Minimalist Running

I have been running competitively since 1988 and I consider myself to be an above average runner. Statistically, my race results support this claim.  In my career, I have done two marathons and countless triathlons and road races of various distances.  I was on my high school and college cross country teams and while in the Army, I was considered the fastest soldier in every unit in which I served.

Throughout my running career, I have suffered though almost every running injury: runner’s knee, shin splints, torn meniscus (more about this later), heel spurs, and plantar fasciitis.  If you are a runner, you are no doubt very familiar with most of, if not, all of these injuries.  Interestingly, all of these injuries have occurred using a typical running shoe that I purchased at a running shoe store.  Since I’ve become a fitness professional, or an advocate of fitness and running, I’ve consistently been asked by clients, friends and family on how to avoid injury.  99.9% of the time, I’ve told them that they need to invest in a good pair of running shoes and that they need to purchase those shoes from a running specialty store.

The purpose of purchasing your shoes from a running specialty store is that they fit you for a shoe based on your running biomechanics.   Most stores will put you on a treadmill and have you run while they monitor your foot strike, balance and other factors.  Then, they’ll bring out several shoes, have you try them on and help you decide on the best shoe.  They generally will not allow you to base your decision on color, price or looks (typically, the only factors most people use to purchase their shoes).  It’s always been my opinion that seeking help from an expert was the best way to avoid injuries, but for some reason, it wasn’t working for me and most of the folks that I know.

Supporting the local economy with my running shoe ‘habit’ was costing me about $100+ every two to three months.  This was needed to keep fresh shoes on my feet and I was strongly recommending my clients do the same.  However, after almost eight years of suffering through various pains, a simple question kept coming up over and over.  Why am I always running with some sort of pain somewhere, especially since I ‘know’ what I’m doing and I’m always using a fairly new tailor fitted, very nice, expensive running shoe?

A few years ago, I started to hear about these runners who “ran on their toes.”  It was supposed to have less impact and be less stressful on joints.  I had my doubts but had a personal training client who wanted me to take her on a run.  So, I decided to give this “toe running” (I will explain the quotes later) a try.  I knew it was going to be a slower pace than I am used to so I figured this would be a good time to give something new a try.  I cannot remember how long it took us to run, but we did about five miles.  By the end of the run, my knees were in severe pain, but I figured it was just fatigue and that I would recover with no issues.  Turns out, I ended up tearing the meniscus in both of my knees.   I needed orthoscopic surgery to repair the right knee and some serious rehab to repair the left.

All this did was reinforce my belief that “running on the toes” was a bad idea.  However, I knew that there were a lot of people who believed in it and who had a lot of success using this technique.  So, I sort developed my own theory which was that this technique could only be used by people who were elite runners and who weighed a lot less than I did (I was around 190 at the time and the people who were using this technique were elite marathon runners weighing in around 150 or less).

In the middle of 2010, I had to purchase my 4th pair of orthotics (shoe inserts that I have to slip inside each pair of shoes I wear in order to help keep the pain from plantar fasciitis and heel spurs at bay).  On top of spending around $600+ per year in running shoes, I was also spending around $400.00 for my orthotics and this comes directly out of my pocket because insurance doesn’t cover it. (Why insurance doesn’t cover a doctor prescribed, preventative measure to avoid future pain, agony and possible surgery to fix is an entirely different article).  So, despite consistently keeping fresh, form fitting shoes under my feet and despite knowing how to run efficiently, I continued to suffer from an injury that just wouldn’t go away.

There is one book synonymous with barefoot running.  It is called Born to Run.  If you haven’t read it, get it, read it and learn from it.  It does not matter if you are a new runner, a long time runner or a recreational runner; if you read it once, and did not learn from it, read it again.

My take away from this book was not that you or I were not just born to run, but that the human species was DESIGNED to run.  Yes, even you!

When I first started running, I was told by virtually everyone that when I got older my knees were going to suffer from all the pounding.  Luckily, I never bought into those statements.  Now, I’m almost 40 and while my knees do feel 40, I can still run, jump, and do pretty much everything that I want to do.  I seriously doubt that my knees are going to age any faster than the rest of me…. And I attribute this to the fact that I run.  I firmly believe that humans are designed to run (something I truly believed in before reading the book but felt more confirmation in after reading it).

You would think that based on my history with “toe running” and my firm belief in running shoes and proper technique that I would never think about trying it again.  But, something had to give.  Great technique, best fitting shoes, and almost 20 years of experience and yet, I was still consistently managing some sort of pain.  The biggest aha moment came for me while reading Born to Run.  The author talked about how he was considered a ‘large’ runner (as I do) and in reality he is actually heavier than I am and since he’s switched over to “minimalist” running, he has not had any injuries.  This, in an instant, completely changed my philosophy on ‘proper’ running technique.

Notice that I put minimalist in quotes this time and no longer called it toe running.  My mistake in attempting “toe running” was that I mistakenly interpreted forefoot, or minimalist running, with running on the toes.  So, allow me to define for you, in my own words, what minimalist running is.

Minimalist running is basically running with little to no support from your shoe.  It typically also includes landing on your forefoot versus landing on your heel.

Before I finished the book, I decided to give minimalist running a try.  Using my regular running shoes, on January 1st, 2011, I went for my first run using a new technique.  I did about 4 miles and it was awesome… simply awesome.  I felt faster, lighter, and I felt a lot more control.  I felt like I was gliding over the ground versus stampeding across it.  Most importantly, I knew I was never going back to the old style of running!   This is a huge shift in philosophy for me and something neither I nor many of my clients were expecting.

I have continued using this technique ever since, but it took several weeks before I could walk normally because of the intense muscle soreness in my calves.  These muscles were not used to contracting in a manner consistent with forefoot running and it took a long time to build up the endurance and strength to get over the pain.  However, I now rarely feel any soreness.

In March 2011, after running for three months in regular shoes but focusing on forefoot striking, I decided it was time to purchase a shoe designed for this type of running.  This was the first time that I asked for advice about this new style of running from a shoe expert and headed to my local running shoe store.  I also asked for tips/advice on Facebook and it was at this time that a whole new world unbeknownst to me opened up.  Comments, critics and opinions were being thrown at me left and right.  There are people deeply passionate about minimalists running and you can easily find an expert opinion and/or a scientific study which argues for and against it.  The rest of this article talks about my lessons learned about forefoot/ barefoot or minimalist running.

The first thing that I will tell you is that there is no easy answer on which is best, minimalist running or traditional running.  Do a quick Google search and you will find studies and opinions by all sorts of ‘experts’, who make great points about their particular view.  My personal podiatrist even told me not to start running this way.  In the end, I think it is a personal choice and you have to give it a try for yourself and make your own call.  My decision has been made, I am a minimalist runner.  In three short months, it has cured the heel spurs and plantar fasciitis from which I suffered for over eight years.

The first response I now get when starting a conversation about minimalist running is, “Do you wear those weird shoes?”  Many people now know that the Vibram 5 finger shoes are synonymous with minimalist running.  If you’ve not seen these yet, they can be found here (5 finger shoes). However, there are several other types of shoes that fit the minimalist category as well but I will touch on that later. Personally, I was not ready to make the jump all the way down to this level of minimal shoe.  However, what I did not know was how many levels of minimal shoes there were.  I’m not 100% sure I know now how many levels, but there seem to be four levels (this is my personal interpretation of what I’ve learned, not what any shoe company or salesperson is telling me).  Level 4 would be your typical running shoe, which is meant to use the heel of the foot when striking the ground.  Level 3, which is where I started, is a much thinner soled shoe.  It’s significantly more flexible and can be folded back upon itself.  Then, there is level 2, which is even more flexible than the level 3 shoe and has even less of a sole.  Finally, there is level 1.  This is where the Vibram 5 (and others like it) comes in.  These shoes could technically be folded up and put into your pocket.  In fact, it’s pretty much meant to be nothing more than another layer of skin, meant to protect the skin of the foot from hazardous materials like rocks and sticks while running. There is no support for the foot, which is technically the point.  In reality, there is a level 0, which would be actual bare foot running, which is also becoming more popular. However, I am fairly certain you won’t catch me doing this… but I did say I’d never run in a minimalist shoe so, never say never.

So, what is the point of a minimalist shoe?  The theory is: that because of the lack of support in the shoe, the muscles that make up the ankle and feet need to work harder to do the things they are supposed to do.  To me, wearing a typical (level 4) running shoe is like wearing a brace.  There is a time and a reason to wear a brace but eventually, you have to stop wearing that brace to allow the muscles, tendons and ligaments to the jobs they were intended to do.  The same goes for a level 4 running shoe.  If you always wear the brace, your muscles, tendons and ligaments get weaker and no longer do their job.  Instead they rely on the brace to do the work.  This, in turn, makes the level 4 running shoe more and more essential to the runner who uses them.  Having stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments in the lower part of the body can’t be a bad thing, can it?

In addition to the above, when running with a forefoot strike, there are certain advantages over a heel striking runner.  One, forefoot runners, are taking shorter strides and when you take shorter strides, your foot is in contact with the ground more and therefore, you can get more propulsion out of the muscles in your legs, unlike when you are striking with the heel  and you have to reach your leg out further to strike the ground.  Essentially, you are getting more power out of your legs because of the shorter stride.

Another advantage, to me, seems that the body is absorbing the impact of the strike more efficiently.  When landing on the heel, the impact has nowhere to go but up the legs, into the pelvis and lower back.  This is why traditional running shoes (again, level 4) have significantly more cushioning in the heel (to absorb this impact).  But, a forefoot runner starts to absorb the impact at the flexible toes as well as the flexible ankles and uses the muscles in the calves to slow down the impact before the impact even reaches the lower leg.  This can be compared to what happens during jumping jacks or jumping rope.  When performing these exercises, the lower body is absorbing the impact before the impact is felt in the hips or lower back.  Don’t believe me?  Try doing jumping jacks on your heels.  Silly isn’t it?  Now, try to do it flat footed.  It hurts right away for a number of reasons, but when doing jumping jacks correctly, the impact is significantly less, because of the way you land… similar to a forefoot striker!

I have a three year old little boy who likes to play his own version of baseball.  The other day, I was hitting the ball that he pitched to me.  It was after dinner and just before his bedtime so we were both barefoot.  I hit one really far and challenged him to beat me to the ball.  He took off as fast as he could.  As he took off, I paid very close attention to his foot strike.  Mind you, I haven’t yet talked to him about running form, foot strike, running shoes or even what event he is going to run in the 2024 Olympics, but he knew, instinctively, the he is not supposed to run heel to toe.  He took off running on his forefoot. This proved to me that my son, my clients and the entire human race was ‘Born to Run’.