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Behind the Minimalist Running Movement September 1, 2011

Posted by Brandon in Technique Forum - the Training.
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Last summer, I read “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall on the recommendation of a friend.  The story details the culture and lifestyle of Mexico’s sandal-wearing Tarahumara Indians.  The ideas underlying the book, that traditional running shoe design promotes an unnatural heel strike and barefoot running strengthens and improves running ability, influenced me to experiment with minimalist shoes.  Over the last year, I’ve been running in the Nike Free and haven’t felt stronger or enjoyed running more in years.

With this new-found interest and success with minimalist running techniques, I think it’s interesting to see the ergonomic and commercial interests behind the movement.   The main tenet of minimalist running is that our bodies are already perfectly designed to run.  A natural gait places the ball of the foot on the ground directly under the body, where the impact absorption is performed by the arch of the foot.  Minimalists argue that traditional running shoes encourage a traumatizing heel strike by incorrectly supporting the arch while overcompensating with soft padding in the heel and boxing the toes.  This leads to weakened control and stability by emaciating important muscles in the foot.

Transitioning to a shoe that doesn’t modify the mechanics of our foot allows the runner to return to a mid foot strike.  This forces other parts of your back and calves to provide balance and control, which strengths your whole body.  The difference between traditional running shoes and minimalist versions is the thickness of the cushioning and geometry of the heel.  The bigger the shoe, the less contact the runner has with the ground, which can decrease responsiveness and consciousness of your surroundings.  Of course, the ability to splay the toes and shorten the gait increases strength in your legs and feet as well.  It has been emphasized however that caution should be taken when beginning barefoot running, as your body may not be prepared to make such a dramatic transition.

Critics of minimalist running warn that it can injure your arches, makes you vulnerable to debris, and otherwise ruins your feet.  Minimalists assume that running is a natural movement of our bodies, rather than one that needs to improved by support and cushioning.  While our ancestors ran barefoot, critics note that they didn’t do so on concrete or at the peril of broken glass or metal.  Apart from this however, there is empirical evidence that barefoot running makes you a faster and more efficient runner.   Research has shown that 100 grams of extra weight on the feet translates into a decrease of your running economy by about 1%.  In fact, weight on the feet makes running more difficult than weight in a person’s midsection.  This is because weight on the feet is subject to constant acceleration and deceleration during running, which has exponential energy consequences.  A simple calculation shows that two 10-ounce shoes will make you more than 5% less efficient.

Apart from the ergonomic rationale for promoting barefoot running, there is a commercial one as well.  “Minimalist” running shoes are prolific and are now produced by most athletic shoe manufacturers.  The Nike Free, first introduced in 2004, is the most widely known and retails for more than $70 a pair.  While some claim that barefoot running is a grassroots movement, these shoe companies apply and are issued patents on their designs.   Most recently, the designs underlying the vibram “five-finger” shoes have been patented and the company has taken a not-so-subtle approach to infringement.

To be expected, litigation has followed.

Similarly, less than three years after the Nike Free entered the market, Reebok sued Nike for patent infringement over the technology.  Reebok claimed that they patented a shoe which could be rolled up and dispensed from a vending machine.  While the case presumably settled when Reebok voluntarily dismissed the case less than three months later, the financial incentive in obtaining patents on minimalist technology is growing with the market.  Currently, Nike has patent applications for automatic lacing as well as a “tent” athletic shoe, which is designed to “urge or influence” the upper shroud material away from the foot, allowing for a more natural running experience.  While the barefoot movement may be premised on the idea of returning to simplicity, it does not appear to have had that impression on manufacturers.  What are your thoughts?


1. Geoffrey Johnson - September 2, 2011

So if excess weight severely affects running efficiency could you go the other direction and use weights in running shoes as a training device? Maybe I should patent that idea…

Brandon - September 2, 2011

Better hurry up and get on it. Who knows what manufacturers are up to next if Nike has a tent shoe coming down the pipe

2. Peter Stromberg - September 2, 2011

Weighted shoes would be a good training tool. Develop the muscles to handle the greater load and then when you need to, switch shoes and go fast! Very nice article Brandon. I have been on the fence about getting some minimalist shoes and I think it is time.

Brandon - September 2, 2011

That’s a great point. I’m with you on jumping into the Vibrams, they’re too interesting not to try. The Bikila version looks ideal

3. Kyle Froling - September 6, 2011

I got my first pair of vibram’s last year for my birthday, my first “barefoot” shoe and my first run was 4.5 miles, a typical weekday run. The next day I could barely walk, I could feel all the muscles in my legs, ankles and feet that I have been ignoring all those years running. Ive ran up to 15 miles in them since and are now comfortable and feel stronger after using them, but I also feel more fatigued. I have stepped up to the Nike Free and feel these are a great balance. I just ran my first 50K trail run in them and it felt great, I have a 10 mile mud run I’m debating on what to wear, Vibram or Nike Free.

4. Running in Crocs - September 25, 2011

[…] calves are up to it.  Anywho, a great shoe, comfortable and “LIGHT!!!”Related articlesBehind the Minimalist Running Movement (atrilife.wordpress.com)Vivobarefoot Aqua Review: Zero Drop Work Shoe With Fantastic Ground Feel […]

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