Minimalism: 3rd Time’s the Charm

This weekend I was part of The Running Clinic’s Newest Trends in the Prevention of Running Injuries course led by Jean-François Esculier. It was fantastic and well evidence-based. Many things were discussed, but one of the big messages was how minimal/minimalism/minimalistic running can make a runner more efficient and alter characteristics that commonly lead to injury. This wasn’t the first time that I heard rallying for the minimalism approach aside from shoe companies and media. Let’s back things up to when I was first geniunely intrigued by minimalism running.

One of my highschool cross country and track coaches actually ran in Vibram FiveFingers when I was in highschool. I recall running with him as he ran in his “feet gloves” as the cross country team ran the golf course for easy runs. It was interesting at the time, as Vibram’s FiveFingers line really took off for both running and training in the gym. But I didn’t think that it was for me. My coach commented on how he found that his running gait changed to a forefoot strike when he wore his Vibrams. But as soon as he switched back to his regular runners, he switched back to his regular running style. In the middle of my highschool career, my other coach had us run strides and some drills barefoot on the infield of the track. His explanation behind the premise of this new coaching implementation made sense. When running barefoot, we become more efficient, as we shift our weight more foreward, ie. less heel  or rearfoot striking. Our cadence increases and our stride length decreases to a more efficient length. Plus, you strengthen muscles, especially in your feet, that get neglected when running with shoes. Following this introduction, 3 more people have convinced me about minimalism.

1. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
After reading the book several years ago, I was so gung ho and swept away like a fan girl about running barefoot/minimalism. I was very intrigued by the Tarahumara runners. Going minimal sounded magical and I wanted to run like a swift gazelle too. I’m not 100% sure about this, but it may have been what convinced me to try out Saucony Kinvara’s, after having run in “motion control” type of shoes throughout my highschool career. I had always struggled with tight shins in highschool. It wasn’t exactly “shin splints” or “medial tibial stress syndrome”, but similar. And I was close to being diagnosed with compartment syndrome, but it was ruled out by a sports doctor at UBC’s Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre. Anyhow, to keep it nice and short, since I’ve switched to more “minimal” shoes, I’ve never had my shins as tight, where I get to the point that I can barely dorsiflex and must cease the workout. My hypothesis is that I altered my footstrike and resultant running gait (only solution for compartment syndrome as I learned today) and strengthened my feet by switching to Kinvara’s.

2. Dr. Irene Davis’ Evaluation and Treatment of the Injured Runner weekend course
I attended this course when she came to Vancouver, less than 2 years ago. Dr. Davis brought up that my Kinvara’s weren’t even true minimal shoes, as she considered shoes more like the Vibram FiveFingers with 0 toe to heel drop as true minimal footwear. But compared to everything I ran in previously, Kinvara’s were “minimal”, in my opinion anyway. After hearing Dr. Davis’ research and opinion, I was pretty close to looking into training minimal that winter. I forget what stopped me, but I decided to put that idea on the backburner, probably because I didn’t feel like investing in more shoes at the time.

3. The Running Clinic’s course this weekend led by Jean-François Esculier
As we come full circle, here I am. Still rocking the “minimal” style shoes (wearing Pearl Izumi Road N0 only because I didn’t hear good things about Kinvara 4; and wearing Saucony Type A6/Brooks T7 Racer racing flats). Interestingly, even Jean-François noted how he would consider the Saucony Kinvara line as more of a “light trainer” and not a true minimal shoe. His clinical and research experience determined that wearing minimal shoes vs. maximal shoes does not decrease the prevalence of injuries. Minimal shoes will change the locations of where the body is most loaded when running. Instead of maximalist shoes (not limited to Hoka’s beastly shoes, but the typical big motion control, bulky shoes) that load the body most at the low back, hips and knees, minimalist shoes will load more of the lower leg and feet, eg. calves, Achilles tendon, metatarsals. Injury is just caused by maladaptation and too fast of a transition eg. between shoes, training volume/intensity, etc. However, literature agrees that minimal shoes will stimulate more protective biomechanics, such as less impact force and better dynamic alignment of the lower limb. As a result, running efficiency and feet strength will increase, which sound highly attractive to me. Jean-François does encourage running in minimal shoes like Dr. Irene Davis, but like everything, it depends on your goals and your current health status. He has this pdf that is a flow chart to help people discern what types of shoes are suitable for them.

One of the large themes from this weekend is that the body adapts to its stresses. This will include running in minimal shoes, when introduced slowly and progressively. I don’t think that I’ll train to become specifically minimal for this summer, since I plan to race Squamish 23 in a pair of Salomon Speedcross 3. But I’ll surely add in the barefoot strides and drills again, in addition to a slew of foot strengthening exercises. However, in the fall, I plan to try introducing minimalism into my training. Jean-François mentioned how proper adaptation and periodization for the transition into minimal running can take about a year. It starts from say, running 29 minutes in your usual trainers and 1 minute in the minimal shoes. Then, 28 minutes in usual trainers and 2 minutes in minimal shoes. Etc. If that’s the way to safely do it without risk of injuring myself, I think I’m game to try it. Why wouldn’t you want to feel like a smooth, floating gazelle?

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” – Abe Gubegna