Secret runners’ business: Minimalist running

Secret runners' business: Minimalist running

In an age where life in the office is becoming increasingly complex with our working lives ruled by mesmorising tablet computers and beeping smartphones, it’s refreshing to see the opposite trend taking off in the world of running. This less-is-more minimalist running has captured the imagination of the running public like nothing I can recall in recent times.

More and more runners are ditching their heavy, hi-tech, cushioned, motion-controlling shoes in favour of lighter, flatter more flexible running footwear. Some hardy souls, me included, have even eliminated shoes all together for a small amount of barefoot running. You could probably catch my naked feet in the act once or twice a week as I dart about Gosch’s Paddock near the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

What’s the minimalist and barefoot running elevator pitch?

Gradually removing cushioning, support and reducing the heel-to-toe height differential in your running shoes can help runners improve engagement of key running muscles (buttocks and hamstrings) and improve strength and control of the foot and lower leg during running. In simple terms, being able to feel the moment of contact with the ground enables the body to react faster and switch on its natural shock-absorbing systems (muscles and tendons).

The further bonus is being faster running as your body gets better at capture, store and release of forces you generate in every stride. One example of this style of shoe is shown (right) but there are hundreds on the market.

With demand, supply follows

With interest in minimalist and barefoot shoes climbing it’s not surprising that the demand is being met by running shoe companies large and small. Further evidence of this emerging trend hit Melbourne this week when a major brand, New Balance, launched its new range of minimalist running shoes at the Tan.

I believe minimalist shoes can be beneficial for runners, provided they make any transition in footwear very gradually. So I was interested in the thoughts of leading sports podiatrist Jason Agosta (right), who gave a presentation on the benefits and risks of minimalist footwear as part of the launch.

What the experts say

I compared notes with Jason after the presentation while jogging a lap of the Tan with American ultra marathon trail runner Anton Krupicka, who, as an aside, built up his capacity to absorb 250km of mountain trail running per week by gradually transitioning to minimalist running shoes.

He credits the transition in helping him resolve a series of recurrent stress fractures and generally improving his running technique and enjoyment of the outdoors.

So while we trotted along faithfully Forrest Gump-style behind the soft-striding Krupicka, I learnt from Agosta that while he advocates the benefits of minimalist running footwear, he doesn’t believe every runner should fully embrace the trend by rushing into a completely flat shoe with no cushioning.

The main reason is that after many years of adapting to running in traditional shoes, it may not be possible for some runners to reverse this process without injuring themselves. I couldn’t agree more and while I’m a big advocate of helping runners make steps towards minimalism, it’s all relative to the age, strength, injury history and the shoes they are currently wearing.

So should you embrace the minimalist running trend?

The minimalist trend isn’t without risks. Runners who’ve spent years wearing traditional cushioned trainers must take their time adapting the feet and lower calves to handle additional stretching of muscles and connective tissues and strains placed on the extremities.  A carefully thought-out transition strategy is the way to embrace this trend and obtain the benefits without putting yourself at undue risk of injury.

Conclusion

As with all emerging trends this one has its detractors, with some of the more strident criticism coming from established running shoe companies and their scientific advisors. This sort of polarising discussion hasn’t helped runners make sense of where the potential benefits can be had and how they might go about tapping into them.

A recent academic debate around this topic held in Melbourne got my blood boiling enough to write a critical article that called for less debate and more helpful advice for runners. Hopefully I have offered some here!

(Above: Anton Krupicka and Brian Martin)

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