Why embrace minimalism? Minimalist shoes can help you achieve a more natural running stride. Why is this important? Many biomechanics gurus are finding that a more natural running stride can decrease your impact by over one third and therefore, in theory, decrease running injuries. What I have found is that it can help you find a faster, more balanced, stream lined version of you or what can be described as your running zen.
Running zen is a total state of focus that is a fusion of body and mind while running. Your goal is to develop your natural stride, which in most experienced runners, leads to being fitter, faster and staying injury-free.
Your most efficient foot strike is one that lands exactly below your center of gravity, which is usually right below your hips in a mid-to-forefoot fashion, slightly towards your fifth toe. As you land, your foot rolls slightly inwards and propulses off your big toe. This slight roll is normal pronation and is meant to cushion the running stride. Excessive pronation is the effect of weak foot intrinsics and lower leg muscles, and is the main cause of many overuse injuries common to runners. This abnormal pronation is often mitigated by stability running shoes and orthotics, but a better long-term approach in healthy athletes should be to strengthen the underlying muscular weakness. Stronger lower leg and intrinsic foot muscles coupled with a stronger core, flexibility and better proprioception can diminish many of these abnormal forces and reduce injury recurrance.
A motion control shoe works to alleviate abnormal pronation and does a great job stabilizing your foot, especially after an injury; but it does little to strengthen the key muscles and ligaments of your feet.
A highly cushioned shoe may overprotect your foot from the stress of the road, preventing natural strengthening while you build mileage.
So, should we all go back to the ballerina flat looking shoes we wore in the seventies? Unfortunately I remember them well and the tibial stress fractures that occurred while I was in high school. No, old school is not the answer; but perhaps a happy medium.
A minimalist shoe guides your foot into a more natural stride by providing cushioning and flexibility, but does not elevate the heel to increase pronatory forces. It allows a shorter stride and softer landing, while encouraging mid-to-forefoot striking to help you manage your impact. It also allows for intrinsic strengthening while you build your mileage and hopefully puts you on the road to finding your sweet spot in your stride.
Who shouldn't try a minimalist approach? Those runners with severe foot deformities or significant arthritis. As well as people with nerve issues like diabetic neuropathy. As for the rest of the running world, a caution sign should go up here.
A side note of caution to anyone trying to go "less is more." When you begin to run with less shoe than you have gotten used to, it is important to realize that your stride is now very different, and you have to relearn the fundamentals of running. Please avoid the "too much, too soon, too fast" syndrome that can sideline even the most cautious of runners.
A better approach to minimalism is to realize that your feet are weak in their current state and you need to add a foot and leg strengthening program to your current regimen. A strong core is imperative for good, efficient running form. The stronger the core, the longer you can hold good posture as you run down the road in search of your zen.