Why is it that everything has to be taken to extremes? I suppose just the term "minimalist running shoe" is an extreme by definition and I'm not quite sure what "barefoot running shoes" are other than an oxymoron. When I see so much nonsense about things that I consider I know a fair bit about, it makes me wonder how much I take for granted when I read about something I know nothing about.
The latest trend seems to be "barefoot bashing" with a whole slew of articles saying something along the lines of "barefoot running is not the panacea we thought it was". I don't think anybody - not even Chris McDougal in "Born to Run" - has ever seriously claimed that running barefoot or in minimalist shoes is the solution to everything and for everyone. They have, however, questioned the claims of the running shoe industry that more cushioning and less flexibility is better and - guess what - the running shoe manufacturers have responded with more flexible and less padded options.
I was passed this article from the New York Times today by a friend. It quotes a "scientific study" in which half of the participants are given a pair of Vibram Five Fingers to run in while half continue to run in their usual trainers. The supposedly clever bit is that the VFF group is told to gradually adapt to minimalist running by only running one mile in them the first week, two miles the second, three the third and then as much as they like after that. After 10 weeks - surprise, surprise - the VFF group showed signs of stress fractures.
What is "scientific" about that? How long does the body need to adapt to running with minimalist running shoes? Can you safely mix running in normal shoes and minimalist shoes or should you train in progressively more minimalist shoes? Is running one or two miles in minimalist shoes enough to stimulate training adaptations such as stronger muscles, bones and tendons in the lower legs and feet?
I can't really say whether minimalist running shoes are the solution, I can only speak from personal experience of my experiment of one. After basically making the same mistake and suffering the same consequences as the participants in the aforementioned study, I first re-learnt how to run on the balls of my feet and then gradually reduced the cushioning of my shoes and increased the flexibility over a period of about two years. I haven't had a single running related injury (touch wood) in over three years since that time I tried to make the transition too brusquely. This time around it wasn't my goal to be able to run a Marathon in Vibram Five Fingers but it became a natural consequence of the direction I was going in.
Would I recommend minimalist running to someone else? Well, it depends. Many people ask me about it and I have a few friends who are at various different points along the same path that I trod: some of them have already found their optimum and are staying there; others have gone all the way just short of barefoot. But they are in the great minority of my running friends. I tell most people that you have to have a very good reason for making the change because it takes a lot of time and patience and therefore a lot of faith. I think it is one of the best investments I have made and am convinced that I am much faster and injury free as a result and, most importantly, I believe that I have done my knees an enormous favour that will keep them going well into my old age.
All this has reminded me of something. When I first started to run (after many years of inactivity) I thought that some pain was part of the training process and that it was not only OK to run through it most of the time but that it was a necessary evil. Now, with hindsight, I can say that pain is absolutely unnecessary - in fact, if something hurts while you are running then you should stop and, if something hurts before, then you shouldn't even start. The runners in the VFF group should not have been given a rigid prescription - after all, everybody responds to training differently - but absolutely should not have run with pain, which they evidently did.