How to Avoid Injuries with Minimal Running Shoes

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The minimal running shoe boom, although it's one that we welcome, is nonetheless creating some meaningful questions and discussions. I am hearing reports that there are indeed a rash of new types of running injuries from people running in minimal shoes, or should I say, running too much, too quickly and with improper biomechanics, in minimal running shoes.

Always in search of the magic bullet, people tend to go to extremes when they hear of something promising. It happens with diets, with politics, and in this case, with running shoes.

We have been advocating for more minimal running shoes since 1999. However, always with the caveat of one of ChiRunning and ChiWalking’s main tenets: Gradual Progress. Putting on a pair of minimal running shoes does not change years of movement patterns you have established. The idea that running without shoes or with a more minimal running shoe will save you from injury is, in many cases, wishful thinking. It can also be harmful to your body.

Here are some tips for avoiding the overuse injuries that can plague minimalist or barefoot runners:

  1. Take it slowly and don’t expect to get started running your current mileage as you switch from your current shoes to barefoot or minimalist shoes.
  2. If you’re transitioning to a barefoot running technique, do it on a hard surface or a track and not on grass (contrary to popular opinion). That’s because grass offers such a soft surface that it’s difficult to tell if you’re heel striking. Running on a hard surface will give you immediate running technique feedback and “force” you to land softly or suffer the pain.
  3. If you go cold turkey and toss your old shoes in trade for minimalist or barefoot running, start by running very short distance intervals, like 200m or less, just to see how it feels. Then walk for the same amount. This helps toughen your feet without creating as much impact as running. Do this switching back and forth between walking and running as your body allows. The 10% increase rule definitely applies here … start with very short runs and add no more than 10% of an increase in mileage (or time on your feet) in one week.
  4. Be very cautious if you’re switching to minimalist or barefoot running if your BMI is 25 or higher, as the increase of impact to unprotected feet magnifies significantly if you’re overweight. If your BMI is 30+ you might consider losing some weight before switching to the minimalist approach. Walking in minimalist shoes should be fine, as long as you increase your mileage slowly.
  5. For at least the first month, do most, if not all, minimalist or barefoot runs on level ground, not on hills. Running uphill places increased stress on your Achilles tendons and running downhills places more impact and stress on your plantar fascia, the soft tissues of the bottoms of your feet, your calves and your shins.
  6. Make sure you are running with biomechanically correct running form on the first day of your switch to minimalist or barefoot running; shorten your stride, land midfoot or forefoot/midfoot, keep your knees bent and relax your lower legs throughout your stride cycle, and maintain good posture with a gentle forward lean at the ankles. Better yet, sign up for a ChiRunning class or contact a local ChiRunning certified instructor.

When approached mindfully, there is no reason why anyone should suffer an injury from switching to barefoot or minimalist running. Without the big, bulky shoes deadening your feet and controlling every move your feet will be able to truly sense what the ground feels like and respond accordingly, and in most cases, for the better. The key to making change safe and permanent is to allow Nature to set the pace by allowing your body to adapt at its own rate.

Posted in Technique, Gear

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