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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Greg Strosaker

Nice interview Fitz, while I follow Runblogger closely I can never read too much of Pete’s writing and thoughts. I am with him on the point that injuries are likely more related to factors other than shoes – be it form, genetics, or something of that sort. I have been fortunate enough to avoid injury to date regardless of shoe selection (and I think strength training does play a big role in that), so I think there are some runners who can success across a broad array of shoe choices, where others will need custom orthotics just to get through a few miles. It is dangerous to try and create a one-size-fits-all approach, and Pete is right in that everyone has to experiment to see what works for them.
I admire Pete’s reviews because they are objective and he avoids being “preachy” in his discussion of less shoe and minimalist approaches. This adds credibility and makes it easy to ask him questions.

Fitz

You’re right about injuries being related to other factors. Shoes play their part, but I’m convinced most injuries are the result of lack of strength, poor form, and bad training decisions. And all three of these factors can be tweaked. I’m going to address the “strength” component of injuries soon. Thanks for the comment Greg!

Raciel

Great informative interview!

I ran into (no pun intended) Pete’s blog after I attempted to ease myself back into my old running shoes after training for two months unshod (using Vibram Five Fingers). I needed to find shoes that didn’t have as much cushioning or stability-control or inches of material between my feet and the road. Doing the research myself was okay, but getting a “second opinion” via his blog was better.

I’ve been on the stability-spectrum of shoes for the past 8 years of running and longed for lighter, faster shoes but my gait wouldn’t allow it. A recent overuse injury-later (thanks to jumping the mileage!), I found information online (from RunBare.com[?] I think it was called) that said barefoot running can help rebuild those atrophied muscles on your feet. When I was well enough to get back on the road, I jumped right into barefoot running and suffered being sore and unable to run for several days (as you can tell, I tend to overdo it!)

In any case, when I finally slowly eased into it, I found barefoot running to be beneficial for someone like me who used to stomp on the road, rather than land light on your feet. I’m not quite ready yet to run races barefoot (or in Five Fingers), though; hence the need to find minimalist shoes.

I don’t think going bare or minimalist is for everyone, either, but at least something that one should try before dismissing it.

Fitz

Raciel,

Thanks for sharing your story – it’s totally true. You have to ease into the transition, it’s not for everyone, and you’ll only find out from experimentation. I hope you found minimalist shoes you like!

– Fitz.

Doug Robertson

I was in the market for new running shoes, was tired of buying new shoes every six months, and started reading up on the barefoot running craze I was noticing. I had to try it. It made sense to me in a very natural way. So I went out and bought a pair of Vibram KSOs and proceeded to overrun my way to injury. Not the shoes fault, all me. I got over-excited with how easy it was to run in them and didn’t take my time. Dreaded top-of-foot pain, nearly a month off, then a slow slow slooooow start later and now I’m back at it and training for my first sprint tri running all kinds of great distances (for me) with no pain. I love barefoot/minimalist running and interviews like this convince me I’ve made the right choice. That and how good my knees, ankles, and feet feel.

Fitz

Doug, so glad you’ve overcome your injury and are back at it! Minimalism is certainly a spectrum and it sounds like you’ve found what works for you. It can take some time to adjust so I’m happy you’re loving it!

Ted Beveridge

I’ve run in racing flats all this year. In 2009 I was injured 4 times. I’ve been injured 0 times in 2010.

Fitz

Glad you found what works for you! What type of shoes did you wear in 2009 and what’s your volume like?

Javier

great read! tried the vff’s, but after two pairs getting holes in them,
I’ve switched to the onitsuka tigers by asics and haven’t stopped running in them. give them a try for a flat/xc trainer or alternative to barefoot.
:)

Fitz

Hey Javier – that’s awesome! Experimentation with a few different types of shoes is usually the best way to find what works for you. I own a pair of VFF’s myself, but I’ve never run in them (yet!). Thanks for stopping by.

Charlene

Thank you for the interview! It is awesome. Time for some barefoot running ->

Felix

I got back into running in last August after a 5-year injury-driven hiatus and soon got injured again, so I did what every runner in that situation would do: blame the old shoes, get new ones, The salesperson at the local running store suggested giving the FiveFingers a try… after an adaptation period when I was running on them one or twice a week plus some barefoot drills, I changed my landing from heel to forefoot, shortened my stride and increased my cadence (still at 170, working on aerobic base to keep bringing it up) and as a result for the past five months I’ve ran 330 miles injury-free. Currently I’m running 20 to 25 miles a week and training for a half-marathon (I didn’t want to overdue it, in the past every time I signed for a program I got injured). Not only that, I’m enjoying running like never before.
I don’t see myself running in “regular” shoes ever again. I know it’s not 100% the shoe, it’s the running form, but minimalist shoes and barefoot running keep me honest and do not mask bad form. Besides they last longer and when they got dirty from running in the rain, they go in the machine with all the rest of the gear and come out looking brand new.
The only negative is that I’ve lost a lot of speed in the process, one day I tried going out and running with my old shoes and doing low-cadence, overstrided steps and I was a lot faster but… what good is faster if I will end up blowing up my knees or my plantar fascia in a month?
People always ask about the Vibrams and I always answer the same, if you buy any minimalist shoe you’re not buying a shoe, you’re buying a training plan. I guess this discourages most people from buying them but it’s true, you really have to commit to your running form to get the results you want. .

Jason

That’s a great story Felix – I’m glad to hear you’ve found something that works for you. Now that you’ve done so much running in minimalist shoes your legs are likely a lot stronger. Your injuries likely stemmed from your poor form, not your shoe choice. If you run in “regular” running shoes but have a 170+ cadence and neutral landing, you have the best of both worlds!

erin mcd

I think a key that Pete mentioned is that you need to do what works for you and not be dogmatic. So many people go overboard one way or the other- claiming that anything other than barefoot is bad, or anything less than max cushioning & control is bad- whatever the case may be. The key is to be open minded and find what works for you. If it happens to be minimalist, then great. If not, that’s okay too.

Jason Fitzgerald

Great point Erin. Running is so individual that what works for one may not work at all for another. Finding that sweet spot is the hard part!

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