#161 The #1 mistake runners make with minimalist running shoes - DOC

#161 The #1 mistake runners make with minimalist running shoes

Today on the Doc On The Run podcast we’re talking about the number one mistake runners make when running in minimalist running shoes. 

Yesterday I was meeting with someone who is a sports massage therapist. She does body, she works on athletes, she understands a lot about running biomechanics. She had a really interesting question for me.

She asked me, “What is the big mistake with minimalist running shoes and running barefoot?” And so we were having a discussion about that.

And I have a little bit different perspective than her because she is a massage therapist. She’s somebody who understands how imbalances can be released just with massage. And I mean, if you’re a runner, you probably know this, right? I’m sure you’ve gotten massages, but it’s a different perspective. So it was an interesting discussion with her, but she did ask me very pointedly, “What is the biggest mistake people make?” 

And it really is simple. That was an easy one for me to answer because the biggest mistake runners make when they run in minimalist running shoes is not that they’re running barefoot or that their running shoes with no protection, it’s that they’re over, sort of overzealous about the distance they can run in those minimalist shoes. But it’s really easy to understand how this happens.

Most people who decide to run in minimalist running shoes or barefoot, they don’t take up running and decide to do that in minimalist shoes or barefoot right out of the gates. Most of the people I see, most of the runners I talk to, most of the runners who call me for a consultation and want to ask questions about their injuries, they’re experienced runners. 

They’d been running a long time and then they read Born to Run or they read some articles about increasing their efficiency by changing their running form and they decide to try minimalist shoes to learn how to run with shorter strides, increased cadence, faster turnover, however you want to look at it. And they want to try to be more efficient while doing so. So they get some minimalist shoes and they decide to give it a go. 

Well, the problem is if you’re a highly trained runner and you have a lot of running fitness, you’re basically trained for running half-marathons or marathons. Well, your short run is a lot longer than you should actually run in minimalist running shoes. So most runners that I see, it’s interesting, but I would say that at least 75% of the runners I have seen who have an injury that seems to be related to minimalist shoes and the runner’s actually blaming the minimalist shoes for the injury. Whether it’s a stress fracture or a plantar plate injury or parallel tendinitis or something else, it’s not the shoes, it’s the distance that they ran in the very first run in the shoes. 

And most of the time that run is five miles. So five miles is not a long distance if you’re a long distance runner. But five miles, if you ask most people on the street, “Could you run five miles today?” They would absolutely be horrified at the idea of running five miles because that seems like a really long way to most people. And the fact is, is that if your feet are not used to running with minimalist form as a forefoot or midfoot striker without the protection that is afforded by a normal conventional running shoe with EVA cushioning and medial posting and an elevated heel and all the other stuff that goes into a running shoe to protect you when you’re running, and you go run a really long distance the first time out of the gates, you’re probably going to get injured. You well might get injured and they’re going to need help because you have an injury that’s now disrupting your training and setting you back. 

So there’s an interesting idea that’s been put forth by this guy, Barefoot Bob, who says he wrote a book on running injuries and he’s not … I mean not running, running with barefoot, and he wrote this book and he’s been running barefoot for a very long time, and I agree with a whole lot of things. This guy says, and one of the things he says is that that minimalist shoes are tools for experienced barefoot runners. They are not tools for people who are learning how to run barefoot. His argument makes a lot of sense. What he says is that if you take off your shoes and you go run outside on the sidewalk, on a track in a parking lot, whatever, you will not be able to run far enough to sustain a musculoskeletal injury like tendonitis or a stress fracture because your skin can’t take it. It just hurts too much. 

You have to build up callouses. Your skin has to get thicker. It has to get tougher. That happens as a process over time, so you’re not going to run far enough to actually hurt yourself if you run truly barefoot. So he says people that are learning how to run barefoot should run barefoot, not with minimalist shoes. 

But once you become accustomed to running barefoot, as you build up the thickness in the skin, the strength and toughness of the skin, the bones, the tendons, the ligaments, the muscles that stabilize you, all of those things become stronger as a consequence of that slow increase in training. And then you’re able to actually put on minimalist shoes and go for your runs and not get injured. But the musculoskeletal injuries that happen as a consequence of running in minimalist shoes, whether it’s a stress fracture or tendinitis or some other kind of injury like that, it’s not because of the shoes, it’s because you just run too far right out of the gates. 

Now, trust me, I know so I’m not immune to this. I should know better. One time I ran in minimal issues that had not been used to, that I had not been using. I had stopped using them. I ran 16 miles. I got horrible parallel tendonitis. I actually thought I split the tendon. The whole side of my foot was completely black and blue, huge bruise. And this was four weeks before an Ironman race I had. That by any measure is a total disaster. I did it myself. So don’t feel bad if you’ve done it because lots of people do it. I had a professional Ironman Triathlete email me from Germany and same thing. He was surprised that he got this injury and his first run was 16 miles as well. 

16 miles if you’re really fit, if your Ironman fit, is not a long distance, but it’s way too far to run in minimalist shoes. So is five. You’ve got to be cautious and you have to really think about what your system is prepared to deal with and just because five miles happens to be your short run, it’s way too far if you’ve not ever run in those shoes, that’s a bad idea. So use your best judgment, but always pick a much shorter distance if you’re breaking in new shoes, and particularly if you’re shifting to a completely different type of shoes like minimalist shoes.

If you have a question that you would like answered as a future edition the Doc On The Run Podcast, send it to me, and then make sure you join me in the next edition of the Doc On The Run Podcast. Thanks again for listening!