Minimalist Running Shoes and Gear – Mistakes and Lessons

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A few years ago, while running at Hood to Coast relay, one of our running team members proclaimed you could put a certain running shoe logo on a piece of dog poop and sell it. He worked for and was sponsored by a local running shoe company, which made him biased, but there was an element of truth to that. These days, it seems to ring true for minimalist running, and what that means to different people. A friend of mine saw a guy running and  tweeted “Spotted: Vibram 5-fingers, hydration pack, GPS watch & trekking poles. Now that's the essence of minimalism.” (If you need trekking poles on flat ground, then something is truly amiss with your running technique and ability to body sense!) 

In ChiRunning, we talk about minimalism in terms of running shoes. When asked what kind of running shoes one should wear, I say two things. First, start where you're at. If you are in highly structured running shoes and orthotics, that is what your body is currently used to. You can still incorporate the basic pain-free running focuses, which will help strengthen your core muscles and add stability. As you get stronger, and your body awareness increases,  you may find that you need less external correction. (Note: I started practicing the ChiRunning technique while still wearing orthotics and stability shoes) I may have my client remove their shoes during the posture lesson, which allows them to feel contact with the ground. For running, I tell them first listen to their body and put the ChiRunning focuses into practice – one at a time. I encourage them to work towards less running shoe and less structure, if they want, but gradually (see below). The advantage of having less running shoe between you and the ground is the 'feedback' is more immediate.  To respond to that feedback on the run with less structure, the focuses should be well integrated into your neuro-muscular system. For shoe and support choice, I tell my clients to listen to their body and not their egos.

This leads to the second – follow the law of Gradual Progress. I recently talked to three different people who got metatarsal stress fractures after running barefoot or in extremely minimal shoes. In all cases, they did too much too soon. When I first ran without my orthotics (after wearing them for 12 years!), my right foot hurt from the lack of metatarsal support, because the muscles had atrophied over the years. My PT (who had advised I toss the orthotics) put a metatarsal pad in my shoe, and gave me some exercises to help strengthen my weak core. After a couple of years (read: gradual progress), and strengthening my foot muscles, I was able to let go of that support. It's been a road of trial and error, but today I don't wear inserts and do some of my runs in Vibram Five Fingers. So far, I can safely say the only time I had metatarsal stress fracture(s!) was when I wore orthotics. 

With all the hype and marketing that surrounds us today, it's easy to get caught up and believe we should be running in less now. This is a good opportunity to learn and practice nonidentity. With that, gradual progress and body sensing, you can make a wise choice in minimalist footwear, and when you are ready to make that transition. Your feet will thank you for it. 

Posted in Technique

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