With advice from Lee Couret, PT, MSPT, CSCS
What is minimalist running? Is it safe?
Trends come and go in fitness, and running is no exception. Minimalist running has been growing in popularity over the last decade, but some runners still question its safety. Barefoot or minimalist running is running that occurs either WITHOUT footwear or with footwear that lacks high cushioned heels, stiff soles, and arch support, a.k.a. minimalist footwear.
Lee Couret, a physical therapist and the owner of Southshore Physical Therapy in Louisiana, says there are many benefits to barefoot running. For example, he says, running barefoot can reduce the impact of the footfall when running. This is because most barefoot runners avoid landing on their heels because it hurts! Landing with a heel strike is believed to be a potential cause of injury. A study published by the Skeletal Biology Laboratory at Harvard Medical School found that those runners that land on their heels while running were much more likely to suffer injury than those who land on the forefoot, or the ball of the foot. And Lee explains that reducing the impact can reduce running injures, as studies have found that people who run with greater impact often have more injuries.
Barefoot runners may actually be stronger. Aside from fewer injuries, barefoot runners may actually be stronger. Running without shoes can strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the foot while also stretching and strengthening the calf muscles, notes Lee. It can also improve balance and proprioception via activation of the smaller muscles in the legs and feet. And minimalist runners may experience increased efficiency, he says, as barefoot running requires less energy and oxygen consumption.
But don’t rush to throw out your running shoes without considering the cons. Running without shoes means that your feet aren’t protected, from either the elements, like cold, heat, snow, and rain, or the variety of things you can find on the road — glass, pebbles, nails, and more. Barefoot runners will be more prone to blisters, points out Lee, and might be at a higher risk for Achilles tendonitis or plantar fasciitis while transitioning from running in shoes.
Be cautious as you transition from running in shoes to running barefoot. A conscientious uncoupling from your shoes is key to a successful transition. If you want to start running barefoot, think about talking to your physical therapist about your best options. She might be able to do a gait analysis to see whether your gait would need to be improved before you transition. If you run with a heavy heel strike, it may be difficult for you to switch to the forefoot strike essential for barefoot running. Lee suggests following these tips from the Spaulding National Running Center to make a healthy transition:
- Land gently, with your foot relatively horizontal and under your hips (this will shorten your stride).
- Transition slowly — see the full running plan from SNRC for guidelines.
- Stretch your calves and Achilles tendon before and after running.
- Buy low profile shoes (low heels, minimal arch support, flexible soles) to use when running barefoot is not safe.
And, above all, listen to your body! Don’t do anything that causes pain, and see your physical therapist or doctor if you have pain that lasts for more than a couple of days after running.