So many people are asking our advice on running shoes, that I thought I ought to put down my thoughts on the subject. So firstly, let me say that these are my personal views (and those of my wife, and many serious runners I know). Although I do not intend to cite references for all my comments, readers will find hundreds of studies on the subject just by googling ‘minimalist running shoes’ or similar. Our views are based upon much reading, talking to other runners, plus many thousands of kilometers of practical running!
Our feet are designed by nature to go barefoot, and our structure is designed to stand on them in that position. Our feet will splay, spring and provide balance if allowed to do so. Of course, there is every reason not to try and run barefoot in this day and age, and I would not suggest it – except on the beach, of which more later. For fashion reasons, through the last couple of centuries, we have encased our feet in hard leather shoes, with heels which, to one degree or another, lift our heels up higher than our toes. This unnatural position causes unnecessary tension on our Achilles Tendon and on our calf muscles. The 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons in each foot would love to be allowed to do their natural job if allowed!
So, let’s talk specifically about running shoes.
Somewhere in the 60s the big sports manufacturers saw an opportunity to sell more than just old-fashioned ‘gym shoes’, and created the myth that we need to wear structured trainers that encase, support and cocoon our feet. A huge industry grew out of this, and you only have to go into any sports shop to find a salesman (who has never run in his life), keen to put you onto all sorts of machines to measures what type of running shoe will give you maximum support and firm hold. I can do a better job. Place your bare foot flat, without weight, on soft sand (or use coloured chalk on your sole, and place it lightly on a sheet of paper). Then move it to another piece of sand (or paper), put it down, and this time put your full weight on it. You will find a) that the arch has gone down flat b) that the toes have spread out sideways c) that the foot has lengthened. This is in fact, the natural action of a foot when your body weight is transferred onto it. Now, bend your wrist at right angles to your forearm, cup it very slightly, and put it down on a table with no pressure, to simulate the position of your foot. Next, put your weight down on it. Just like the foot, the ‘arch’ will flatten onto the table, the fingers will splay and the whole hand will lengthen. Just like a foot. It’s the rebound from this action of putting the weight on the foot that springs you upwards and drives you forward when running or walking. So, how can this natural ‘spreading and springing’ of the foot occur, if it is solidly encased in your structured Nike or Adidas, with arch support, gel support, firm hold, heel support, and all the other stuff they force you to do with their shoes? It’s a bit like clumping along with a wooden foot tightly strapped into a shoe – all the natural spring and movement has gone. The foot is such a wonderful bit of kit – why cocoon it in such a way that it cannot do its job? Now, let’s go back to the question of the unnatural heels we wear. In technical terms, the height difference on a flat surface between the toe and the heel is called the ‘drop’. It doesn’t matter greatly (within reason), how thick the sole is, the big thing is the drop. Barefoot, the drop is zero. That has to be the ideal. With stilettos, it could be as much as 6 inches! You could have a 1 cm thick flat sole to protect your foot - no heel at all - and the drop would still be zero. Wearing a shoe with a larger drop forces us into heel striking when we run. You only have to watch a slow-motion film of heel-strike in running to realise that a) it will cause stress to the foot, ankle, knee and hip and b) that it is a waste of energy due to the ‘braking’ effect every time you land on your heel. Now watch a young child running barefoot, and you will see that the foot rarely comes much in front of the knee, and that it ‘pushes backwards’ to give propulsion, with the child leaning forward slightly. That is a natural running position, but we cannot achieve it with heels on our shoes ie with a large ‘drop’. This is what we call ‘forefoot strike’, and is what we should aim for, both to avoid injury and to improve our running efficiency. Coaching a forefoot running style is another subject, which I don’t intend to cover in this article.
Innumerable studies have suggested (google them) that this habit of cocooning our feet and running on heels with a high drop, is what causes so many running injuries. I support that view. Structured running shoes have a drop that is often around 14mm (look at the specs), whereas ‘minimalist’ shoes can be anything from 0 to 7 mm. Compare say Nike/Adidas with Merrell/Innov8 and see the difference. In practice, and to be able to wear the particular models that I like to run in, I accept a drop of 3-4mm. I would suggest that anything up to around 7mm is acceptable.
So what do I advise? Well, my first advice is not to rush out and buy a pair of zero-drop Merrells and run 10 km in them. If you have been running in high-drop shoes, then you will have to wean yourself off gently, or you will cause damage. Just google ‘minimalist transition plans’ to see how to do it. But I do recommend you to move straight out into shoes without support (just like the old-fashioned gym shoes we used to have for school) and give your feet the freedom they need to work properly. Whatever your normal shoe size, get soft running shoes at least one UK ½ size bigger – preferably one whole size. Ask any trail runner – we all do that! I am normally a size 9, and I wear 10½ in Innov8 running shoes. Let your feet move freely – I can’t say it enough. Don’t forget that your toes need to splay sideways and forward, and that your arch needs to flatten to provide spring. I would refuse any shoe that does not allow this. If you walk into a sports shop wearing your street shoes and then try on a pair of ‘fitted’ structured Nike shoes (for example) and then walk around the shop, they will give you an immediate feeling of comfort and security. That’s what the manufacturer wants you to feel, and is why you buy them, and regret it afterwards. Buy the ones that take you out of your comfort zone, with lots of room and no support – those are the ones you’ll enjoy running in!
And - run regularly on the beach barefoot. But a word of warning here – until you become used to forefoot running, don’t run too much on hard sand. Stick to the soft sand initially, or you’ll risk injury.
Of course, if you wear flip-flops most of the time – with zero drop – your transition to minimalist will be easy!
Robert Blake (Warrior KK Coach)