Considering Minimalist vs Supportive Shoes for Walking & Running
At Clash we are big fans of being barefoot, allowing your feet to feel and move the way they were designed to do. Our feet are highly sensory and they crave movement just as much as the rest of the body. This is important to consider when you are choosing your daily footwear or your footwear for exercise. For the purpose of this blog we are just going to focus on walking and running shoes.
When people talk about switching to a minimalist shoe, there is often discussion about whether or not our feet “need support” and if there is an increased likelihood of injury due to making the switch. There is good research to show that just by switching to a minimalist style shoe the intrinsic muscle strength of the feet (ie. the small muscles of the arch and that move the toes) improves. No extra exercise needed, just walk in minimalist shoes. This is good to take into account given our already hectic and overscheduled lives. But what about stability? Dr. Steven Robbins has done much research on stability during movement as it relates to our shoe type and his research supports that highly padded shoes with a heel drop contribute to decreased foot position awareness. In his studies he found decreased positional awareness is what contributes to falls and ankle sprains. He concludes that a flat, stiffer sole is superior for stability. There is conflicting research however, and it is important to consider things such as the person’s history of being barefoot, balance training in their preferred shoe, joint changes in their foot, and even any preconceived notions from the client as to which is better. If someone believes they “need support” then they will likely perform worse without it.
When it comes to running there are a million different styles and shoe types, all come with their own sales pitch stating why their shoe is going to improve your performance and reduce your injury risk. Did you know there is a risk of up to 80% chance of injury associated with running? There is much evidence to suggest making the switch to a minimalist style shoe can both improve your running economy and reduce your risk for injury. People wearing a standard cushioned running shoe tend to run utilizing a heel strike pattern, which can cause increased ground reaction forces with more stress being placed on the knee. Switching to a minimalist or barefoot style shoe tends to alter the strike pattern causing the person to switch to a more mid or forefoot strike. Impact is reduced by decreasing the length and direction of ground reaction forces. Performance can be improved due to increased stride frequency, shorter stride, and shorter ground contact time. More research is needed, but current research suggests improved running economy due to preactivation of muscles, better braking/pushing impulses, and decreased metabolic demand due to improved elastic energy transfer. While these changes will reduce stress at the knee joint the workload gets redistributed to the foot and ankle, which does cause a risk for achilles tendinitis. What that means is like any new stress to the body it is recommended that there is a transitionary period to allow for the body to adjust to the alterations in tissue load, so these tissues have time to build a tolerance.
Now, there are also other things to consider when thinking about making a switch to a minimalist shoe for running or walking. Activity duration is one, particularly for running. If someone is training for a marathon or half marathon they may benefit from something with some support due to the likelihood of ms fatigue and delayed response times associated with fatigue. That’s not to say that someone couldn’t train in a way that increases their bodies tolerance to prolonged impact forces in minimalist or barefoot shoes, but that takes a long time and if someone is signed up for a marathon in 4 months it’s probably not a good time to make that switch. We still would like people to consider a more “foot shaped” shoe in these instances such as Altra or Topos. Other anatomical things to be considered are conditions such as Hallux limitus, Hallux rigidus, history of a Hallux joint fusion, a structurally short achilles tendon, or a rigid inverted foot type. In these cases a rocker type shoe or a heel drop may be preferential to avoid excess stress on your joints, whether you are walking or running because there are structural changes that are fixed, ie. can not be changed through a therapeutic exercise program.
With all the shoe types and information available to us it is hard to tell what shoes to wear and when. The biggest things to consider when thinking about changing to a minimalist shoe are your foot type, injury history, activity level, and willingness to make training changes to accommodate this change. If you don’t want to totally overhaul your current regime that’s ok too! You should still consider the shape and function of your foot when making a decision about your footwear. Your foot is always going to function better when the forefoot and toes have room to spread, so a wide toe box is our top recommendation. Also, as always we recommend you get assessed by a professional with good knowledge of foot/ankle mechanics, as well as knowledge surrounding your goals in order to make the best choice.
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