Minimalist Running Shoes

So what is the go with the minimalist craze…….

Alrighty…. so what is the go with this big movement into minimalist running shoes?  I thought it was about time that I put up a blog that looks at it from a Sports Physiotherapists perspective.

Personally I have completely made the move into minimalist running shoes/racing flats with all of my running since finishing the Melbourne Ironman earlier this year.  That was a running goal of mine as I felt that I had the clear attributes needed in order to make the move and apart from a severe calf cramp once on a fartlek session I have done it completely injury free….. touch wood!  The calf cramp was simply due to not doing my self massage before the run and clearly it became fatigued as the calf  is loaded up a lot more in minimalist running  shoes.

Now with this blog post I will aim to achieve the following:

  • Highlight the structure (or lack of) of typical minimalist running shoes
  • Clearly highlight when it appropriate to start thinking about making the move into minimalist running shoes
  • What boxes do you need to tick in order to make the move into minimalist running shoes
  • How to make the transition into minimalist running shoes

The structure of typical minimalist running shoes

  • Least possible stability available on the market, that is little to no pronation control or arch support
  • Maximum flexibility in the shoe to encourage natural foot movement
  • An extremely lightweight shoe
  • Anatomical fit to allow widening of the forefoot
  • Minimal sole drop (height difference between the heel and toe) to minimize the interference between the ground and foot
  • Minimal cushioning to increase the foots ground feeling

These shoes fly in the face of what many people have been told you need in a typical runner to support the stress and strains of running.  These shoes are completely at the other extreme of the typical running shoe that has a dual density sole for pronation control, gel inserts and a significantly raised heel for cushioning and can weigh almost twice as much.

Purists would argue that minimalist running shoes needs to have no cushioning, no heel raise and have no physical structure or stiffness to support the foot.  Classically highlighted by the vibram five fingers.   This is why it is critical to understand that just like many things in life there are extremes and if you are planning to move from a structured shoe into minimalist running shoes you need to tick some boxes.

When is it appropriate to make the move into minimalist running shoes? What boxes do I need to tick to make the move?

The typical western foot is a weak foot. By that I mean that from an early age your foot is generally placed in a structured shoe and critical muscles that are needed to make the move into barefoot running or minimalist running shoes are inhibited or in atrophy.  The foot over time gets used to having support and in time relies on it to get by.  That is why I classically see a heap of achilles and plantar fascia pain in the summer months as people get out of their shoes and orthotics and into thongs as it is too hot for closed in shoes.  As the foot, ankle and calf are not used to the lack of support overload of other areas is the typical outcome.

Now I have mentioned this before in previous blog posts…. the key to success is gradual adaptation!  You can start thinking about making the move into minimalist running shoes under the following circumstances:

  • You have a strong calf muscle (that is able to do a minimum of 30 calf raises on a single leg)
  • You have adequate ankle mobility (minimum of 8cm knee to wall motion, dorsiflexion)
  • No recent history of achilles tendinopathy
  • No recent history of stress fractures in the metatarsals
  • Good core, quad and strength around the hips (glutes) as this provides the power in running!
  • Your cadence exceeds a minimum of 85 per foot/minute
  • Your running technique ensures that your foot lands under your centre of mass i.e. your body when your foot lands at initial contact
  • You are an established runner

Now let’s switch our focus to the footstrike…. as a runner and if you are thinking of becoming a minimalist runner you need to become a cognitive runner.  What I mean by that is that you need to develop an awareness of your footstrike.  This can be achieved by placing your foot on the ground and pawing at the ground…. that is, your foot needs to be starting to head backwards relative to your body prior to initial contact.  This will reduce shock and braking and allow the contact point to be under your centre of mass.  Typically this leads to your foot landing flat and close to the midfoot.  Please be aware that there is a huge variety in how people land.  The key features for me are…

1) That your cadence gets up to 90/foot/min

2) Your foot lands as close to possible under your centre of mass

3) Your shin needs to be at 90 degrees on initial contact,

If your shin is leaning rearward you are putting the brakes on and potentially loading up your shin that could lead to developing medial tibial stress syndrome or shin splints.  Now there are plenty of drills that you can do to help develop the points above, but you also need to have the physical attributes that I mentioned above.

How to make the transition into minimalist running shoes?

Now I want to make it very clear that running in minimalist running shoes takes time.  Due to the significant differences in the lack of structure in the shoe, you need to allow sufficient time for your body to adapt to the shoe.  In order to make the change into minimalist running shoes you need to tick the boxes that I mentioned earlier.  That is you need to have the physical attributes and running technique in order to deal with the transition.

Once you have committed to the switch I highly recommend seeing the staff at active feet to undergo a thorough assessment in order to find the correct shoe for you to move into.  They are fully aware that this is a gradual process and jumping straight from a Asics Kayano to a Vibram Fivefingers could be a recipe for disaster.  Some interesting shoes have come on the market recently from Brooks called the pure project which aim to help runners bridge the gap between a structured shoe to minimalist running shoes.

Personally I have used the Brooks Pure project connect shoes and the Nike Free runners to make the transition and it has worked a treat.  Be patient!  This process can take 4-6 months.  My big tip is to start by only wearing minimalist running shoes around the house and to places like the supermarket.  This is where I am a big fan of the Nike Free shoes as they are perfect to wear around town.  I advise doing this for the first 3-4 weeks.  After this period, start wearing the shoe for the warm up only.  Pick a loop course and change your runners over when it is time to get into the main session of the run.  Allow time for the adaptation and importantly time between loading them in minimalist running shoes.  Consecutive days are a big no no early on.  I find that you need to spend more time doing self myofascial release or massage particularly to your calf muscles at this time!  Do it!! Don’t ignore this, they are working harder and need the relief!  Additionally plan to do this transition in the off season, that is when you do not have key races to train hard and fast for.

Now I might wrap it up there before I write a thesis on this…. any questions then hit me up

P.S: Please pass on my email address or internet site details to anyone that you think would benefit from my assessments.  That would be the best compliment that you could give me….

Happy running

Ross Kinsella!!!



2 thoughts on “Minimalist Running Shoes

  1. Margaret Kinsella says:

    Congratulations on the President’s award Ross. Caught up on your ongoing training too and what you are working towards. Bothar slan.

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