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Running ‘free’ of injury

June 29, 2017

Jessica M. Knight, D.P.M., AACFAS, podiatrist

As a former collegiate soccer player and avid sports fan, my life has always centered on athletics. I have continued this passion into my professional career by participating in several recreational foot races each year, including volunteering to provide medical coverage during these races. That I treat a lot of athletes is not surprising then, and I find myself understanding and relating more and more to the competitive mindset of these patients.

In addition to treating athletes, I specialize in the care of complex foot and ankle conditions. In fact, I completed my fellowship at The International Center for Limb Lengthening in the Rubin Institute of Advanced Orthopedics in Baltimore, Maryland and now perform procedures such as limb lengthening, deformity correction and limb salvage of the lower extremity. Additionally, I participate in mission work in Honduras each year, treating children who have congenital birth abnormalities, including club foot, coalitions and fibular hemimelia.

As you may have noticed, running season is in full swing in Chicagoland. Most runners who plan to participate in the annual October Chicago Marathon begin their training programs in June. A number of runners choose to train and run in “minimalistic” running shoes. The “free,” or minimalistic, running style has gained popularity during the past decade. Minimalistic running is the use of limited-control running shoes, which provide protection for the foot while running, yet mimic the effects of barefoot running.

Most would assume that, as a podiatrist who works with a lot of runners, I would be opposed to minimalistic running shoes. However, this is not the case. This type of shoe gear is intended to help the foot function in its optimal anatomic position, thereby decreasing stress placed on other areas of the body, such as the ankles, knees, hips and back, during running. The patients I treat that run in minimalistic shoes relate significant improvement in chronic pain in various areas of the body simply by switching to this shoe-gear type. However, the shoes can create excessive forces across the foot, creating the potential for overuse stress injuries, including stress fractures of the foot. Therefore, several recommendations are in order to better guide runners in use of minimalistic shoes:

  1. Purchase the shoes at a reputable running shoe store. Going through a thorough fitting process for the shoes is important in lowering risk of potential injury and ensuring that a specific model of shoe is correct for your foot type. If the store offers a training class on minimalistic shoe gear, take it and learn as much as possible about these shoes and their appropriate use.
  2. Change to a forefoot striker style. A forefoot striker is a running style in which you run off the ball of the foot. Most commonly, runners strike the heel first. A heel-strike style is not recommended for minimalistic shoe gear. To learn the different running style, attend a class or work with a coach who can train you to modify your running pattern.
  3. Break in the shoes. This is the most important advice to consider before running in minimalistic shoes. The break-in process can take weeks. I advise first walking, before running, in the shoes. Walk in the shoes during your normal, daily activities. This is how I have adjusted to any pair of minimalistic shoes I have purchased. The break-in process allows your feet to adapt to the shoes and the forces they create across the feet. Eventually, you can make the transition to using the shoes during workout classes and training runs. Running in these shoes for training and racing simply takes time.

These recommendations are intended to help runners achieve the full benefits of minimalistic shoe gear, while decreasing their risk for a foot injury.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Knight or refer a patient, call 847-725-8401.

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