Less is More: Minimalist Footwear

When I initially heard about barefoot running and minimalist footwear, I thought it might be a rebellious boycott of big shoe makers.  Like, “take that Nike, Reebok, and Adidas – free your feet and free your mind!”  At first I didn’t pay much attention, but the trend stuck around long enough for me to start investigating.  I was surprised by what I found…

We all know humans didn’t emerge from the primordial soup strapped into a pair of cross trainers – everyone walked around barefoot.  Societal evolution has changed our existence in many positive ways but, with regard to footwear, we’ve gone down the wrong path.  Squishing into tight shoes with high heels, too much support and not enough room for foot and ankle muscles to do their job has effectively ruined many a foot.

Now, for almost my whole career I recommended supportive sneakers to clients to protect their feet and help absorb impact force.  But that was probably the worst advice I could have given outside of quitting the health club and taking up couch surfing!  As I have learned, the problem with certain sneakers (and shoes in general) is that they prevent feet from doing their job.  Feet should sense balance and body position, but that’s shunted when they’re locked down in shoes with too much cushion and support.  So they end up getting weak and can’t send feedback to the brain the way they should.  Think of it this way…you wouldn’t wear a neck brace to support your neck all the time; you count on muscles to hold your head up.  Wearing shoes that don’t let your feet work is essentially the same thing!  Minimalist style shoes can be instrumental in bringing back good foot function.

On the other hand, some people who have jumped on the barefoot or minimalist bandwagon ended up hurting themselves.  I think there are a couple reasons for this.  First, going from a highly supportive shoe to a minimalist and doing the same workout is like trying to go from never running to racking up 50 miles in a week – too much too soon!  Feet have to be retrained to do their job again before going full tilt in minimalists.  If the feet aren’t up to speed, they’re going to pass the stress they should be absorbing to the knees, hips, low back, etc.  So it’s not the shoes fault as much as the dead feet they’re wrapped around.  Minimally supportive shoes have to be eased into and worn sparingly to start.

A second reason why minimalist sneakers could be ill advised is because of long term, irreversible damage to the feet from bad shoes.  Some people may be stuck in bulky sneakers and / or orthotics as a result of years of abuse or even a congenital foot problem.  I’m an optimist, but some feet are beyond wearing minimalists.  This is probably most true for long time marathon runners who have never trained in barefoot style running shoes.

For most people, minimalist sneakers can make a very positive difference in both how they feel and the results they get from exercise.  Mark Verstegen, the founder of Athletes Performance Institute, said in an interview, “Between your foot and lower leg, there are at least 20 muscles and tendons. It represents 20% of the muscles in the human body, and thanks to modern sneakers, when we work out, those muscles are almost turned off.”  Too much support ends up a detriment rather than an advantage.

Tim Ferris, author of The Four Hour Workweek, actually says that wearing the Vibram Five Fingers eliminated his 10-year bout with low back pain in two weeks.  Dr. Thomas Michaud, author of Human Locomotion – the Conservative Management of Gait-Related Disorders, cites research showing that training in minimalist style sneakers helps improve muscle function in the feet and can improve arch function – very cool stuff!

My Minimus trainers

My experience with minimalist sneakers has been overwhelmingly positive.  I have worn a variety of cross training shoes in the past, ranging from the more clunky mid-top basketball style to the lower “speed trainers.”  When I started wearing minimalist shoes, I realized how much my feet used to ache from being on them a good chunk of the day!  Now they rarely bother me and I’ll never go back to traditional sneakers, for work or for workouts.

My Trail Gloves

So, the advice I give people these days comes from what scientific evidence is out there, the advice of other trainers and therapists I respect and even my own experience with minimalist sneakers.  It’s basically this – if your feet aren’t irreparably damaged, get a pair of minimalist shoes and start wearing them judiciously.  Maybe walk around with them for 10 or 15 minutes at first and gradually wear them for longer and for more vigorous activities.  Just as importantly, know your biomechanical weaknesses and don’t assume your body is perfectly ship shape and ready to go.  Most of us have some kind of tightness or weakness that messes with our movement and contributes to feeling beat up or outright injured.  Have a trainer screen you, help you clean up your movement and get back to letting your feet do their job!

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Michael Bento is an Advanced Trainer at the Clubs at Charles River Park. He holds a Masters degree in Human Movement and is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a Corrective Exercise Specialist and Performance Enhancement Specialist.

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