Posted August 8, 2012

When to Wear Minimalist Shoes


This past weekend my wife and I took off to the mountains for some R and R and to celebrate our anniversary. How did we celebrate our anniversary? With a 10 mile hike around Lake Louise!!

For those who have never been, that’s the Chateau Lake Louise off at the other end of the lake in the picture, roughly 8 km away and 2000 vertical feet below.

The terrain was mixed, ranging from packed dirt to loose shale to small rocks and even indiscernible and unkept trails as we got closer to the lookout waterfall and glacier, making for some trickier footing in some places.

That morning I threw on a pair of New Balance Minimalists that I use for training clients and when I know I’ll be on unstable terrain (different from standing on a bosu). The shoes definitely made a difference when it came to feeling my way through some of the trickier portions and maintaining my footing.

This got me thinking about when it would be most appropriate to use minimalist shoes like this. Now without singling out those who wear Vibrams to do their steady state runs on the treadmill (hint: I totally am), the whole point of using minimalist shoes is to put your feet closer to the ground in order to get more proprioceptive feedback from the surface you’re standing on, making your foot conform to the ground in order to deform and provide the best contact with the surface possible.

The foot in isolation is an incredibly floppy substance. I mean really, it’s just a collection of a bunch of small bones that if left to its’ own devices would just flop around like a dead fish. You can see this in people with flat feet who also pronate like it’s going out of style.

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This is a foot that isn’t getting any proprioceptive feedback and shows no positive adaptations, simply because it doesn’t need to. Face it, the body is great at limiting its energy expenditure when it can, and won’t make areas of the body work harder than absolutely necessary. In this case, since the guy in the video above is used to running on smooth flat and even roads, his foot doesn’t need to conform to the surface in much of a different manner with each step, and the pattern can be extremely limited in its variability, meaning he hits the ground every step the exact same way.

Think of it this way. The foot is a sensory device, very similar to your eyes. Now, imagine if I told you that you would have to use those fantastic peepers to stare at nothing other than blank white drywall inside an enclosed room with no source of lighting other than plain white flourescent lights. Sounds like a barrel of serial killers, doesn’t it? For those of you who spend your days riding desks inside cubicle farms, you probably have a little shudder thinking about this and comparing it to the similarities of your own work space. That level of sensory input is similar to that offered up from walking or running on plain, flat, unaltered surfaces without texture or variation for your feet to conform to and get any kind of proprioception out of.

Using barefoot or minimalist shoes on a flat level surface is the proprioceptive equivalent of being inside that white-walled room and simply staring harder at the walls, hoping they would do more than simply be all white and boring and stuff. If you want to challenge the proprioceptors and stabilizers of the foot, make it think, work, and adapt to the surface it’s on.

One does not simply walk into Mordor……

It’s no wonder endurance athletes tend to get overuse injuries from running on hard even surfaces all the time, and it has less to do with the footwear or how much padding is under your heel or forefoot. If you are doing the exact same thing for 50,000 reps, you’ll probably wind up getting some sort of an overuse injury too. But if you have small variations in position, speed, balance, angle of the joints involved, and muscle activity and coordination, you avoid training the exact same movement pattern and delay wearing it out, meaning using unstable and uneven terrain is better for preventing overuse injuries in lower limbs, and also increases the proprioceptive feedback in the feet, making minimalist shoes acceptable.

What I can’t get behind is people wearing Five Fingers while doing a bike workout, run on a treadmill, run on a street, or while doing drop sets of concentration curls. Performing heavy deadlifts gets an advantage to placing you closer to the floor, as well as when performing rapid agility or plyometric activities where ground reaction time is meant to be kept as small as possible.¬†Essentially anything involving rapid rotation, lateral movement, change of direction, or explosive speed (sprinting) get tremendous benefits from minimalist or barefoot training.

That’s about it.

I don’t buy into the concept that using minimalist shoes on their own will train the foot to function better. This is training by osmosis, instead of using a specific action to make a specific outcome occur, no different than saying wearing weightlifting gloves lets you lift heavier weights. Now if the individual was using minimalist shoes while on varying terrain, I can buy it, but in many situations that concept doesn’t seem to be used, and people wind up thinking their connective tissues aren’t merely becoming inflamed, but more awesome with every tight and tender step on the hard flat level concrete surfaces we have all surrounded ourselves with as part of civilization.

For those wondering, yes, I am standing in the middle of a lake in the Alberta Rocky Mountains, and wearing shoes to help me keep my shiny side up.

Now there are lots of research studies out there showing the benefits of minimalist shoes, as well as research showing they are not the best thing since sliced bread. My opinion is, like in many situations, they are a tool to be used properly, for the right people and in the right situations. Much like using a table saw is appropriate for some jobs and not for others. For me to spend 12-14 hours a day walking around on a hard concrete floor training clients and trying to make my fair share of the population to crank up their personal level of insane awesomosity, wearing minimalist shoes tends to leave me feeling completely beat up through my knees and low back, but surprisingly my feet don’t feel a damned thing.

Only after hiking 10 miles through rocky and unstable terrain did my feet feel like I’d just taken them through a stupidly intense workout that had my dogs barking all night long.


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