The short answer to this question is yes. If you want a healthier, more efficient way to run and spare your legs and feet from chronic pain and irritation you simply have no choice. Unfortunately this is not something you can dive into and gut your way through it. Even though your feet are made for this type of running, in fact they were designed not to wear shoes at all; wearing over padded, over engineered modern shoes all our lives has crippled most westerners. We are literally crippled, many of the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in our feet are so under used and neglected that they have atrophied and failed to develop fully. Your feet have more nerve endings then almost any other part of your body, but stuffing them into cramped shoes has deadened them and limited their ability to react and tell your brain what to do, how to move, and where changes need to be made. Were we to rush out and buy a pair of minimalist shoes tomorrow and hit the streets we would soon find ourselves in a heap of pain. It takes time to re-train the feet and legs to an activity they forgot when we were toddlers. This takes patience, dedication, and courage.
Modern shoes are killing our feet, and I’m not exaggerating. Despite loads of innovative new technologies, patented gimmicks, and flashy designs today’s running shoes just cannot solve the problem of foot injury. In fact injuries among runners are on the increase and ironically the higher the cost of the shoe involved the higher the incidence of injury. The shoes we have today owe their lineage to that first Nike back in the 1970’s, before that though runners made do with designs we would call minimalist in every sense of the word, many even competed barefoot. It’s no coincidence that in nations where the populations remain largely barefoot or rely on simple sandals, occurrences of flat feet and foot injury are far below the averages found in western and modernized nations. I could go on and on about the anatomical reasons why you should run barefoot or minimalist; I will save that discussion though for the many books and lectures on the subject. Let me just say this, you’re feet are stronger than you’ve been told all your life. If you were to develop the inherent strength and structure of the foot as it was intended you would not need shoes period, and many of the common issues facing runners today from heel spurs to plantar fasciitis would disappear out right.
Before you buy a pair of minimalist shoes whether it’s from Vibram, Vivo, Merrell, New Balance, Inov-8, Nike, or Adidas; you need to spend at least a month working on a forefoot strike in your regular running shoes. Each time you run focus on landing on the front quarter of your foot. Look at the way a sprinter runs, this is the form you’re aiming for. It utilizes the natural spring of your muscles and ligaments to absorb the shock of landing and then redirects it to propel you forward. Your toes become active participants in running instead of just hanging out in front getting stubbed on rocks and tripping you up. Shorten your stride, your feet should stay under you not out in front of you, each time you strike the ground your shin should be perpendicular to the earth, your knee slightly bent and your thighs at an angle to them not in a straight line. Envision your forefoot pushing off of the ground with each stride and then landing lightly again. A good rule of thumb is a good forefoot runner is a quiet one. Run light; don’t beat the ground and your legs into submission. Start out running about a quarter of your normal run this way the first week and no more, and be warned your calves will have an opinion about this style of running at first and that is normal, it shows you were doing it right.
Days when you’re not running walk around barefoot, and work calf raises and barefoot jumping jacks into your weight routines to help strengthen your legs. Another thing; do your leg workouts; squats, lunges, and deadlifts, barefoot or in flat shoes. You need to slowly condition your heel and Achilles tendon to drop your foot level. If at any time you feel a weird pull or pain in your arch or foot, stop, and walk normally. Massage your feet every night especially your arches, you need to loosen up the Plantar muscle here and get it stretched out. As you progress gradually increase the distance you run striking with your forefoot. When you can complete three miles running this way; then it’s time to buy your new minimalist shoes.
Once you have your new shoes you’re going to work them into your routine the same way you worked fore-foot striking into it. Start out running no more than 10-25% of your total distance wearing these shoes, each time; then change back into your old ones and finish the run. From here on out it is very important that you massage your calves and feet every night after you run. It may even be a good idea to ice your calves each night before bed. You also need to keep up your calf raises and foot stretching exercises. Practice lifting a golf ball off the floor with your toes each night. Also stand barefoot, feet flat and flex your toes up and then down a few times with each foot. Do this in your spare time at work when you’re sitting or standing idle. The goal here is to strengthen and condition the ligaments and tendons that raise and lower your toes.
If you buy trail shoes, use them on the trails, stay off the roads. They make minimalist road shoes and if you primarily run on the road invest in some. Also be careful of the material you choose in your shoe. This type of shoe is made to fit closely to your foot and most are not intended to be used with socks. If you prefer socks order a half-size larger so your feet and blood flow isn’t too constricted. There are “winterized” versions of most minimalist running shoes. These are great at keeping your feet from getting soaked by snow, rain, and mud but be warned your feet will sweat a lot in these. It may be better to get a mesh version and simply use wool running socks. Slowly increase the total distance you run in your new minimalist shoes until you can complete your whole run without issue. Soon enough you will notice your feet and legs are stronger and more flexible than ever before and you will wonder how you ever tolerated your old-fashioned cushioned shoes in the first place.
For more information on the Techniques and methods of barefoot running, I suggest you read the books below. The facts inside will blow your mind, make you angry at shoe companies, and maybe even a little hostile towards your sports doctor. You owe it to your body to educate yourself on the facts behind barefoot running before making a decision to dismiss or adopt it.
“Born to Run” by Christopher MacDougall
“Barefoot Running” by Michael Sandler
“ChiRunning” by Danny Dreyer