Why be cautious when starting out in minimalist shoes?

Confused? Good. Barefoot running has become very confusing, and it’s important to know why much of this confusion arises.

Certainly, the amount of information available about barefoot running has mushroomed in recent times. We can read lots of advice from lots of ‘experts’ and then formulate our own ideas about how and why to start barefoot running. The trouble is of course much if this information is mixed if not conflicting. Some people are running in Vibram Five Fingers, Vivos or even Nike Frees and calling that barefoot running; what they say or do may have little value to the person who wants to start running barefoot in its truest sense.

I’m not going to delve too deeply or cover many aspects — others will do that. No, I want to focus on one aspect of barefoot running that can not only lead to injury and subsequent disenchantment, but also fuel bad press and ridicule from the critics of running barefoot.

Yes, there are many benefits, advantages and other positive reasons to be running (or doing some running) without shoes. But there are also plenty of negatives too, and the most obvious are the risks to injury.
Let’s be clear about one thing, barefoot running is not the cure-all for running injuries. Indeed, according to some highly respected experts, there has been a large increase in the number of runners getting injured by running barefoot. Of course, this will happen, many more runners are running barefoot now and therefore injury rates will increase. What is still not clear is whether the injury rates are disproportionately high in barefoot runners; that will be interesting to know when the facts emerge. In the meantime, the crucial point is that runners who are running barefoot are still getting injured. They are getting injured for the same reasons that shod runners get injured, which is largely to do with overloading the body.

The problem is that many barefoot runners are already experienced runners and have an acquired resistance to many running injuries that often strike runners with less mileage and hence less strength in the tendons, ligaments and muscles that hold us together. The experienced runner might also benefit from having been visited by some injuries in the past and consequently learned how to avoid and adapt. But, when the experienced runner begins to run barefoot, they are again a ‘beginner’.

So what has all to do with minimalist shoes? Well, minimalist shoes offer a short-cut to running longer distances ‘barefoot’. When I first started running barefoot, I ran completely barefoot, on the road, for just under 2 miles (you can read an account ofmy 1st barefoot run). The result? It hurt my feet! And, more importantly, I couldn’t do any more barefoot running until my feet had recovered. But it wasn’t just the soles of my feet that had been taking a bashing, every other part of my body that was not used to the ‘new’ running style did too. In particular, and typically, the Achilles tendon and the calf muscles were forced to work much, much harder than they were used too. Fortunately for me, the burnt feet ensured that my body got a rest from barefoot running and its associated changes to my running gait.

Nevertheless — as soon as my feet had recovered — naive, excited and impatient, I went out bought some aqua shoes and ran five miles in them — easy! A few days later my Achilles tendon was damaged and it took a long time for it to recover.

So, even if you are confused by all the conflicting opinions about the pros and cons of barefoot running, be clear on one thing: treat minimalist shoes with respect, they are not a substitute for the slow and gradual adaption your body needs to make whilst you travel into the exhilarating world of barefoot running. Learn to run barefoot first, then use the equipment that helps you make the most of your new skill.

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