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You can't miss them; those funky looking "shoes" that have little individual pockets for each toe...the now-famous Fivefinger shoes. Originally marketed to sailors and water sports enthusiasts, they took on a new life when the book "Born to Run" by author Chris MacDougal hit the shelves. Since then there's been a virtual explosion of interest (both among runners and researchers) in these shoes as well as others that are touted to mimic the action of running barefoot. But the question remains - are they the right choice for running?

The question isn't an easy one to answer. Studies done using athletes who were experienced athletes or those who perhaps had run without shoes all their lives doesn't really get to the question of whether or not running in a shoe that offers little to no support or cushioning is the right thing for the average or beginning runner. It's clear from the studies that have been completed that the typical runner will alter their gait pattern when transitioning from a traditional running shoe to running barefoot, or running in shoes that are considered minimalist. But again the question - is this good or bad?

Bottom line is that there's no ONE perfect way to run for all humans. YOU run the way you do based on a whole host of variables, some of which you have control over and others you don't. It's clear that the faster you run, the more likely you are to naturally contact the ground midfoot or forefoot first rather than heel first. That doesn't necessarily mean that if you change your gait from your typical heel-first pattern to one that is midfoot or forefoot first you'll be faster as a result. Additionally, studies evaluating injury patterns find little if any consistent evidence that transitioning from one pattern to another provides any reduction in injury-risk.

Still... it does seem somehow "freeing" to kick off your shoes and run so what's the harm in experimenting?

With every change we make in our training there is a need for the body to adapt. Whether it's increased reps and sets in a strength training routine, increased emphasis on speedwork or a change to a totally different type of footwear - you have to respect the adaptation process. A soon-to-be published study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that there is an increased risk for bone injuries in runners who transition from traditional running shoes to minimalist running shoes over a 10 week period. When compared to the control group, the runners who were transitioning into minimalist footwear were significantly more likely to show evidence of bone stress (10 out of 19 subjects in the experimental group had evidence on MRI compared to 1 of 16 subjects in the control group). The researchers used MRI to document bone injury in its earliest stages, in many cases before the participants had noticed significant discomfort. Two of the 19 participants transitioning into the FiveFingers footwear sustained stress fractures within the 10 week period.

This is not to say that running in minimalist shoes is inherently dangerous. Instead it's yet another indication that transitions in this direction need to be made very carefully and slowly, with a big dose of respect for the major tissue adaptations that need to occur not only in the muscles and ligaments but also in the bones. If you choose to experiment with barefoot running, make the transition very gradually The study subjects in the aforementioned research did most of their running in their traditional shoes and started the transition with a single short run per week (1-2 miles) in the FiveFingers shoes, incorporated a second short run the following week and a third run the third week. Thus at the end of the third week they were to be doing about 3 miles in the minimalist shoes. After the third week they were advised to add mileage to the FiveFingers shoes as they felt comfortable with the goal of transitioning one run per week from traditional shoes into the FiveFingers shoes. This seems conservative on the surface but remind yourself how many foot strikes you have in a typical mile and suddenly you start to appreciate how quickly this adds up. If you're a 10-minute per mile runner, running with a cadence of 180 steps per minute that's 90 loading cycles per leg per minute, or about 900 loading cycles per leg on your first 1-mile run in these shoes.

The moral of this story? IF you choose to experiment with running in minimalist footwear, do yourself a favor and make your transition much more slowly than you think you need to. Remember, the bone stress is there long before you feel any symptoms! 

Here’s to your success!  Coach Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS


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