Everything’s getting smaller. Even with accessories, the movement towards slim and light is accelerating. Examples abound. The iPad Air. A spate of hybrid, smart cars. The airy and breathable workout gear. My chances of ever receiving a social security check…
But today I want to talk about minimalist shoes. Full disclosure – I wear ‘em. When (increasingly rarely) I pop on my old sneaks, the difference in my stride becomes so noticeable that I’ve suspected a gravitational shift. Did the Earth suddenly acquire a great deal of mass that was translating into a heavier step? Unlikely, considering the meteor the extinguished the dinosaurs had a radius of “only” 6 miles across. No, I just missed my Merrell Vapor Gloves (no affiliation, I promise, though I certainly will carefully review all endorsement offers).
As with any innovative idea, cynics abound (although this one’s a tried and true method considering how our ancestors moved about). These pundits bash barefoot progress back to sometime between the stone age and today, relying on a handful of studies that span a period of mere weeks and toss traditional heel-strike runners unprepared into a barefoot program. Although I find the chore distasteful, let’s briefly examine a recent paper that has received considerable attention:
99 runners were randomly assigned either a normal, partial minimalist, or full minimalist shoe and put on a 12-week training cycle for a 10 km event. The partial minimalist runners sustained the most injuries (23) while the full minimalist folks reported the most calf pain (a typical break-in sensation for minimalist running). The authors conclude, “Running in minimalist footwear appears to increase the likelihood of experiencing an injury…Clinicians should exercise caution when recommending minimalist footwear.” Funny thing is, the injury risk between the normal shoe group and the minimalist group was not statistically significant. So partial padding equates to injury?? And the participants weren’t trained in proper running form (heck yeah you’re gonna be hurting if you heel-strike with no padding!). Oh, and the sample size was fairly small and not evenly split between male / female. Which makes me want to throw the whole thing out.
Regrettably, papers like this spawn headlines like: Switch to Minimalist Running Shoes Tied to Injuries, Pain. If the runners were trained and the transitions to minimalist footwear were conducted on a graduated basis, I suspect the results would have looked quite different. A plane might be the safest form of travel, but only if someone knows how to fly it. Mark Sisson explains, “You can’t just ‘go barefoot’ and have perfect form. You have to work at it. Barefoot running and even walking are skills that must be learned, whether through expert instruction or careful exploration of one’s own experience.”
I’m ready to turn to the positive evidence. Getting back to our primal roots, the true case for barefoot-style footwear can be found over a period of thousands of years.. Before GEICO commercials and even before the days when the Washington Redskins won playoff games. An age where hairy hominids stalked the planet in their bare feet, sporting pronounced arches and highly developed calves. Our ancestors used all of their foot and leg muscles on a daily basis, exactly as biology intended. If a caveman were to wear thickly padded shoes for several months, then rip them off for a barefoot hunt…his family might just go hungry that week.
The old adage “if you don’t use it, you lose it”, applies definitively to the arch and other foot / leg muscles involved with barefoot running and walking. Prolonged use of cushioned shoes means that plenty of foot muscles are in a state of prolonged rest. Not good for the arch or heel alignment. “Bad arches” are not a medical condition, rather a result of insufficient “good stress” on these muscles. And that good stress must come from barefoot, or barefoot equivalent, movements.
Dr. Nick Campitelli performed an intriguing 2-year case study on one of his patients that made the switch to barefoot running. I highly recommend that you look at the convincing photos that show pronounced changes in his patient’s foot musculature. Noticeably higher arches. Vastly improved heel alignment. Anecdotal? Yes, but with 2 full years of data and observable physical changes, I think we can add this to the arsenal of pro-minimalist evidence. I’ll also include the finding that minimalist running is more efficient than cushioned running.
Before you dismiss this article as “just another primal guy hawking minimalist running”, let me set something straight. I don’t run in minimalist shoes. Actually I don’t run at all. One reason – my calves invariably flare up the day after a barefoot run. Although I would, of course, adapt with time, this leads me to my second reason – I don’t really like running. Fairly high impact. Contrary to muscle building goals (unless we’re just talking about the odd sprint a time or two per week). Oh, and did I mention it hurts my calves?
I’m a walker through and through…I’ve written about it before and I’ll write about it again. How should we walk to develop some killer foot and calf muscles? The same way our ancestors walked. Barefoot. And if you’re outside, wear a quality zero-drop minimalist shoe. Much like massive dinosaurs couldn’t adapt to a changing world, traditional cushy footwear may soon go extinct.