Author: Kamila Fontanilla

Personal Fitness Trainer, Seattle Athletic Club Northgate

The Minimalist Shoe

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!

Workout Outside!

Spring is here and there’s no better way to get out and enjoy the sunny Seattle weather than to do so while working out! Don’t snub the outdoors for your routine weight lifting program in the gym. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get a full body workout done sans gym equipment. Plus, think about all of the extra Vitamin D you’ll be soaking up while you exercise.

Another benefit of exercising outside is that it’s different. We are all creatures of habit and often shy away from the unknown. What many people don’t realize is your body craves variety. Too much of one thing is never good. Switching up your usual exercises with an entirely new program not only fights boredom, but also prevents your body from reaching a plateau. That being said, here’s a quick circuit to help get you started with something new outdoors. All you need is a playground and a little creativity. Time to kick into gear, no excuses!

  1. Hanging knee tucks (works abs, lower back, lats, shoulders, forearms)
    1. Grip onto a sturdy branch or monkey bar with your hands shoulder width apart
    2. Keeping your core engaged, pull both knees up towards your chest contracting your abs. Do not swing legs up or arch your lower back.

Tip: be sure to keep your shoulder blades down and back throughout the whole movement.

  1. Pushup knee tucks (works chest, shoulders, abs)
    1. Start in the pushup position, hands shoulder width apart and abs engaged
    2. Bring your body down, touching your chest to the floor
    3. As you push up, pull one knee in toward your chest and back down
    4. Repeat pushup and pull in opposite knee toward chest

Tip: To modify, perform the pushup off of a bench or from your knees

  1. Bench Plyo step ups (works legs, core)
    1. With one foot on top of the bench and the other on the floor
    2. Propel straight up bringing your opposite knee up towards your chest. Jump as high up as you can.
    3. Land back in starting position

Tip: Make sure you push your weight through the heel of the foot on top of the bench and keep your knee behind your toes. To modify, perform the exercise without the jump.

  1. Bench dips (works chest, triceps)
    1. Start with hands shoulder width apart and body right next to the edge of the bench.
    2. Descend down, keeping elbows straight back until arms are bent ~90 degrees
    3. From there, squeeze elbows together as you push your body straight up to starting position, keeping your spine close to the edge of the bench

Tip: Avoid letting your elbows flare out to the sides

  1. Monkey Bar Jump pull-ups (works legs, back, biceps)
    1. From the ground, jump straight up gripping tightly on the bar and pulling your body up as high as you can.

Tip: Momentum from the jump will assist in pulling your body up. The harder you jump, the easier it will to pull yourself up! 🙂

  1. Bulgarian Split Squats (works glutes, legs)
    1. Facing away from the bench, keep one foot on top of the bench
    2. Sit back on your standing leg, pushing your weight into the heel and keeping your knees behind your toes.
    3. Lunge back as low as you can, aiming to get the thigh of your standing leg parallel with the floor.

Tip: Avoid bending forward too much; focus on keeping your chest and chin up.