ChiWalking and ChiRunning Shoes: The Minimal Facts

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Since 1999, ChiLiving has been promoting minimal shoes for both running and walking. A principle borrowed from T’ai Chi reminds us that when we wear shoes with a lot of padding or thick soles, it removes us from the ever important foot-to-ground connection. If you watch a barefoot runner, they don’t ever heel strike because the foot is educating their body on how to make contact with the ground. The foot-to-ground connection helps us feel stable and rooted, so it is imperative that we make an informed decision about the shoes we choose for running or walking.

In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, shoes with a flat sole were very popular. Basketball players wore Converse All-stars (Chuck Taylors), and runners wore either racing flats (the only shoe available back then) or low-profile sneakers. As “power running” became widespread in the 80s and 90s, shoes grew clunkier and thicker. Shoe companies taught us that more cushioning in our running shoes equaled better protection, but in reality, excess shoe inhibits our ability to feel impact and the damage we could be doing to our bones, joints and muscles. Current running technique studies show that the thicker the heel of the shoe, the earlier the foot comes into contact with the ground, increasing impact to the legs, knees and joints. As of recently, this has begun to create more minimalist shoes, but we haven’t yet seen this trend in fitness walking shoes,  which needs to happen sooner than later. Our solution is to get racing flats or minimal shoes for your fitness walking.

The majority of us spend most of our time walking rather than running, especially those in the service industry, like nurses, waitpersons and salespeople. Most big shoe companies sell walking shoes that are actually work shoes built for people who spend their workdays on their feet. These walking ‘work’ shoes are stiff and over-cushioned and are built to protect the feet (which has never been proven to be necessary) instead of allowing them to flex and feel the ground in a more natural way.

The best walking shoes (just like the best running shoes) should have:

  • A very low heel-to-toe drop (flat is best).
  • A sole that doesn’t have any cutaway between the heel and toe box (like most running shoes do).
  • Both of the above features allow the walker, or runner, to land on the lateral side of the heel and roll forward along the lateral side of the foot to the metatarsil heads, and off at the 1st and 2nd metatarsals.
  • A wide toe box and lots of flexibility in the forefoot.
  • When you take the toe of the shoe in one hand and the heel in the other, the shoe should bend easily.
  • Breathability – summer walking and running shoes shouldn’t make your feet sweat.
  • The same level of comfort as your bedroom slippers!

Once you find a walking or running shoe that fits this description, you’ll notice that it’s actually much easier to practice ChiWalking or ChiRunning. Similar to barefoot running, your foot strike will naturally become a more balanced midfoot strike. You won’t have unnecessary cushioning to absorb the impact from heel strike, so it will feel better to run with a more midfoot strike and to walk with a midfoot roll (landing on the front of your heel and rolling through to your toes) when you take a step. You’ll also become more aware of  the positive effects that has on the rest of the body. Our ChiWalking and ChiRunning DVDs are great tools to help you build your walking or running program and get you used to your new shoes!

The fact is, shoes are only a small part of the story of walking and running injury-free. Whether you’re walking or running, what is most important is your walking or running technique. Just because you’re walking or running either barefoot or in more minimal shoes, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll automatically have good running or walking technique. That has to be learned and practiced. A pain-free running technique is really the best insurance against any walking or running injuries in your future.

As much as we promote moving to a minimal shoe, we do suggest following the principle of Gradual Progress. To fully benefit from any kind of change you make in your exercise program it’s important to give your body time to adjust. If you’ve been wearing a thick-soled shoe (sometimes called a “stability” shoe), try going for something more neutral at first. These shoes have slight padding, yet are still flexible enough to keep the lines of communication open between your feet and the ground. Once you feel comfortable in these, then you can move to a shoe that’s truly minimal. The same goes for those who are injured or who have had injuries: it’s especially important that you follow Gradual Progress with any adjustments you make.

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