Minimalist Running Shoes, Injuries, and Qualifying for Boston: An Interview with Runblogger’s Pete Larson

by Jason Fitzgerald

One of the most difficult decisions a runner has to make is what to put on their feet. There are countless options out there, from bulky motion-control shoes to neutral trainers and finally, barefoot.

How do you know what’s right for you?

This interview with Pete Larson attempts to answer that question and a lot more. Pete writes about the anatomy of running, minimalist running shoes, and how to improve as a runner on his blog Runblogger.

Pete Larson is an avid runner from Concord, NH. He shares his thoughts on such topics as running shoes, running mechanics, and the benefits of living an active life on his blog, Runblogger. In his professional life, Pete teaches courses in Human Anatomy and Physiology, Comparative Anatomy, Developmental Biology, and Exercise Physiology at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH.

This is my longest post to-date, simply because Pete has provided so much great information. If you want to know how to pick the best pair of running shoes, get involved in minimalism, and tips on injury prevention, read on!

Fitz: You’re clearly a shoe fanatic (in a good way) who has experience with a lot of running shoes. With your background and serious interest in anatomy and running shoes, what’s your recommendation for shoes that most runners would like? Are there certain shoe features that the majority of runners prefer?

Pete: That’s a really tough question because shoe choice is such an individual thing, and I really think that’s the way it has to be approached. I’m an advocate for running in as little shoe as possible, but I try not to be overly dogmatic about it (though I have been known to get carried away a bit on occasion). What’s best for one runner might not be best for another, so I’ll say instead that I’m an advocate for greater variation in shoe choice. I think we need to go beyond assigning shoes based solely on pronation control properties and start looking at other things like heel height, weight, etc. You go into most shoe stores in a mall or a big box sporting goods store and you see very little of the variation in shoe choice that’s out there, and thus you have no ability to experiment. Things are better at a specialty running store, but even there you are at the mercy of the knowledge and beliefs of the clerk who attends to you. Some may be very open-minded, others might not.

Another problem with shoe choice is that what feels good in the store may not feel good once you are out on the road. The best thing a runner can do is buy shoes from a store that lets you take them for a test drive or an on-line vendor that allows free returns [Fitz’s note: Road Runner Sports does this through their VIP Program]. One of our local stores lets you do a lap around a city block in any shoe that you are considering, and that helps immensely when making a choice. Don’t be afraid to try something lighter or less controlling, even if it’s just for a test drive. Though such shoes might not be for everyone, many of us have made the switch to less shoe without much problem (see my story here).

Fitz: With increased interest in minimalist running shoes, combined with research that’s showing they may reduce injury risk, should runners still try motion control or stability shoes?

Pete: This is another question that’s very hard to answer at this point. Recent research has shown that assigning shoes based on static measurements of the foot (e.g., arch height) is not effective in reducing injuries, but it’s hard to know if that means that the shoes don’t work or that assignment methods are unreliable. Neither outcome is particularly comforting since many stores use static measurements to assign shoes (e.g., low, medium, high arches).

I also don’t think there is solid research out there that minimalist shoes themselves reduce risk of injury at this point, but what I do find intriguing is that going minimalist often results in running form change to a faster, shorter stride, and can help you to avoid overstriding [landing (usually) on the heel with an extended leg]. New research suggests that this type of stride reduces impact on the knees and hips, though how this plays out with regard to injury risk remains to be seen. If wearing a minimalist shoe facilitates a change in stride to one that produces less impact, that would be a good thing, but it needs to be studied in more detail.

In the end, given the current state of research on the subject, I tend to tell people if what they are wearing now is working for them, by all means keep wearing it. At the same time, I believe in self-experimentation, and trying something less even for short runs or speedwork might be worth a shot. At least for me, my first lightweight trainer (Saucony Fastwitch) led me out of stability shoes and on the path to more minimalist footwear. It’s a scary step to take, but ultimately I had no problems and I’ve never looked back.

Fitz: New runners are often intimidated by purchasing running shoes. There are many options and salesmen are sometimes not very helpful. What is a good process for determining the best pair of running shoes for a beginner?

Pete: As I said above, I really believe that experimentation is key. You may have to go through a few pairs of shoes before you find the right one for you, so try out a variety at first and go with the one that feels best on a short test run. Maybe it will be your ideal shoe, maybe it won’t. Also, don’t be to swayed by marketing gimmicks when comparing brands – every shoe is going to have technology with fancy names built into it, but I think comfort on runs is really the most important thing you can look for. If something feels weird when you try a shoe out, don’t buy it.

I’ve actually found that I can run in just about anything, but my comfort zone is now shoes in the 6-8oz range with a lower than usual heel. It took awhile to find that zone.

Fitz: I’m skeptical of the Newton running shoe line. I know you’ve done a review of the Newtons, but how do you feel about a shoe trying to get back to “natural running” with more technology? It seems like their intentions are good, but I think it’s oxymoronic. Are “actuator lugs” really the way to running more naturally?

Pete: I feel similarly. I like the fact that Newton is educating people on running mechanics in a positive way, but I also tend to be one who prefers shoes with less technology. It’s quite possible to run with a shorter, faster stride and land on the midfoot/forefoot in a shoe that costs much less than a Newton shoe and has a similarly low heel-toe drop (Saucony Kinvara, Nike Free 3.0, or a cross-country flat for example). Personally though, I have trouble landing on my midfoot/forefoot in any shoe that has a heel lift, and I see no reason for any heel lift in a shoe designed for a midfoot/forefoot footstrike (this has always puzzled me – I’d love to know the answer).

All of the above being said, every shoe manufacturer is going to have some feature that makes them unique, and Newton definitely has that going for them with the actuator lugs. Lots of people I know love Newton shoes, but the pair I tried just didn’t work out for me, largely because of what I feel is too large a heel on the Sir Isaac. Again, if it works for you and doesn’t cause trouble, I have no problem with someone using a Newton shoe. The Sir Isaac just wasn’t the shoe for me.

Fitz: A lot of new runners want to set ambitious goals and start serious training immediately. I’m a huge supporter of getting more participation in the sport, but I’m also cautious. Do you think beginners should first develop a general fitness base, including strength and mobility exercises, before they start entering races?

Pete: I’m not one to comment on that because I’m a horrible example. I started running seriously in May of 2007 (I’ve always run on and off, but never with any real consistency or direction prior to that), ran my first race in July 2007, my first half-marathon that November, and my first full marathon in May 2008. In other words, I jumped right into the racing habit and was hooked. I think shorter races can serve as an excellent motivational tool for new runners (setting PR’s is a lot of fun and they come quick when you first start out), but I’d recommend holding off on marathon distance races until you get a decent base under your belt. I think a year was just about the right amount of time for me to build up to the marathon.

I’m also pretty bad when it come to strength and mobility work, mostly because of time constraints (it’s hard with 2 little kids and a baby in the house). When I have free time to exercise, my preference is to run. My body does respond well to resistance training, and I wish I had time to do it more often – I’ll occasionally do pushups and crunches, but that’s about it. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the importance of hip extension to running performance, so I’ve been trying to work a bit on hip stretching, so we’ll see where that goes.

Fitz: I believe minimalist footwear is a spectrum, with barefoot on one end and motion-control shoes on the other end. Both extremes can have risk for injury due to too much support and too little. Is there a point on this spectrum that’s ideal for injury prevention?

Pete: I believe that point is going to vary from person to person. I, for example, have run in nearly the entire spectrum (barefoot to Asics Kayano), and have never been seriously injured (though it’s hard to say how things would pan out in the long term had I stuck with just one shoe type forever). Others I know are injured frequently. It’s really hard to say what predisposes one person to injury and another to be able to run pain-free throughout life, but I suspect that most injuries are more likely related to training errors than footwear. I would again come back to the need to experiment – until more solid data are available, try a variety of shoes and figure out what works best for your individual body.

Personally, I have found some value in mixing it up when it comes to footwear. Because I write a lot of reviews, I have a large number of running shoes. While they all basically meet my less-is-more philosophy, they do vary in such properties as cushioning, heel lift, etc. My feeling is that if I vary force application on my legs by rotating through different types of shoes with different structural properties, I won’t stress any one spot on my body too much. This, in turn, might lessen the chance of developing some kind of repetitive overuse injury. In a way, it’s my way of compensating for the fact that I don’t run on trails much, which I think accomplishes many of the same goals through the variability of the terrain underfoot. I have no real data to back this up, but it seems to be working well for me so far.

Fitz: How do you recommend runners interested in minimalist running strike the balance between training for performance and the lifestyle of a barefoot runner?

Pete: It’s a challenge for sure – anyone interested in making a switch to a more minimalist shoe needs to do so slowly and cautiously. People can and do get injured in the process, often because they jump in and do too much too soon. Things like Achilles tendon strains, metatarsal stress fractures, and other problems are not uncommon. What has to be remembered is that the human body is remarkable at adapting to the forces that we expose it to, but the adaptation process doesn’t happen overnight – the body needs rest and time to repair and rebuild in order to become stronger. If you don’t give yourself that rebuilding time, you’re asking for an injury.

Personally, I started my progression into minimalism by running in Nike Free 3.0’s. I then starting mixing in the Vibram Fivefingers just once a week, and did so for the better part of a year. I have now worked up my long run in the Fivefingers to 15 miles, and have not suffered any type of major injury (probably jinxing myself!). I have even done a few fully barefoot runs out on the road, but don’t have any plans to become a full time barefoot runner. It took a long time, but by using a step-down, transitional approach while continuing to run most of my miles in more typical lightweight shoes, I was able to maintain my training load at a pretty normal level.

Others would say that the best approach is to ditch shoes and go full-on barefoot right away. The idea is that when you run barefoot, your body will tell you when it has had enough. If you listen and don’t try to run through pain, then you can avoid injury. Barefoot running is great for form work, and once your form adapts, then you can reintroduce shoes. The problem I see with this approach for someone interested in performance training is that it will necessitate a period of reduced mileage. For some that’s ok, for others it might not be. As I’ve repeated so often here, it all comes down to a personal choice of what will work best for you and your goals.

Fitz: You don’t talk too much about cross-training on Runblogger. Do you believe other types of exercise, like cycling or pool running, can benefit runners or does specificity preclude other forms of supplemental training?

Pete: I don’t really have a strong opinion personally, mainly because I don’t do enough of anything else to have formed one. The benefit of simply relieving the pounding of daily running could be value enough in and of itself. A lot of my friends are getting into triathlons, but at least for now, I’m going to be sticking with just the running. That may change as my kids get older and I start to look for new challenges, but it’s hard to say for sure right now.

Fitz: You’re currently on a quest for a Boston Qualifier – are you going to try this year for 2011? What’s one piece of advice you have for someone training for the marathon at this level?

Pete: The idealist in me would love to qualify this Fall for Boston, but the realist in me sees that my mileage has been limited due to family commitments (mainly the birth of our son in April). I’m about 9 minutes from a BQ time for the marathon, and I think I can get that down to what I need if I have a training cycle where I consistently hit 40-50 miles a week. Right now, a week with 30+ miles is a good one for me, so I’m trying to focus more on quality than quantity. I’m running well, but not sure how I’ll hold up for the marathon distance.

I’m probably going to run two Fall marathons (Hampton Rockfest in October, then Manchester NH in November), then a 50K in March (my first Ultra). If all goes well, I think my best shot at a BQ will be my spring marathon in 2011. We’ll see…

My best advice for BQ training? – run as much as you can without disrupting what’s important in your life (family, job, etc.), and have fun doing it!

Thanks for a great interview Pete!

Now I want to ask my readers, are you a minimalist runner? How do you feel about minimalist shoes? Have you made the switch to a minimalist shoe successfully? Do you have any follow-up questions for Pete? Let us know in the comments!

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