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Running Without Injury: A Guide to Traditional vs. Minimalistic Approaches

The first sights and smells of spring are creeping out from behind the grey, igniting that yearly feverish desire to come out and play. With rising temperatures and melting snow, it’s the perfect time to rev up your body for the outdoor running season. To help you with your preparations, we’ve put together some tips on how to avoid jogging injuries so that you don’t have to visit us later in the season.

Perhaps with the new spring in your step you are looking to improve your technique this year and want some pointers on how to take your traditional routine to the next level. If this is the case, read on about how to transition from a traditional approach to a minimalistic one in order to improve your time, endurance and of course, minimize injury over the course of the season.

What is the difference between traditional running and minimalistic running?

Traditional Running is the way we all run with cushioned shoes when we don’t think about it. Running shoes designed for traditional running tend to have a lot of cushioning, which encourages runners to run heel to toe with the heel as the first point of contact.

Minimalistic Running is a recently revived approach to running that focuses on being mindful of your technique and how your foot interacts with the ground. It also involves minimizing the cushioning and support in your shoes, to mimic the feeling of running barefoot. The Vibram “5-finger” running shoe has been the most extreme example in this category. However, a more common, safer minimalist running shoe is pictured in the middle below. At its essence, the minimal runner is lighter because of less cushioning, is closer to the ground, and has a lower heel-to-toe ramp angle so that the foot can sit almost flat in the shoe.


Image credit: Minimalist shoe, Vibram 5-fingered, Traditional shoe

The effect of these differences in equipment and technique mainly comes down to the heel. Traditional running shoes encourage a heel-first stride, which increases impact and in the long run can cause injury and joint pain. Because minimalistic shoes encourage a different style of running, the body adjusts to a more natural technique by using our body’s own muscles, tendons and ligaments to absorb the impact. This can help prevent injuries by forcing the body to land more on the mid foot. When you are running on your mid foot you are actually putting the point of contact underneath you, which reduces the impact forces, the amount of time that your foot is in contact with the ground and the amount of energy required to propel you forward. Additionally, adapting your running style to the minimalistic approach can be a good way to improve both your time and endurance, as it brings you closer to the ideal 180 strides per minute that elite runners aim to reach.

Elite runners usually run at this frequency as it forces them to:

  • Take shorter, lighter strides with less impact forces
  • Strike the ground with their foot underneath their body rather than out in front which slows the runner’s momentum
  • Strike the ground with their mid foot
  • Spend more time in the air and less time on the ground, which reduces speed and drag.
  • These four things together = greater efficiency, less injury.

It is important to note that when altering your speed, your strides per minute shouldn’t actually change, only the length of your strides. For a slower paced, more leisurely run, strides will simply be smaller. When you are competing, or want to step it up a notch, work on lengthening your stride, while keeping with the 180 steps per minute (or to make it easier to count – 30 strides in a period of 10 seconds).

So how do you start the transition to a more minimal approach?

After purchasing a well-fitted pair of minimalist runners, the most important thing to note is to take an adequate amount of time while transitioning. Usually about 6 to 12 months is a reasonable timeline for the transition-to-minimal for most runners. Most injuries that occur because of this change occur because people try to progress too quickly to the minimalist approach and do not give their body’s enough time to adapt to the new stresses and loads. They simply do too much too fast. This tires out the ligaments, tendons, bones and muscles by not providing enough time to rest and heal, which eventually leads to injury.

Take the following precautions to ensure a safe switch:

Ensure a safe cool down and warm up period: The body needs about a five-minute warm up in order to increase the body’s temperature, heart rate and rate of breath. At the start of your run, aim to work your way up gradually from a brisk walk to the pace you intend to run over five minutes. Never forget to include a five-minute cool down as well, as this allows the body to release built up lactic acid so that you’re not sore the next day.

Dramatically decrease your daily mileage- If you’re used to running 10 km, save the last 1 – 2 minutes of the run for the minimalist technique. Do this for a week while running 4 to 5 days a week – so that you can have a couple of days off for tissues to rest and recover. Then, slowly add another 1 – 2 minutes at the end of the run every week as your body gets used to the changes in demands on the body. Over the course of several months, you can work your way up to running the complete 10 km with a minimalist technique- without injuring the body.

If you’re just starting to run again after some time off, or if you haven’t run before, start with a walk-run program and run with the minimalist approach right from the beginning. This will help your body slowly adapt to the forces and stresses of running which will reduce the chances of injury.

Increase flexibility in the heel and toes- To prepare your foot, do some “self soft tissue work” by folding your leg over you knee then firmly pushing your fingers and thumb into the soles of your feet whilst flexing your toes back and forth. Do this for 5 minutes, 2-3 times a day to condition the fascia in your feet by manually lengthening and shortening it. The Achilles tendon is another important tendon to stretch for the transition process, which can be done by hanging the heel off the edge of a step for thirty seconds, with three repetitions twice a day.

Strengthen hips, core muscles and legs- Strong hips are an essential component in preventing injuries for runners. Because many of us spend so much of our lives seated, our hip muscles are not prepared for the work that’s required of them when running, which can lead to compensation injuries. As with any physical activity, core muscle strength in the back and abdominals helps with agility, posture and balance. Finally, making sure that your legs are ready to carry the weight of your body as you run through daily strengthening exercises will help immensely. Click on any of the links above for recommended conditioning exercises targeted specifically to runners.

We wish you all the best this upcoming season! If you do find yourself in need of some help, reach out to one of our physiotherapists who would be happy to assist. Happy spring everyone!