The last few years have seen a huge growth in the number of people moving away from more traditional running shoes and making the switch to minimalist running shoes. Both types require a different pattern of movement, with the traditional shoes having highly padded heels to absorb and dissipate shock during heel strike. This type of runner also typically has a loping stride, low cadence and stretches out to land in front of the center of mass before braking, pivoting and moving onto the next stride. On the other hand (or foot, maybe) are the minimalist shoes, which have flatter profiles, far less cushioning on the whole, and they require the runner to perform a midfoot or forefoot strike, with shorter strides, much faster cadence and landing as close as possible under the hips and center of mass. Arguably, this latter style is more efficient as there is less braking during the stride cycle, and since there is no pivot over the hips, there is much less energy wasteful vertical oscillation. One of the problems is that people who made the switch to ‘natural’ running (ie those with minimalist shoes) tend to be worse than reformed smokers, and constantly berate others for continuing to heel strike. This begs the question: should I make the transition to minimalist running shoes?
The Case For And Against Barefoot Style Running
The Case Against?
Let’s consider the case against first. Many people say that everybody runs exactly how they were meant to run. In other words, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. To a degree, this is fine, but it’s worth understanding that a fairly high proportion of runners get injured – to the extent they have to stop running for a while – every year. What is more, this percentage has held steady, consistently, for many years, despite newer and better, and more cushioned and more spongy shoes and technologies being developed. And since all this technology tends to go into the heels of the shoes, it is continually reinforcing the idea to customers (aka runners) that it is perfectly okay to thump your heels into the concrete every time you stride out.
The argument I just made is one I have been confronted with in running stores on several occasions. My situation is one where I switched to a midfoot landing style but stuck with traditional running shoes. It seems to me that, until very recently, the people championing barefoot running – including barefoot-style running while keeping the shoes – were the coaches, sports medics and physios; whereas those arguing against were the traditional shoe manufacturers and the people trying to sell them. Vested interests perhaps?
Well, thankfully, before descending into politics, more recent years have seen many of the so-called ‘traditionalists’ in the industry starting to design and produce their own flatter shoes, which are far better at promoting the midfoot or forefoot strike used in natural running. By the way, if you think you are a natural heel-striker, go out and find a nice hard stretch of concrete pavement or road, kick off your shoes and go for a quick run! Unless you thrive on pain, you’ll automatically switch to gently padding along on your midfoot.
There is still the argument against changing your running form, that it will become far easier to pick up injuries. To an extent this is true, but it’s not because of the switch itself. Rather, it is because of impatience and the fact that people try to go natural too fast. Obviously, different muscle groups are recruited depending on which style you use. So if you ran as a heel-striker for ten years, the chances are your usual pains are knee and hip related, or the occasional bout of shin splints. You will more likely than not kiss goodbye to these little perils by becoming a natural running convert – I know that’s what happened for me. However, you will suddenly find that your calves are starting to scream at you, and your Achilles tendons start whinging and whining. This is because you were hardly using them before! Build up gradually over three months. If you make the switch and on day 1 plod off to run a half-marathon, hey, you’re going to get injured.
The Case For Natural Running?
What I have presented above will also give you some ideas about why natural running is a good idea. It will enable you to get rid of aches and pains and repetitive injury. It will also help you to be a faster and more efficient runner. Just remember that the transition needs to be slow, slow, slow.
Now, does this mean you have to transition to minimalist running shoes, or can you just change your running style but keep the old shoes? The purists (on the barefoot running side) would say you should try and do some running on the beach or on soft grass without any shoes, as this will enable your feet to feel the ground, and help you to perfect your form without any shoe technology enticing you into ‘unsafe’ practices. Personally I have never done this, and probably never will. At the moment I’m still in regular running shoes, but about to make a transition.
Regular running shoes have higher heels than true minimalist ones. Or rather, there is a differential between heel height and midfoot and forefoot height. This is called the ‘drop’ or ‘heel-toe drop’ of the shoe. If you’re a speed demon and wear running spikes or racing flats, then you already have a head start, because most of these have a smaller drop. Pete Larson, author of Runblogger, has written up an awesome article about different drops of his collection of running shoes, where he used calipers to measure the heel-toe differences. My own transition will probably involve getting a pair of Nike Free Run+ (which Pete measured a drop of 7mm) or Saucony Kinvara (4mm).
As I mentioned previously, if you are a heel striker and your calves and Achilles have never had a workout or a stretch in their lives, be very careful, especially if you are used to wearing chunky, clunky shoes with a high heel-toe height difference. In Pete’s collection, his Saucony ProGrid Guide had a drop of 13mm. It will be a shock to your legs to go from a pair of these while heel-striking, to a pair of Kinvaras plus a change to midfoot-striking. Promise your legs you’ll go slow, maybe just 1 mile or so in the early days. That’s why I’m thinking of starting with the slightly higher Nike Run+ even though I’m a midfoot striker already, because I’ve already had some trouble with one of my calves and don’t want to progress too fast.
The conclusion then, in answer to the question posed in the title of this article, is it depends on you – yep, a cop out answer! If you are comfortable and uninjured and have been that way for years, but you heel-strike, then stick with it. You’ve already adapted to that way of running. If you are seriously after extra speed and efficiency, then maybe consider a gradual change to more midfoot/forefoot style, but you might want to seek out a good coach to help you.
If you are always riddled with injuries and you heel-strike, why not have a try at midfoot instead? So you might get injured, but you already get injured all the time anyway. And on the other hand, you might solve all your injury problems.
As for the shoes themselves, if you are going to stick to heel-striking, it’s probably a wise move to take a pass on minimalist shoes as they will have less heel protection. (Nevertheless, I have seen tons of people wearing Newton Running Shoes, which are specifically designed for the midfoot/forefoot method, and continuing to blatantly heel-strike in them.)
For midfoot strikers – either ‘natural’ or reformed heelers – it is probably a good idea to gradually – yes gradually – transition to more minimalist running shoes. They will allow you to feel the ground a bit more (proprioception) and they will let your heel settle to a more natural position in mid-stance; something which will have a positive effect on your center of gravity and how you position your pelvis, and so can be beneficial to overall running form and efficiency.
If you have made the change to minimalist shoes and thank your lucky stars you did it, tell us about it in the comments below. Or if you refuse point blank to stop heel striking and think this is all a big fad, go ahead and give your reasons. For me, making a change in my form led to the best few months of running I’ve ever had, and then I got injured because I’m a rear-foot dragger and thruster, rather than a foot-lifter and placer – too much leg power even with a midfoot strike is still bad running form!
I’ll stitch together some clips and advice about natural running in an upcoming article to help you discover whether it is for you – and I’ll include information on how to do it properly, as I work on some of these aspects myself.