Barefoot/Minimalist Running: What You Need to Know

What is barefoot and minimalist running?

You probably have come across, heard or tried what is termed ‘barefoot or minimalist running’. This term is often used in the running community, but first of all what does it mean?

The term barefoot running implies running barefoot without any footwear. There is a group of runners that solely run barefoot in Singapore. It takes a period of time to transition to this lifestyle. These runners run various distances without any footwear. They have been seen in major races like the Standard Chartered Marathon 42K or even on trails.

As for minimalist running, it implies wearing footwear that offers the closest mechanism to running truly barefoot with minimal cushioning and protection from the ground. The general characteristics of minimalist footwear are minimal cushioning and support with a very flexible upper part of the shoe. These shoes tend to sit very low on the ground and have a thin midsole.

You may be familiar with the general perceptions of barefoot/minimalist running’s benefits:

First, it is thought to promote midfoot-forefoot strike, which is perceived to be the ‘correct’ or ‘more efficient’ way to run. There are also claims that traditional running shoes have chunky heels  that promote heel striking.  This has led to some postulating that heel striking creates braking forces impacting our legs and musculoskeletal system that can lead to injury overtime.

Second, as in ancient times, cushioning shoes were not invented and most humans then walked/ran bare feet, some have concluded that it is a ‘natural way to go’ as we are made to be without shoes like our ancestors.

Third, barefoot/minimalist running has been suggested to increase proprioception (sense of space and balance), as many nerve endings on the sole of the feet are stimulated, thus strengthening intrinsic foot muscle.

This brings us to questions like: Are all the claims true? Is barefoot/minimalist running for everyone? And might it have any negative effects on our body?

Individual running techniques

A study conducted in Japan stated that in a 21k footrace of 283 elite runners, 75 per cent of the runners were found to heel strike and 24 per cent were midfoot strikers. This study proved that most elite distance runners actually heel strike rather than midfoot strike in a half marathon race.

As a runner, you are probably aware that running techniques change based on the individual, speed, terrain, footwear, gradient and fatigue level. When sprinting uphill for 10 seconds, most runners will be on their forefoot/toes to enable the push-off from the ground. If you are running downhill, you are more likely to land on the midfoot as you lean back slightly to prevent yourself from falling forward. With a slow easy jog, the majority of runners would likely adopt a heel striking technique.

Different runners would possess different innate styles of running. The most important consideration biomechanically would be the position of your foot, in relation to your body’s centre of gravity when the foot strikes the ground while running.

Regardless of the foot section that hits the ground first (heel/midfoot/forefoot), the closer you land to your centre of gravity, the less braking impact forces your body will experience. You can take smaller steps to prevent over-striding and adopt a smooth lifting and landing motion of the legs to reduce impact forces.

The conclusion that everyone needs to run in a certain foot striking position is flawed. Each individual is different and we should not put everyone in the same category. There are common traits in a good running technique, however, to solely look at switching to barefoot/minimalist footwear or to go entirely barefoot and expect good running form to fall into place is too ambitious.

In addition, developing yourself into a more competitive runner requires a combination of training strategies that can help you to adopt a good running posture, such as running drills and lots of gradual practice.

-By Ng Chee Hong, Senior Podiatrist, Department of PodiatrySingapore General Hospital (SGH).

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