Minimalist running: is less really best?

Minimalist SHOES are having quite the moment right now, helped, in part, by the success of the Vibram Five Finger shoe. The “barefoot” running shoe has appeared on the feet of high flyers, most notably actor Shailene Woodley, who ill advisedly sported a pair with a designer frock at this year’s Golden Globes. Their popularity, and the resurgence of what many are dubbing the “back to basics” approach, has reignited the debate as to whether minimalist running is all it’s cracked up to be.

Commercially, the shoes are performing pretty well. The industry is already worth a reported £1.1bn and, as of 2011, sales were up by 283 per cent, compared to an 18 per cent drop for traditional running shoes: not too shabby for something many thought would be no more than a passing fad. Whether that’s down to consumers jumping on the bandwagon or people simply giving the big sports brands the one fingered salute as they jump ship to new brands is unclear, but what is certain is the direction things are heading.

Minimalist trainers are an easy middle ground between barefoot running and the traditional styles we’ve become accustomed to. Saucony, one the leading brands in the field, creates styles with soles with stripped down cushioning, aimed at encouraging a “mid-foot strike” – referring to the part of the foot that hits the ground with each stride. The premise is simple. “It’s like riding a bike with stabilisers on.” they tell me. “You only learn how to ride the bike properly when they’re gone.” Trainers, they argue, have become increasingly cushioned in response to our propensity to “heel strike”, leading to a situation where we have forgotten how to run properly.

Until relatively recently, we’ve always run with a mid-foot strike. It’s the thing that enabled us to chase prey and, as Christopher McDougall discovered in his best selling book Born To Run, allows the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico to run at incredible speeds for up to 100 miles at a time. The stripped down soles are intended to encourage people to revert back to this style of running. In other words, the big sports apparel brands are now telling you to ditch the styles that they were tirelessly trying to covince you to buy in favour of a brand spanking new pair that, this time, will “actually” work.

Putting those claims aside for one moment, it’s not hard to understand the appeal. The styles are slick, and are a lot more comfortable than the average cushioned pair. But the big question is: are they really worth all of the hype?

The short answer is no. When I tried them, the trainers felt no different than any other style, aside from the fact that there was noticeably less padding. What made my running improve and my joints less sore were the training tips provided by the Saucony team, rather than the shoe itself.

I wasn’t given the most extreme model to test on the basis that it would likely result in injury due to the huge jump, which proves my theory that technique and knowledge are, in fact, the real factors.

The moral of the story? Forget spending £100 on another pair of shoes – change your running style instead. Excuse the pun but you’ll definitely be better off in the long run.

Saucony’s top five running tips

1 Make sure you have a quality running shoe such as the Saucony Kinvara 3 (pictured), that has been fitted by a running specialist in a running store. This helps to prevent injury and makes your journey more comfortable.

2 Wear the right gear: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. Keep your kit to a minimum to lighten the load and use specialist-running textiles that allow you to breath, transfer moisture and remain at the correct temperature.

3 Remember the three P’s: patience, planning and progression. Start your training patiently; build runs and your weekly amount of training gradually; and have a plan that works towards a chosen goal or racing distance. When you plan and monitor your training progress, running will never become boring or mundane.

4 Focus on quality nutrition and hydration: Our top tip is to never allow yourself to be hungry or too full. Snack frequently, grazing on complex carbohydrates and make sure protein exists in your diet to aid recovery and tissue repair after training.

5 Be safe and have fun: Particularly in the winter months, make sure you’re safe by wearing high visibility clothing. Keep things interesting by finding a friend to train with or joining a local running group or club to share the experience.