Minimalist Footwear and Injuries – Keeping Yourself Safe

We get emails and questions from our readers daily about  health and injuries.

A fractured metatarsal is one of the most common injuries experienced by beginner barefoot and minimalist runners when they go too far too fast.

A common theme: people go barefoot, do great, then hurt themselves getting back into a shoe, and a minimalist one at that. So why’d they get hurt? How can we keep ourselves safe when playing in footwear designed to be “barefoot” and promote a more natural stride? First off, no shoe is truly “barefoot.” Even the most perfect minimalist shoe affects the body. Shoes change the way we land, the way we stride, reduce ground feel (how we interact with the ground) and change how our feet move. The very surface on the bottom affects how our feet bend, mold, or interact with running surfaces. There are 33 joints in the foot, and by affecting just one joint, every other one is also affected (like kinking a link in a chain). By taking away ground feel, shoes don’t let our skin, or our sensory feedback, be our guide. So why all the injuries? Without this feedback, it’s harder to judge when you have reached your limit. Before you even know it, you may have an overuse injury. There is still a time and a place for a shoe. Though I’m barefoot 90% of the time, I can see where you’d want one for sharp surfaces (such as a super-rocky trail), long distances,  racing, or perhaps just for the most basic “protection” on the bottom of the foot. They’re faster on many surfaces, offer a barrier from  the sharp stuff, and make a lot of conditions easier. If your goal is to use barefoot running to improve your stride, here are five key considerations to keep in mind to keep you healthy.

  1. Form – Focus on your form. Make sure it doesn’t change when you go back into a shoe. Some shoes won’t let you run like you did barefoot - they don’t flex right, have a funny last (shape of the

    Take note of the curvature of your shoes and compare this shape to the shape of your foot. Is this a right fit?

    shoe) which curves your feet or toes, or have a big heel - stay away from these. In general, look for a shoe that gets you closest to the ground and lets your foot move most naturally (more on this in our current and upcoming reviews).

  2. Fit – Even a “good” shoe, or rather a “better than traditional” shoe can get you if it doesn’t fit right. If it’s curving up in the front, constricts your toes, doesn’t let your foot bend naturally, or binds your foot, putting pressure or your plantar fascia, no matter what the marketing and sales pitches, stay away.
  3. Feel – If you can’t feel the ground, particularly in cushy footwear, it’s easy to go back to a heavy landing, or even a mid-foot or heel strike. Make sure you’re still striding light in your new shoes. The best way to do this - take off your headphones and listen to your landing. See how light you can land. If you can’t land light in the shoe, find something else.
  4. Increasing mileage or speed – When we’re in a shoe, we’re no longer letting our skin be our guide. There is a natural tendency to increase speed or duration too quickly. This is a surefire way for an overuse injury in or out of a shoe.
  5. Listening to our bodies – Barefoot, our bodies quickly tell us what’s going on. What we need to do different and if there are any tweaks or twinges of pain. In a shoe this is much more difficult. We tend to push hard, go fast, and pound away the miles. Even if we’ve spent a good deal of time barefoot, it’s too easy to veto the body and just “go for it” once we’re back in a shoe. Don’t give in to temptation, instead listen to your body with each and every step.

Your feet know best, but in a shoe they’re blindfolded and it’s hard to stay safe. You need to remain hyper-vigilant and stay in tune with every step. If you do so, your feet will carry you through the miles, almost effortlessly. Focus on these five key points and it’ll help keep you safe and injury free as you dabble in the world of minimalist footwear. Most importantly, trust your gut at every turn. If it doesn’t like a shoe, don’t wear it. If it wants the day off, don’t push through. And if you know something’s up with your form or the way you’re hitting the ground, stop, re-evaluate, or get professional coaching before you tear yourself apart. ~ Coach Michael Sandler