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Treading lightly

Getting the maximum out of minimalism

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If you come into our clinic, you will likely find me in slippers. A sweet pair of sheepskins or a set of beaded aboriginal beauties my mom bought me for Christmas. Slippers or a pair of Toms -- or maybe even just sock feet. I like to switch it up, but I am clearly of the frame of mind that if you are pain-free and your feet can hack it, you should be allowing them to do what they were made to do -- absorb force. By not supporting my arches, I am not causing them to fall, but rather strengthening their intrinsic stabilizers to support them -- hopefully for decades to come.

When bare-foot/minimalist running was introduced as the new big thing, I was intrigued but cautious. These days, many of the trends and fads in the health and fitness world are derived from history. Eat like a caveman (the paleo diet); lift weird weights that are unbalanced (kettlebells); and of course, run like our ancestors -- in bare feet! While these are pretty broad evaluations, and each approach has its benefits, it's important to remember we are no longer built like our ancestors, balance is always the key, and fanaticism, extremism or too much too soon can get you hurt. While running in bare feet may be an ideal paradigm, it just isn't a reality for the majority of us.

So why are we even talking about it?

Because the use of external shock absorbers -- big shoes with thick heels, orthotics, etc. -- has changed our impact-moderating behaviour (how our feet hit the ground); it's no longer our job because the shoe will do it for us. Protecting the small structures in our feet via external devices as opposed to strengthening them can lead to weaknesses in the foot, but it can also contribute to biomechanical changes and potentially injuries higher up the kinetic chain -- namely in our knees, hips and back.

A thick-heeled shoe, which places your heel sometimes up to two centimetres above your forefoot, allows you to run with a heavy-heel strike. This heel strike is sent up your leg like a shock wave (scientifically referred to as vertical loading rate), and places stress on your joints (bad shock absorbers) instead of your muscles (good shock absorbers). The higher the vertical loading rate -- the higher your potential for injury, and the correlation between extremely cushioned shoes and a high vertical loading rate is definite. These runners tend to run "heavy", and with longer-than-needed strides. If that same runner is placed on a treadmill barefoot and asked to run, they often automatically adopt impact moderating behaviours, and with a few simple prompts, have modified their stride altogether.

So we should all be running barefoot tomorrow, right? Wrong. If you aren't already a runner, are overweight, or have significant dysfunction or existing injury, there are issues you need to deal with before you incorporate the minimalist-running model. Ensure your intrinsic shock absorbers are tip-top in order to successfully make the transition.

Because we have all spent a lifetime in cushioned shoes, our Achilles tendons, plantar fascia, as well as bones and other structures in our foot have changed and become less resilient. Even for the strong and athletic body types, the transition should be very gradual in order to not overstress these structures, and a one-minute-per-day rule is a great way to start. Employing the knowledge of a health professional with an interest in the subject should also be a given.

Let's say you are an avid runner who runs 45 minutes a day, three to four days a week. Once you and your practitioner of choice have found an appropriate pair of minimalist shoes that have less "ramp" than your normal shoe (the amount of ramp is another variable that you can progress), add a minute of your run per day in them instead of your conventional shoes. As you progress, you will know whether or not you can speed up or slow down your progression.

In the end, whether or not you choose to go for the minimalist look and feel while running, it is important to understand the proper biomechanics and impact moderating behaviours required in a running stride to avoid injury and maximize training potential. With this insight, I don't expect to see everyone outside running in bare feet, but I would love to see you running without injury and training your body in order to avoid reliance on external supports. I'll see you out there when (and if) the snow melts.


We welcome your questions. Email and you could be featured in a future article. Tim Shantz is a certified athletic therapist and trainer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 D15

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