The Science of Barefoot – Minimalist Running and How It Can Benefit You

Runners across the world have recently sparked a debate over what running method is most natural, efficient and fast – minimalist, or barefoot, running or traditional running with padded support under the feet. But if you’re still stuck somewhere in the middle of this argument, or maybe you don’t quite understand the difference between the two running styles, you’ve found the right place.

The Difference

The major difference between minimalist running and traditional running methods is essentially the way that your foot strikes the ground on every stride.

In a traditional running shoe, your feet are inclined to hit the ground in a heel strike motion, with your heel, obviously, landing first on the pavement while the rest of your foot rolls forward into a settled position to follow. That’s why the cushioning on the heels of traditional running shoes is so extensive – the constant pounding and pressure on the hard bone of the heel can cause a lot of shock to the rest of the body, so the makers of these shoes try to compensate by adding additional cushioning.

The theory behind minimalist running lies in the idea that humans were literally born to run, and we were built with feet that were naturally made to absorb the impact of constantly hitting the ground. That’s because when humans used to run barefoot, our feet would naturally position themselves much differently that our current form of running shoes position our feet. This lies in the mid-foot strike, or landing first just behind the ball of your foot and letting your toes settle into the ground and spread to fully balance your body.

Think about how it feels to run barefoot in the grass. You feel like a little kid with tons of energy, but as soon as you strap on those old-school running shoes with the crazy amounts of cushion and custom orthodics, you have aches and pains all over your body and running becomes the absolute last thing that you want to do. That’s exactly where the difference lies.

The Benefits of Minimalism

So obviously, then, minimalist runners fully believe and embrace the idea that running with this mid-foot strike will give you a more natural, energy-efficient stride, and most feel that running in this way will actually help prevent some of the more common running injuries, like IT Band Syndrome and Plantar Fasciitis.

With a mid-foot strike, you’re minimizing the impact of the ground on all of the hard bones of your foot and instead hitting with the soft area of your mid-foot. Then, when you allow your toes to settle into place and spread for balance, your stride feels more natural. Most minimalist runners will say they feel more energized, and they feel that ankle, knee, hip and back injuries happen far less frequently, if at all, as a result of the minimized impact.

Minimalist running is incredibly energy-efficient when performed properly. Part of the theory is that a human was born to be able to out-run its prey, meaning that although humans were never as fast as some of the animals that we used to hunt, as long as we could run farther than them, we would be able to catch them eventually when they tired.

And these early runners were all barefoot. Now we have these running injuries springing up everywhere that no one’s ever really even heard of, and many minimalists believe that they are a result of the extreme cushioning and manipulation of the foot that most modern running shoes enforce.

The Technique

Adopting a minimalist running technique isn’t exactly something that you can decide to switch to overnight. You should first purchase a pair of shoes that encourages the spreading of your toes and that features a low heel rise, if any at all, with no major cushioning. Most minimalist shoes are extremely light-weight and really feel like they are only on your feet for protection from the ground, not support.

Since this technique is an entirely new form of running, if you switch, you’ll be using muscles in your feet, ankles and calves that you’ve likely never engaged while running before, and these muscles will most certainly take time to strengthen. Therefore, any minimalist running program should begin slowly, starting with under a mile and gradually increasing to your normal daily distance.

When you begin, the main focus should be on landing on that part of your mid-foot that is soft and that allows your toes to settle into place. It’s OK if your heels touch the ground, as well, but they should not be striking first, especially in a pair of minimalist shoes that offer no cushioning. It will take time to perfect the stride itself, and then you’ll be able to move on to more in-depth techniques.

One such technique to extend your minimalist running method is to focus on leaning slightly forward with the shoulders, so that they are just slightly in front of the hips. This will give your body forward momentum, and your legs are essentially only there to “catch you” as your body carries itself forward. It’s an incredibly energy-efficient approach to running, but you should really focus on the stride technique itself before advancing to these energy-saving techniques.

If you’re considering switching to minimalist running, again, make sure you take it slow at first and ease yourself into it. Once you start a regular program, you’ll feel less pain throughout the body because you will have learned to run the way your body was naturally meant to run, without any major intrusions from over-cushioned and over-padded shoes that only throw off your natural stance. You’ll run feeling like a kid again, and who wouldn’t love that?

Liz Granger is a freelance writer and avid runner. She loves her comfortable shoes for hanging around the house, but she’d rather be in her minimalist running shoes any day!

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