Part 1: Introduction
As a runner, you would almost have to be living as a hermit to not have heard about minimalist and/or barefoot running (however, if you were a hermit, you would probably be running barefoot, so there lies the conundrum). Initially, a lot of people viewed minimalist running simply as a trend that would eventually die out, however this has not been the case. This ‘type’ of running continues to become increasingly popular; with more and more of the major running shoe companies starting to bring out their own minimalist lines.
The problem with an expanding niche like minimalist running is the fact that there is such a huge variety of information (good and bad) out there, that it can make it quite hard to know what to make of it all. This series intends to present the known and unknowns of minimalist running in an as evidence based and non-biased (ill do my best, I promise!) way as possible, so that you the reader/runner/skeptic/etc. can make an informed decision on what minimalist running means to you. Enjoy!
Minimalist running was thrust into the spotlight after Daniel Lieberman and colleagues published a paper entitled ‘Footstrike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners’ in 2010. Lieberman, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard argued that selective pressures placed on human beings around 2 million years ago in the African savannah forced humans to evolve into the best endurance running animals on the planet. The paper presents findings that illustrate how habitually barefoot runners tend to naturally adopt a mid-foot strike (MFS) or fore-foot strike (FFS) as oppose to habitually shod runners mainly adopting a rear-foot strike (RFS). The paper goes on further to demonstrate that a FFS and MFS is associated with a decreased rate of impact on the foot, when compared with a RFS. These findings sent the running world into a spin and have subsequently become the launch platform for the hundreds of minimal running papers published since this article was released in nature in 2010. Some also credit this paper for the huge growth in the minimalist/barefoot running market.
Robbins and Hanna – Ahead of the times?
Those who have delved deeper into the early research regarding minimalist running will be familiar with the paper by Robbins and Hanna published in 1987 entitled ‘Running related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations’. It was these researchers belief that if runners musculoskeletal and neurological systems could adapt to barefoot activity it could have the potential effect to decrease the risk/rate of running related injury. By the end of a 2-3 month barefoot adaptation and training program the researchers found that there was a significant difference in the size and shape of the participants arch. The researchers also reported that the skin of the foot is far stronger than anywhere else in the body. These two findings lead the authors to hypothesize that such features found in humans point to the fact that we could and perhaps should run barefoot. Robbins and Hanna, plus others, went on to publish other articles on the topic of minimalist running including investigating the potential for typical athletic footwear to be unsafe due to perceptual illusions and how athletic footwear can affect the balance of men.
These studies were by no means perfect, and the results led largely to hypotheses rather than proof of anything, but regardless, they were excellent papers to get the ball rolling (pun-intended) for research in the field of minimalist and barefoot running. However, it seems strange that after all this research was done during the 80’s and 90’s, it seemed to be shelved up until only very recently. Maybe it has something to do with that internet thing that everybody uses?
Why has barefoot / minimalist running become so popular?
Not an easy question. Probably for a number of reasons, some people really like the raw, primitive feeling of running with no outside support on their feet, the potential for injury prevention I think is a big draw card, and of course there is fact that it has become trendy. Regardless of the reasons of why it is so popular (something that we will discuss in future posts), it is a constantly expanding field that even for the people in the know can be hard to keep up with at times.
Future Minimalist/Barefoot series topics
Hopefully we can cover all the major topics regarding minimalist running, as clearly and concisely as possible over the coming weeks and months. These will include:
- The differences between barefoot and shod running
- The potential for injury prevention and injury causation in barefoot running
- The current state of research in the field of minimalist running
- How it is changing the practices in running and manual therapy
- Ideas for future research
- My experiences of conducting research in the field
As always, I’m happy to write about and discuss any other ideas that people may have in mind.
Dr Nicholas Tripodi
Osteopath and Lower Limb Biomechanics Rehabilitation practitioner
Melbourne Osteopathy Sports Injury Centre