Several years ago, a man by the name of Christopher McDougall wrote a book titled Born to Run.
In this book, he described the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who are now famous for running distances well beyond the perceived capabilities of even the best marathoners, all the while performing these amazing feats of endurance wearing nothing but thin soled sandals.
As the popularity of this amazing book took off, so has western’s society interest in the concept of running barefoot.
Since then the demand for minimalist footwear has exploded dramatically. Every day it seems that major brands are coming out with the next model in the newly created barefoot shoe industry.
The premise behind moving towards a minimalist style of shoe is based on the fact that the human foot has evolved over time to be directly connected to the ground, and therefore the environment. Only relatively recently has this principle been violated due to very thick soled shoes with an added, and unnatural, forward angle (which is discussed in further detail in Born to Run). Considering the foot is littered with both muscles and an extremely high number of sensory receptors, they now have less demand in terms of controlling the position and movement of the foot. What results is a “lazy” foot leading to problems such as knee, hip, back, shoulder and even neck pain. Although it’s rare to see an individual with all these problems at once, many will notice positive changes, however subtle, in terms of posture, performance and overall feel when switching their footwear.
For specific benefits that may result when moving towards a minimalist shoe let’s start from the ground up. As mentioned earlier, the muscles of the foot tend to become weak and tight with excessive use of conventional shoes. When the shoe is removed, all these muscles are forced to “wake up” and start working again - hence why many find their feet are sore when first using minimalist footwear. This wake up call for the muscles occasionally even helps correct foot arch issues such as flat feet (SOMETIMES, not every single time as many will have you believe).
Another benefit is related to how the toes are spread. With conventional shoes, toes are kept in a limited space, typically tightly squished side by side. When barefoot, your toes naturally start to spread which has a significant impact on how your foot quite literally grips the floor. I’ve personally seen performance benefits with greater toe spread in lower body movements as your base of support has now increased slightly along with your ability to stabilize the ankle.
When your arch is corrected and your ability to stabilize the ankle has increased, your knee will be in a much better mechanical position. This means that the way you walk, run, squat, and pretty well every other movement will be more efficient.
When your foot is in a proper arched position, and your knees and in good alignment, you femur will be in a more externally rotated position which then posteriorly tilts the pelvis (from a typical and dysfunctional anterior tilt) and subsequently decreases excessive lower back arch. This is the reason for reported decreased back soreness when switching to minimalist or flat soled shoes.
As we keep moving upstream the pattern of theoretically positive changes continues as all your joints will have a tendency to switch into a more efficient/natural position. Your upper back will round less, neck won’t protrude as much, shoulders won’t be as rounded etc… etc…
All-in-all everything sounds great up to this point and this is where most people are sold on the idea. Although the benefits of training barefoot can be significant, it’s not as easy as simply tossing your shoes and doing everything as before. In reality, if certain steps, principles and rules aren’t followed, there can be a very high risk of causing a negative chain of events leading to inevitable injury and an assured decrease in performance.
If you have flat feet, the problem typically isn’t corrected by solely switching footwear - as in many cases the problems stems from the position of the pelvis. If the pelvis is anterior tilted (which is the case for many with flat feet) switching to minimalist shoes may actually lead the arch to cave in even more which further compromises the issue. In my case this is exactly what happened thereby putting my hip in a poor position and leading to a torn labrum. Not good!
Also, minimalist footwear increases the range of motion demands at the ankle joint. Often times when individuals do not have the appropriate ROM at the ankle, they will compensate somewhere else, typically by externally rotating the foot leading to valgus knees. Again not good!
Side Note: I recently picked up a pair of New Balance MT10 (great shoes by the way) and noticed a warning label that mentions the exact above point.
The biggest issues occur when speed and/or load is added to these faulty movement mechanics.
Many coaches, myself included, have found that running barefoot leads an individual to auto-correct (to a certain extent) in the way they run. Typically the footwear switch forces the runner to adopt a mid-foot or fore-foot strike over a heel strike in order to avoid the high amounts of force transmitted to the joints when heel striking. Sounds great! The real problem occurs when the runner has a lack of supervision, the distances increase beyond their level and/or they begin to tire. Immediately you’ll notice most revert back to heel striking. As mentioned before, this produces massive amounts of force at the knee joint and therefore is the worst possible thing you could do when running. Really not good! If you’re going to be heel striking it’s better to wear conventional running shoes over minimalist footwear. At least the conventional shoes were designed to absorb the impact of heel striking…your foot was not!
Another issue I observe every day is minimalist footwear being used during Olympic lifts. No one will argue that there is a very high amount of force of impact when catching the bar. You’re quite literally slamming into the ground! The fact is even If you don’t have perfect mechanics or the structural strength to support this large amount of force, your body will find a way to absorb it. Unfortunately much of this force will be transmitted to the ankles and knees. When you land hard wearing Vibram Five Finger’s without adequate mobility, strength or proper posture, the arch will collapse thereby leading to valgus knees and therefore high amounts of force in the joints. This isn’t limited to the o-lifts but even slower lifts such as squats, lunges and deadlifts. In all honesty, moderate to heavy loads during Olympic lifting should never be mixed with minimal footwear (lighter loads can sometimes be appropriate) no matter how “functional” you perceive it to be!
Now that I’ve gotten you completely depressed, understand that there is still hope. I’ve put together a few things/exercises/progressions that should be adopted before switching completely to minimalist footwear.
Start by switching to flatter soled shoes such as skateboard shoes or Chuck Taylor’s for both training and everyday life. This is a nice easy transition that tends to produce some impressive results, especially for those with back pain. Meanwhile you may run barefoot on grass a few times per week and build up your total time. This will strengthen and retrain the muscles of your feet without the high impact of pavement. As often as possible, spend time working on ankle and hip ROM before progressing further (check out www.MobilityWOD.com for amazing stuff in terms of flexibility and mobility).
To see if you should move on to the next level, try sitting in a perfect squat position for several minutes (it’s okay if your back rounds a bit as it’s an unloaded movement). If you accomplished 5 minutes straight, move onto level 2.
Bring your minimalist shoes into the gym and try performing some bilateral lower body movements. Nothing too explosive though. Stick with squats, deadlifts etc…
As for running, you may increase the volume and intensity slightly but keep it limited to the grass. If you MUST run indoors, make sure it’s very low volume and intensity in order to avoid straining muscles in your foot and destroying your calves, ankle and knees.
After a few weeks, move on to level 3.
Now you should be at the point where your body handles light sprints, lower distance running, and bilateral lower body movements without beating up your muscles or joints. Now you may slowly add some single leg movements while increasing both volume and intensity of your running.
That should about cover it! Although it’s easy to dismiss these steps and get straight into it, I’ve had many individuals that have made small issues into huge ones simply by ignoring this advice.
Take your time and allow your body to adapt. If you do this patiently, the benefits will be well worth the wait.