For years now, we’ve been debating whether minimalist or maximalist running is ideal. In the ‘minimalist’ track, there are runners who are training on asphalt and concrete, and even competing in road races. Proponents of barefoot running include marathoners and triathletes who find that they have more stability and fewer injuries when running barefoot than they experience while running in shoes.
Maximalist runners, on the other hand, swear that super-padded sneakers make them feel like they’re running on pillows. They experience less of the road’s impact, and assume that means they will be less susceptible to impact-injuries. Even so, studies suggest that maximalist running changes your gait, making you more susceptible to injuries. That can’t earn a gold-star recommendation from me as a podiatrist, either. So, the only thing left to do is take a closer look.
Heavy Runners Weigh In on the Debate
Over the course of 26 weeks, researchers followed 61 runners. During that period, runners who weighed over 85 kilograms (just over 187 pounds) were three times more likely to sustain an injury if they trained in light weight (minimalist) sneakers instead of conventional sneakers.
Conversely, runners who weighed less than 71 kilograms (156 pounds) and wore lightweight sneakers actually saw their running performance improve without any additional risk of injury.
Lead researcher Dr. Joel Fuller qualified his results with the following statement: “Heavier runners, weighing more than 71 kilograms, also improved their performance in lighter shoes, but had more injuries in that shoe type -- and the heavier the runners got, the greater the risk of injury.”
Co-researcher Professor Jon Buckley added: “Weight produces higher impact forces that increase injury, regardless if this is the result of being a taller and possibly heavier person, or a person carrying a little more weight than average. By following the bodyweight guidelines for using minimalist shoes, runners can avoid unnecessary injuries that result from inappropriate shoe choice.”
Who Can Safely Try Barefooot Running?
If running barefoot intrigues you, should you give it a try? Well anything in moderation can't hurt. First of all, take note of the weight guidelines laid out in the Australian study. After that, my recommendation is to give it a try on a controlled surface, such as a rubberized track, and see how you do. Barefoot runners will say that such a surface is not good and a smooth concrete surface is best. I respectfully disagree. Running barefoot will provide a very significant change in mechanics, so you need to ease into it. Running your regular workout in shoes one day and barefoot the next will expose you to injury.
There are those, however, who should not even attempt barefoot running. People with diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, or other medical conditions that result in a numbness of the feet or a decreased immune system, should not run barefoot under any circumstances. The inability of a runner to acutely feel their surface will open them up to injury, as well as the added danger of stepping on a sharp object and not feeling it. This can lead to infection and puts the limb in danger.
Runners who have very significant mechanical issues or deformity, such as previous foot surgery on bones, clubfoot, injury to tendons, or even extremely flat or high-arched feet should exercise extreme caution if attempting barefoot running. Serious barefoot runners may disagree, but the mechanical imbalance in such feet will be exacerbated in barefoot running.
A more obvious concern with barefoot running comes with various surfaces. A looser gravel surface will run the risk of a more focal issue on your foot. A trail will have a surface of twigs and sharp rocks that can cut and imbed themselves in the foot. Even a safer and more even surface can have errant rocks and broken glass that may not be seen. Any place that you run or walk barefoot must be examined well to avoid such hazards.
As with any new activity, one should proceed in a slow and cautious way. In something as comparatively extreme as barefoot running, caution must be exercised.
And what about runners who have discovered they need the support of an orthotic while running? How will an orthotic work with running in a minimalist shoe?
The answer: It won't! A minimalist shoe usually doesn't have the room to accommodate a custom orthotic and the two just don't work well together. My recommendation for those running successfully in a minimalist shoe is to continue to do so. That said, only 10% of your day is running. A custom orthotic in your casual and work shoes is just as important. This will influence your mechanics during the day and you should even find a positive carry-over effect on your orthotics-free run.