If exercise is part of your daily routine, you are probably aware that the right footwear is essential. As with all exercise equipment, footwear is rapidly evolving as research progresses and understanding human biomechanics improves. Popular athletic companies quickly jumped onto the latest “minimalist shoe” bandwagon producing Nike Frees, Reebox Flex, Vibrams FiveFingers, etc. Minimalist shoes are lightweight, flexible, and provide little to no cushion at the sole. Unlike typical running/cross trainers, the minimalist shoe structure lacks arch insoles, ankle support and does not provide extra “shock absorption” during activities. While these qualities may sound like the opposite of what one may want in a running shoe, research from the past decade suggests otherwise.
Minimalist shoes allow your feet to move freely, assimilating being barefoot. Our feet are built amazingly well and should be flexible and strong by nature. With a shoe that is essentially “bare,” the muscles of your feet are properly able to move, strengthen and better assist your foot in action. The foot has two primary functions: bearing weight and propulsion. These functions require a high degree of stability. In addition, the foot also has to be flexible so it can adapt to uneven surfaces. Supportive, cushiony shoes with thick, stiff soles keep your feet fixed and restrict the ability for them to move around. Over time, the muscle groups responsible for moving your feet begin to atrophy. This weakening of the muscles in your foot and ankle forces other muscles to compensate to pick up the slack. As a result, those supporting muscles (i.e. calves, shins, etc.) become tight and overworked, increasing the risk of injury.
Along with weakening muscles, the ligaments and joints that make up your foot become stiff and unable to maintain the natural arch needed to bear weight efficiently. When the arches in your feet collapse, it causes your feet and ankles to sink inward, known as pronation. Excessively pronating will force the knees and hips out of alignment. This in turn affects the entire kinetic chain and leads to abnormal gait patterns and running mechanics. Excessive pronation, along with poor foot strength and flexibility, are all associated with several common problems including back/knee pain, tight hamstrings, IT band pain, ankle sprains, tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and postural complications.
Much research has been done to find a solution to fix and prevent these common injuries associated with poor foot strength and mobility. Minimalist shoes, like Nike Frees and other similar structures, were developed with the purpose of correcting foot function rather than inhibiting it. As mentioned before, the whole idea of a minimalist shoe is to mimic being barefoot. These types of shoes allow the same degree of flexibility to help improve balance and strength, provide feedback from the ground to the sensors in your feet that provide shock absorption, and yet still have a measure of protection for your feet from the environment (i.e. rocks, glass, concrete, etc.). Over time, the muscles in your feet gradually become stronger and more stable because they are able to fully do their job.
If you decide to make the switch into a minimalist shoe, there are a couple things to keep in mind. Because your feet are accustomed to cushionier, supportive soles, it will take time for them to acclimate to the change. Progress slowly and let your body adapt at its own pace. If you are a runner, don’t expect to jump right into the same mileage at first. Start with shorter distances on level ground for at least the first month to allow your feet, shins, and calves the chance to adjust.
It’s also a good idea to begin running on grass and dirt trails instead of hitting the hard pavement right away. Less cushion in minimalist shoes means your feet will have to more efficiently absorb the impact of running. Starting your transition on softer surfaces will help ease your feet into becoming better shock absorbers. As long as you are aware and mindful about progressing into minimalist shoes, there should be no worry of injury or over stressing your feet. Once your body adapts to the new shoes, you’ll notice how much stronger, more flexible, and better balanced you and your feet become!