If you’ve been in the market for running shoes over the past couple of years you’ve probably noticed that manufacturers are offering running shoes that are significantly lighter, flatter, more flexible, and more “foot shaped”. While there are a lot fewer components (foams, air cells, gel cells, etc) used in these “minimalist” shoes, the price is not so minimalist. They cost about the same as your traditional running shoe. So, what instigated this design change and is it worth your investment?
The modern running shoe evolved significantly during the 1970’s jogging craze from the low-profile flats to shoes offering significant cushioning as well as components to provide various degrees of motion control. The thought was that since running is a repetitive impact activity, shoes providing better cushioning would lessen the impact, offering better protection while running. Increased heel cushion was thought to be very important as most endurance runners and especially “joggers” tend to heel-strike, versus sprinters who generally run on their forefoot. This was the theory; however, at that time there was little evidence to support it.
In 2009, Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, got a lot of attention. The book chronicles his experiences with the reclusive Tarahumara Indian tribe in the Mexican Copper Canyons. McDougall was amazed at the tribe’s ability to run distances exceeding100 miles at incredible speeds wearing thin sandals, without incurring the routine injuries seen among many American runners. McDougall asserted that man has structurally evolved to run great distances and that modern running shoes are a major cause of running-related injuries.
Along came Harvard Evolutionary Biologist, Daniel Lieberman, who studied the force produced by runners who heel-strike, or land on their heel, versus forefoot strikers, or runners who land on the mid-foot or balls of the feet. As his participants ran a course, they ran over a force-plate to see if there was a difference in the amount of impact of barefoot versus shoed-runners. The results showed that heel-striking significantly increases impact. Also, runners wearing traditional cushioned running shoes tended to heel-strike. Additional research recently published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine and in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise provides evidence to support Dr. Lieberman’s studies and conclusions that running with less support, or cushioning, actually reduces impact and improves performance.
In light of these findings, should you switch to flat shoes? Many sports medicine experts say “not so fast”. If you are accustomed to running in traditional shoes then any drastic change could result in injury. A gradual transition to minimalist footwear is the safest way to make a switch. Gradual could take up to a year or more depending on factors such as age and prior activity levels. Also, if you still heal-strike in minimalist footwear you won’t be doing yourself any favors. Before changing footwear, runners should consult with a sports medicine specialist. Physical Therapy Specialists Clinic’s Licensed Athletic Trainers can assess your current functional biomechanics to address any functional limitations and provide you with recommendations towards footwear that is best for you. Call PTSC today at 417-926-5699.