specific then they'll recruit muscles that just aren't used during the running cycle.
Using cues and a video.
Instead of just focusing on drills, changes should be made whilst you are running. This needs to be coupled with video of the running to reinforce what you are doing and how it can be changed.
Cues can be used to overemphasise if necessary. For example, if there is a massive overstride, then start by taking super short steps, gradually increasing their length until you start to stop over-striding.
Once you have the correct cue work, by looking at video of the athlete running and seeing the improvements, then this needs to be ingrained into you running over time. Depending on the athlete and the distance being trained for, this can be short segments of a long run, or done during reps and shorter interval work, where time isn't as important.
Naturally you will slip into bad habits during the pressure of an important race, so it is important to think about these aspects over time, and not expect miracles.
To compliment this change in running form, strength work on various aspects of your legs, including strength work on your calf muscles and glutes for example.
Most runners need to tidy up their running, and there is no point reinventing the wheel so to speak!
How the shoes can help
Finally, he gets round to talking about shoes! This article has really covered a lot, but I want to talk about some of the minimal shoes that I tested, and how they can help with the gait retraining. By increasing the amount of proprioception that you get by wearing the shoes, you are able to feel when and where your foot hits the ground. Using this, you are able to make sure you are not over striding as much. Wearing the shoes isn't going to improve you arm carriage for example, and give you better rhythm because of that. The shoes are not going to increase your cadence either, but they can help in other ways. What the shoes will definitely do is stop you training as much, especially because you are likely to begin to transition to a midfoot strike as the shoes will not be comfortable when you land on your heel. Due to this, you will start to engage the calf muscles more, and this will put pressure on the Achilles also. With this occurring, you are going to need to take a step back with the mileage you are doing, because your body will need to adapt to using these muscles in ways it isn't used to!
We tested a few different models of minimalist shoe, each one offers something slightly different and they certainly make a difference to your running.
Newton shoes use "Action/Reaction Technology ™, to encourage a forefoot landing it has these four lugs which are external to the shoe.
Basically these react when you hit the ground and with them it is incredibly easy to find your midfoot, and when you start to get 'lazy', reverting to type and heel striking, you can really feel that you have missed that forefoot and you can make an adjustment.
The problem with Newton's is that it forces the midfoot strike and that may not be appropriate for some
The shoe we tried was the Aqua Lite, a very thin and flexible shoe. The shoes are a very minimalist shoe, with no support at all. THe great thing about these shoes is the generous toe box, which allows your foot to spread out really well. A true flat minimalist shoe, but will protect your feet from sharp objects.
The Vibram's are an interesting shoe, well more of a glove than a shoe. I'm sure that you will have come across a pair of Virbams somewhere by now. They. I don't find them that comfortable for running, I get heat spots on my big toe and don't enjoy feeling the ground so much. They are good to do strength workouts in, as they allow all the muscles in the foot to really work. If you like getting funny looks when running along, these shoes are perfect for you!!
The Merrell Road Glove was very similar to the Aqua Lite. A generous toe box and a snug fitting upper. The best thing about these shoes is that you can really feel the ground below and it allows you to make adjustments if something feels off. One issue with the Road Glove is the arch . Well it isn't a problem if you are transitioning shoes, but if you want something really minimal then this isn't for you.
Nike Free Run
Nike started the free run concept in 2004 in response to seeing athletes train barefoot. The shoes have been refined over the years but what you are getting is a really flexible shoe, a tight or loose fitting upper (depending on what level on minimal you want), and some depth of cushioning under your foot. The shoes are easy to run in, and easy to wear in the gym whilst doing strength work. A great all round shoe and one of my favourites to use day to day.
Skechers Go Run
The surprise shoe of the test for me. My favourite shoe in that you could easily do some high mileage in the shoe, yet the GOimpluse sensors encourage a midfoot strike and you can feel when you have 'missed' your midfoot. That said, they are not too intrusive as to force a midfoot strike. They have a 4mm drop, a roomy forefoot to allow for the foot to spread out. They are incredibly flexible as to allow for the foot to move naturally.
Out on the run the cushioning feels responsive, you can easily go out and do a long run and your feat will feel fresh at the end, or you can go out and do a tempo run and enjoy the speed you get.
For those wanting to transition to midfoot then these are the shoes for you. Best in Test.
New Balance Minimus
The minims we tested was the minims zero. It has a flexible yet rugged outside (made in conjunction with Vibram), a really comfortable upper and Asymmetric lacing which is designed to fit the contours of your foot. The shoe provides a really light ride that lets you do your thing and it'll stay out of the way! It isn't a transtioioning shoe, its more built for those looking for a zero drop, minimal cushioned trainer. It'll also make a fantastic racing flat.
Whilst not a minimal shoe, it is a racing flat, and a racing flat is more than suitable for those wanting to midfoot strike and improve their form. The adios 2 is an update on one of the greatest shoes ever designed. It has set world records, won 150 races in 150 weeks and is the choice of most elite runners, from high end club runners to world record holders such as Patrick Makau! The shoe is firm, light enough to be considered a minimalist shoe but still an aggressive running shoe. A great shoe to race in, and has some spring to really make you feel like you are moving fast.
The problem with any shoe review, is that what feels good for one person may not feel great for another. Go and try various models of these minimalist shoes on, see what you think of them and then decide what you want to run in.