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Let's Get Physical ... Therapy! Minimalist Shoe Running

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By Ilka Felsen
Staff Writer

Have you ever wondered what’s up with people running around in bare feet?  Or eyed those funky looking “shoes” with five separate toes?

What’s the scoop on minimalist shoe running? 

In a nutshell, minimalist running shoes look a lot like socks with some extra padding on the soles.  Minimalist shoes are designed to mimic running in bare feet, a concept that has become a hot topic since the publication of Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall.  

Basically, McDougall’s best seller puts forth an interesting theory:  that running with shoes alters the natural biomechanics of the foot, when humans are evolutionarily designed to walk and run barefoot. 

In fact, wearing cushy, expensive running shoes is a relatively new thing — thanks to Nike.  Indeed, before supportive, super high-tech running shoes became a big thing, marathon runners in the 70s wore pretty minimalist-looking shoes.

So why run barefoot?

Proponents of barefoot running argue that wearing the clunkier, traditional running shoes encourages a heel strike pattern.  The newest research indicates that striking the ground with the heel first actually results in a greater ground reaction force, which means more load going through the ankles and knees.  Ouch.

Running barefoot or in minimalist shoes discourages a heel strike pattern, so that runners instead land on their midfoot, which is supposed to reduce forces going up through the leg.  Proponents of minimalist running also argue that barefoot running increases spatial awareness of foot joints (a very good thing!), and increases foot strength (also great!).

So should I go out and buy a pair of minimalist shoes?  How about I just run without shoes?

The number one reason why runners switch to minimalist running is because of pain.  (Note that the number two reason is McDougall’s book Born to Run.)  But experts recommend an 8-12 week transition period from traditional shoes to minimalist shoes.  This is because the foot is not conditioned to run in nothing, after spending a lifetime shod. 

There are numerous websites out there, each with their own recommended training regimens.  The important thing is to gradually build up to running full time in minimalist shoes. 

The other essential things to do are:  strengthen your calves like crazy, because minimalist running requires superman-size calves, strengthen your intrinsic foot muscles and do not run in minimalist shoes or bare feet if you do not have full sensation on the sole of your foot.

Ilka Felsen is a second-year physical therapy student.

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