While the hard science indicating minimalist or natural running footwear prevents injuries or improves biomechanics may be lacking, my experience as an athlete and coach clearly shows otherwise. As runners, we often are not as much concerned with the latest news from some sports lab or what fad is presented in the most recent edition of Joggers Weekly as we are with what our training journal tells us, how we feel on our runs, and what our race times are indicating. No controlled experiment can mimic an exhausting workout in the cold winter rain, that feeling of power as you charge up a steep hill, or the joy that can come from years of healthy running. Those features of our sport, the most important reasons of why we run, have to be experienced subjectively. You just have to go out and do it for yourself. I think choosing to give minimalist footwear a try is a very similar action, conceptually speaking. Yes, it takes a little time to adjust to running in a more natural shoe like SKORAs, but once you do I believe you will find the following five tenets to be undeniable truisms, rather than merely scientific hypothesis.
Minimalist Running Footwear Can Prevent Injuries If your arm is in a cast for six weeks, it atrophies substantially and loses much of the strength/vascularity it had prior to the injury. If your foot is in an overbuilt shoe for 10yrs of your running career... well, you get the idea. Minimalist shoes won’t be a magic solution for preventing injuries, but they will allow your body to remobilize restricted tissue, strengthen the smaller muscles and tendons of the feet/lower legs (and hips, quads, glutes, etc.), and build a more athletic musculature to enhance your running.
Real Runner Case Study: An athlete I coach was injured often in college and limited to lower mileage weeks than several of our team mates of similar ability. She trained in relatively heavy, traditional trainers with high heel-to-toe offsets and plastic arch plates underfoot. However, once she graduated I asserted that she gradually reduce her daily training footwear until she is now running a good deal in SKORAs and another pair of very lightweight minimalist racing flats. Save for a minor Achilles injury due to an extreme uphill mountain race (simple muscular overload), she has been totally healthy for two full years and has PR’d across the board.
Minimalist Running Footwear Can Improve Biomechanics This is a given. If you take off your shoes and run barefoot, chances are you will find it hard to over-stride, land back on your heels, and run with poor posture. Shoes that best mimic the structural positioning, foot-strike patterns, and bodily alignment one experiences in bare feet will by default improve mechanics to a large degree. The SKORA brand was founded on such an ideal, and wearing more natural footwear is definitely something to experiment with if you suspect you have some minor (or major) flaw in your biomechanics.
Minimalist Running Footwear Will Make You Faster This is a controversial point, and I want to offer a very honest opinion on the matter. It is not likely that if two runners of identical ability were to race on the road, trail, or track, one shod and the other barefoot, that the barefoot runner would win. The muscular cost of running totally barefoot is higher than with some shoes in a competitive scenario (ie- SKORAs, normal racing flats, or spikes), and this would subtract from the barefoot runner’s chances of beating his hypothetical rival as race distances increased. That said, if the barefoot runner had been shod in a pair of similar shoes to his competitor, the adaptations he would have been able to make while training barefoot might very well give him an advantage on race day. His form would be inherently better, his power off the ground more potent, and his running economy far more efficient. So, what can we take away from this tenet? Truly minimalist shoes and barefoot running will not make you faster overnight, but they will improve certain facets of your physiology and training response overtime so that when you do run fast you have the biological tools to do it very efficiently.
Real Runner Case Scenario- Since working to improve his form through certain avenues like functional strength exercises and wearing more natural footwear over the years, a runner I coach has been able to stay consistent in his training and set several PR’s in the last six months while wearing SKORA footwear. Yes, his training has gone well and he is entering the prime of his career (hopefully), but I believe the alteration in footwear has given him that extra push in the right direction to handle harder training sessions and be more consistent week to week. That runner is me, by the way.
Minimalist Running Footwear Will Improve Recovery Time Between Runs This is something that I have found to be true in both subjective and objective situations with runners wearing more minimal footwear. After several months in a shoe like SKORAs, runners often experience feeling more energetic on runs, bouncing back quicker after workouts and races, and being able to handle more volume/intensity than before. I think this is due to a heightened sense of proprioception in minimalist shoes, stronger muscles, and greater vascularity to pump healthier oxygenated blood around the body. Also, I’ve noticed several runners reporting lower resting heart rates after wearing minimalist shoes for a few months, having a higher metabolism for weight maintenance, and even feeling more focused while at work. The feet are powerful things that affect our whole body, apparently.
Minimalist Footwear Makes Running More Fun Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for all runners, wearing shoes that closely mimic our natural gait patterns and mechanics does indeed make running more fun. It adds a new challenge to your training while adjusting to minimalist shoes, can help invigorate your old routine by giving you a heightened attitude towards the act of running, and make you want to run as fast as your shoes make you feel (especially in the case of SKORA footwear). The simple act of running should never hurt you, and you shouldn't ever feel restricted to that clunky pair of “motion-control trainers”. Give minimalist running an honest try and see if these tenet don’t hold true for you. Be patient, and I bet you will surprise yourself at the new freedom you enjoy with your running.
Peyton Hoyal Head Coach- Pulse Racing Team
Note: I reference SKORA shoes a good deal in this article. Yes, I am affiliated with the brand, but there is a very good reason for that. They are top of the line- highly functional shoes that can be used for all training sessions and race distances.