The health benefits of running abound, but I found out the hard way that when it comes to running, you can have too much of a good thing.
Injuries leading to slower race times made my fourth, fifth and sixth marathons grueling slogs versus exciting challenges. I tried foam rolling, massage, strengthening — you name it. But it took five years for me to finally dabble into the injury-prevention gear many professional athletes swear by: minimalist running shoes.
What Are Minimalist Running Shoes?
While more traditional running shoes include cushioning and structure for stability and shock absorption, minimalist running shoes offer a more natural feel. They feature minimal cushioning in the midsoles and heels, with a heel-to-toe drop of less than 8 millimeters (compared to a drop of 10 to 12 millimeters in more traditional running shoes, according to REI).
What's a shoe's drop, or offset? According to Runner's World, it's the measured difference between the heel and the forefoot, or basically how much your toes "drop" below your heel. When it's higher, your heel hits more than your toes, transferring stress away from your lower leg and up into the knee. A lower drop, on the other hand, shifts that stress down to your calf and Achilles tendon. Neither drop is better, necessarily; it's what feels most comfortable to you when you're running.
Many attribute the popularity spike of minimalist running shoes to runner and author Christopher McDougall. McDougall's 2009 book "Born to Run," which highlighted "super athletes" around the globe, included information about the benefits of barefoot running. "I suggested we don't need smarter shoes; we need smarter feet," he wrote in a 2011 New York Times Magazine article.
McDougall had all but given up on running when he went to Mexico's Copper Canyon. He was studying how the local Indigenous people were able to run 100-mile (161-kilometer) races well into old age. That's when he discovered that barefoot running was perhaps their greatest secret.
He picked it up, hit the trail sans shoes, and "I haven't lost a day of running to injury since," he said in the Times Magazine article.
Minimalist Running Shoes for Injury Prevention
McDougall isn't the only one to swear by barefoot-style shoes. It's a booming industry that's attracted many top runners, including two-time Olympian Kara Goucher. Goucher, one of the best-known marathoners in the U.S., dealt with injury after injury throughout her running career in more traditional running shoes.
"I've had a lot of stress fractures, and I've had nine athletic-related surgeries," she says. "I essentially don't have cartilage in my left knee; I'm basically bone on bone."
Goucher, who recently started working with shoe brand Altra, says this style of running shoes has kept her healthy. "I started to notice the days I ran in my Altras, my knee — the one that's bone on bone — hurt less. I started wearing them for longer runs, and I noticed my whole body was feeling better."
That's when she knew Altra and this minimalistic shoe style was the right fit for her. "My foot is actually functioning the way it was supposed to function," she says.
Easing Into Minimalist Shoes
Like most impatient runners, I saw minimalist shoes as a quick fix to my running-injury woes. Yet again, I learned a lesson the hard way. Switching to a minimalist running shoe should be a slow, gradual process. Going all in too quickly — as in, running 8 miles (12.8 kilometers) the first time out of the box — can be a shock to the system. (Just ask my poor, aching calves.)
"When I first started, I only wore [minimalist shoes] twice a week, then three days and then every other day," Goucher says, noting she was paranoid about the switch after running in cushioned shoes her entire career. She recommends if you do switch, start off easy, even just walking your new shoes for the first few weeks.
"I would say start slow, be really gentle and don't wear them for any hard sessions for at least a few weeks," she explains. "When they start to feel like they're not any different from your other shoes, that's when I would say it's OK to do strides or a mid-distance run."
For those concerned about going all in on minimalist running, companies like Altra offer a midway shoe that's both lightly cushioned yet minimalist, such as the Paradigm 6, which Goucher helped designed. It features "a slimmer aesthetic that will have you questioning whether it's really a support shoe, and support features that will remind you that it is," the brand notes. I've been testing these as my gateway to minimalist running shoes, and so far, my knees and feet have been nothing but happy.
Benefits of Minimalist and Barefoot Running
When it comes to the best style of running shoe, it all depends on your personal preference. But experts say there are some key perks for barefoot and minimalist-shoe running, including:
- supporting a low-impact gait, which encourages runners to land on the midfoot or forefoot versus the heel
- establishing a connection between the ground and the runner's foot
- given the lightweight build, minimalist shoes trim the amount of weight our legs must carry while running
And, as Goucher discovered, minimalist running can also strengthen muscles that have long been coddled or forgotten when running in more structured support shoes. "I'm convinced that I developed calf muscles by running in my Altras," she says. "My butt actually has to work properly, and my whole chain is working."