A few people have asked me about what type of shoes I wear for off-road running. Is it just a pair of trail shoes? I think the question alludes to needing support in case you go over on your ankles due to the uneven terrain. I did a couple of 18k trail runs in the Lake District a couple of years ago and had a good look at what footwear most runners wore. In the main, the preference seemed to be really sturdy shoes, with the emphasis on support and protection.
I took a slightly different approach. In clinic, I deal with a lot of foot and ankle biomechanics and I also have an interest in running. Around 2.5 years ago I was introduced to barefoot / minimal shoes. I know barefoot and shoes seems a bit of a contradiction in terms. I knew about barefoot, but it's not the easiest concept to grasp when the natural response is 'surely you need support to run on tarmac roads'. The fear element obviously being the impact through the feet, ankles, knees and hip joints. At the time I had been getting little niggles in my left knee or right thigh, depending on what shoes I put on.
I read a lot of research in support of, and against the barefoot approach, which to me was fascinating from a biomechanical perspective. I started to try them very gradually - there needs to be a huge element of restraint here to prevent injury to your calves, especially when you feel great and your shoes feel like you're wearing slippers. I would run really slowly, starting from around 1.5 miles, 2,3....7,8 and so on. After around 10 weeks of wearing them, I put on my traditional running shoes and ran 10k. This was probably the biggest eye opener - I hated every minute of it. All of a sudden it felt as though I had 2 non-responsive, heavy lumps of wood at the end of my legs. I couldn't believe how much I had gotten used to barefoot shoes. Now I would say I wear barefoot type shoes around 95% of the time, my feet and ankles have never felt so good and I've not had so much as a twinge.
I could talk about this all day (and often do in clinic), but there are a few main differences that make so much sense to me. Upwards of 70% of the sensory feedback to the brain comes from the feet. So if we put on a fairly bulky shoe with a rigid sole, that percentage significantly reduces. Also, the smaller stabilising muscles in the feet and ankles don't work as hard as they should, so become weaker.
Your whole posture changes with barefoot shoes. For most people, a traditional running shoe encourages most people to heel strike, which isn't a natural phenomenon. The heel should actually be the last part of the foot to touch the ground when running. So, barefoot encourages shorter stride, quicker leg speed and a more natural upright posture. Overall, it's easier on your body and doesn't require any support in your shoes. It is important to note however, that your feet should be comfortable in the footwear. Having tried various barefoot trail shoes, the ones I use are close to barefoot so that I can feel what's under my feet, but with enough protection from sharp stones.
If anyone would like more info on the barefoot approach, please email balance and I'll forward it on to you.