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Running - Where to Start, Pt 2 - Shoes and Minimalist Running

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Running - Where to Start, Pt 2 - Shoes and Minimalist Running

Where to Start! Part 2 – Shoes and minimalist running

The beauty of human movement and fitness is that the environment should be the only equipment you need. Our ancestor’s bodies, endurance and strength were carved by the world they inhabited. The earliest humans, in fact all pre-agrarian peoples had an agility and physical awareness unparalleled by modern standards. They ate what the land provided, whilst moving through the environment demanded physicality and a grace that we no longer encounter in western society. Without the influence of modern conveniences our ancestor’s movement patterns followed authentic species specific movement. Much of our nature has been eroded by chairs, cars and machines that take over the manual tasks of the day. No longer do we need the endurance to run down our prey, instead we have developed the endurance to endure Asda off the A3 road in London on a Saturday afternoon.

I’m not for the romanticisation of paleothetic living, it was brutal life could be short, but they just did not suffer from the level of morbidity western society currently experiences. Because we don't experience the adaptations to the demands of the natural landscape it’s easy to lose sight of authentic human movement. We've become adapted to our conveniences.

If there is one part of the exercise industry over the last few years that has sparked the most debate, it’s shoes. Nature gave us the foot, a marvel of evolutionary engineering. The foot is a complex and hugely tough part of the human body. It has the ability to provide a high levels of sensory feedback, that in turn, informs our brain of the world around us and importantly informs the method and manner of our movement. But it’s a vunerable area, even when toughened in nature, hence the development of the shoe. The shoe has been demonised recently, but is extremely advantageous.

Let me introduce you to a sense called ‘proprioception’ which can be defined as an awareness of the position of one’s body in relation to itself. For example, when you touch a leaf on a tree, proprioception will provide you with feedback on a number of levels which could be listed as: what the leaf feels like, it’s temperature, its weight, its texture, how far your hand is in front of your body and what height you arm is relative to your torso and sensory information on many other levels (the angle of your hand, whether your shoulder is retracted or in extension etc). All of which happens without needing your eye sight. Proprioception is also connected to your balance (or vestibular system – an article in its own right.)

Our bodies provide us with information, its up to our brains to interpret this data and turn it into an action or assumption about the world and our position in it. Your feet have the potential to provide you with a rich world of proprioceptive feedback on a par with your hands. Unfortunately, we now remove this feedback from our lives by encasing our feet in shoes that dull the information our feet could be receiving.

Modern Running shoes – Shoes with heels and cushioning

The modern shoe contains ‘technology’ to dull your experience of the ground, the stacked heel reduces impact when ‘heel-striking’, and encourages the foot to roll forward, whilst the sponge protects the foot. This comes at a cost. The addition of a heel changes the angle your foot strikes the ground, changing your biomechanics right up the kinetic chain. These changes, whilst subtle, have a culmative effect that dramatically alters the way you move. Due to the thick spongey sole and a raised heel your foot can no longer feel the ground and the subtleties of the environment. Whilst this has the effect of giving you a smooth ride, it does in fact provide the opposite.

Is this not counter intuitive?

Numbing your proprioceptive feedback means your brain struggles to interpret the level of force and cushioning the rest of your body would naturally provide every time your foot hits the floor. Think of your hips, legs, tendons and muscles as a spring and cushioning system that is highly efficient at minimising impact spikes which result from your foot striking the floor. If you run barefoot your brain knows that it has to run softly in order to reduce the impact of your downward force. It does this by adjusting your foot angle, the way your knees and hip soak up the impact, it adjusts your cadence and uses the elastic qualities of your tendons (I shall address cadence and running technique another time) to recycle energy.

Surely thicker shoes help with to reduce the impact?

The ground is hard and often unforgiving (running on a cobbled street can really challenge your ankles and soles, for example). Thick soles can increase the impact spike because they dull our sensory feedback about the environment. For example, your brain may be unsure about whether you are running on grass, concrete, or perhaps hard sand? The squishy sole provides the same experience wherever. As such, the sponge reduces information going to your brains movement centre resulting in the bodies cushioning counter measures failing to operate as efficiently. Have you ever run next to someone and thought how loud their foot strikes are? Each step you take can generate 4 times your weight in force, if not adequately dissipated this impact energy can cause trauma over time.


“But I have a beautiful pair of … insert shoe of choice…” I hear you cry! "They cost £100 and the running store said I pronate, so I need a stability shoe." Consider this, the human foot is a marvel of engineering, it’s designed to be resilent, flexible, dynamic and the arch that you have, well it’s designed to collapse! Your foot is designed to absorb energy (impacts) and redirect it to movement and elastic energy. I will, perhaps, write a piece on foot mechanics in a future blog, needless to say there are plenty of popular writers who have written extensively about the human foot and it’s role in human movement (Daniel Lieberman, Chris Mcdougall, Phil Maffetone, Jay Dicharry, the Natural Running Centre blog, Kelly Starrett), and their indepth explorations make for great reading. It’s not just forward thinking running and endurance coaches/PTs suggesting the foot operates best unaided. Universally, strength coaches recommend any heavy lifting be done in flat flexible shoes or barefoot (cit. Pavel Tsatouline, Dan John, Gray Cook (FMS), and many others in the Olympic lifting world - the exception being Squat Shoes for competitions).

This isn’t just the thinking of exercise mavericks, a major change in thinking about what constitutes a good shoe has been submited and accepted by the American College of Sports Medicine’s, where they outline their new footwear guidelines based on peer reviewed data and extensive field testing. Follow this link:


Many peoples feet do not reflect the qualities necessary to be used in their natural manner. The modern foot is encased in a tight shoe, with a heel, thick and inflexible soles, their feet have no muscle, collapsed arches, immobile and misshapen toes and restricted ankles. Years ago I could never wait to take off my shoes at the end of the day, having worn winklepickers! I had a serious pain in my feet, my achilles tendon was shortened, my toes wouldn’t move independently and my foot strength was neglibible. I used orthotics but my knees still gave me excrutiating pain and my ankles often hurt.


This is a huge subject, and it is the subject of much debate. Many podiatrists will see you, get you to do a few exercises and then proclaim that you need orthotics for life to correct your asymetries and weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong, they can have their place, much like antibiotics. I believe they should be temporary measure whilst you build strength and mobility. I spent years with orthotics to only find I was even more dependent on them than when I started. They merely masked underlying mobility and strength issues. The fact is, if you don’t attend to your body, either through diet or it’s movement needs it can break down or learn bad behaviour. This is particularly the case in western society where we’ve augmented our environment to increase comfort.

Pronation and supernation are movements that do not need to be controlled by shoes; these movements are natural to your feet and locomotion. A strong, free foot moves on multiple planes, it has a flexible ankle and strong muscles and supple plantar fascia. The foot is perfect designed to return energy by collapsing. A shoe that controls that merely interferes with the body’s natural mechanics.

So what traits should you need in a shoe and why are these traits desirable?

A good shoe should encourage efficient gait and correct footplacement, making heel striking less desirable (note they won’t stop you heel striking, you need to work on running form to remove that. I’ve seen plenty of people in Vibram Five Fingers heel strike which could be worse and more painful than before!) Again, refer to the link above, which gives detailed advice on how to choose a shoe. But below are my rules of thumb:

Sole Thickness – A shoe should allow good levels of proprioception, balanced with adequate protection for your needs. Sole thickness can range from 3mm to more. Well engineered materials will be able to transfer information back to the foot even when on the thicker side. Vibram, Vivobarefoot, New Balance and Merrell have very well designed soles on their minimalist shoes. The question you must ask yourself is, ‘can I sense the ground beneath me?’

Flexibility: Sole thickness is a strong contributor to flexibility but also the material it’s made from and the rigidity of the upper. The foot is not a single inflexible object, a healthy foot needs to move. A flexible shoe allows a foot to grow strong by providing minimal inhibition to natural mechanics.

Toe Box – Most shoes, particularly womens and some men’s shoes are particularly tight on the toes (take high heels, for example). These brace the 5 digits in a pointed cast which turns the foot from a dynamic entity with 5 independent points of stability to a single plane. A wide toe box allows your feet to move, flex and will your balance.

Feet in unshod communities are wider at the toe than the heel and provide a strong foundation for movement. A modern foot has hammer toes, the brain sees the five toes as a single appendage and the can often suffer from bunions and blisters.

Zero Drop: The heel on a shoe is an unnecessary element to it’s functionality, it’s a fashionable addition to a shoe which makes it’s owner taller and perhaps more elegant. From the point of view of mechanics it’s redundant, as it forces a heel strike and changes the mechanics all the way up the leg, affecting balance and pressure points. When a shoe is zero drop it means that the heel is the same height as the toe box. This reflects the natural foot position. A heel also shortens your achilles tendon. A zero drop shoe can help address this, but is a factor you need to take into consideration when rehabilitating your feet, as you will need time to adjust. Moderation will avoid damage to the tendon.

Toe Spring: In a traditional rigid-soled shoe, the toe spring provides a “rocker” effect that helps disperse energy from a heel strike. A ridged sole would keep the toes in a dorsiflexion position, which makes a natural running gait hard to maintain.

In a minimalist shoe, toe spring is more or less unnecessary. There are plenty of minimalist shoes that still have a toe spring. However, minimalist shoes usually have a flexible sole, which allows the toes to flatten the up-curved toe during foot landing. Which negates the spring.

Protection not correction: what do you need a shoe for? For running, for hiking? Perhaps weight training? A shoe is a tool so choose a sole that reflects it’s task, e.g. lugs for a trail shoe. If you follow the rules of thumb above you should find that your shoe allows for the optimal function of your foot in the environment you will need it to traverse.

Transitioning to minimalism – important!

Buying the right shoe is only one part of the solution, there are a number of caveats that come with a purchase of a minimalist shoe.

If your feet are used to supportive, tight, inflexible and heeled shoes then jumping into a mimimalist shoe could lead to a number of issues, issues which could cause trauma and injury.

The transition may be a huge step for you, so you need to build the strength and conditioninig of your feet slowly. That means having a plan for the transition.

Before you run in a minimalist shoe, i’d advise the following:

Seek a qualified running coach – a coach that understands running form, not just hill repeats, plyometrics and burpees(don’t get me started!). Coaches qualified in the Pose method or chi running would be a good start, but there are a number of good coaches if you search the net, Vivobarefoot I believe offer courses.

Get an FMS screen – Functional Movement Screen. This screening tells you where your mobility issues are, and it is the first step on the journey towards painfree movement.

Work with a knowledgeable Personal Trainer - Feel free ask difficult questions and ask their opinion on the subject. As them what they do to work on foot strength. Feel free to call me for a FREE consultation!

Walk around Barefoot as much as possible: get rid of your shoes and your slippers walk around barefoot, get used to it, suck it up if it’s cold or there’s bits of dirt! This will begin to condition your feet for a minimal shoe.

Wear your minimal shoes to work or for walking everyday. Foot strength cannot be achieved part-time, reduce the wear-time of your restrictive shoes and spend more time in a comfortable shoe. Don’t get me wrong I like sartorial flair, a good suit with Oxford Brogues, but be aware of your whole behaviour. Running in minimalist shoes is a stress that needs to be trained for. I’ve found there are some good dress shoes that have minimal qualities.

Build your run time slowly! Start with walking then build to a 15 min run in the trainers every other day, and gently build your strength. Add 5 min's a week. Any significant distance will tax / damage your achilles which will need to stretch/adapt, so remember to recover. Important to note: The top of your feet and lower calves may also ache due to the changes and stresses they are unaccustomed to. Don't push through this, make sure they are recovered before you go out again.

Work on a 6 month plan. I know it’s a long time, but you’ve spent your whole life in restrictive shoes, what’s 6 months to set your foot health up for good?


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