Hong Kong minimalist shoe running experiment sets stage for better treatment of heel ailments

Research finds that jogging in such footwear can increase foot muscle volume by about 8 per cent

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:05pm

A study which found that running in shoes with a minimal cushion can increase foot muscle volume by about 8 per cent could lead to better ways to treat heel pain.

The research by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Harvard Medical School found that the 20 runners involved, when running in minimalist shoes, had to land on the front of their feet, which boosted the mean volume of the runners’ external and internalfoot muscles by 7.05 per cent and 8.8 per cent respectively.

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Minimalist shoes are defined as shoes that are highly flexible and include a minimal amount of heel-toe drop, arch support, stack height and weight, according to the study’s lead researcher, Dr Roy Cheung Tsz-hei.

According to Cheung, the clinical significance of the research could be enormous for rehab treatment for a condition called plantar fasciitis, which is the most common cause of heel pain. Cheung said the study suggested that strained plantar fasciitis could be rehabilitated and strengthened by running without shoes.

Cheung said the aim of minimalist shoes was to create the experience of running barefoot.

“We used magnetic resonance imaging to examine muscle volume. The muscle became bigger.” Cheung said.

He said with larger foot muscles, runners were less likely to suffer injuries because muscles could help lessen the impact on bones and tendons.

The study revealed that the muscle volume of the runners’ forefoot and rearfoot increased by 11.9 per cent and 6.6 per cent respectively.

With a running protocol provided by Harvard, the Polytechnic University recruited 38 local runners for the study. An experimental group of 20 ran with minimalist shoes for six months.

Cheung said the training period totalled six months because runners “usually take a few months to adjust to the shoes and the landing pattern”.

Earlier research by Harvard, which is cited in the latest study, showed that running barefoot allowed a person more time to absorb the impact coming from each step. Additionally, barefoot runners took 184 steps a minute compared with 159 for those using conventional shoes.

Wylie Tsang Wing-yee, a participant in the study who runs up to three times a week, said she experienced soreness in the first three months after training with minimalist shoes.

“Now I can feel the different muscles that were used in running,” she said, “I have also been landing with my forefoot more often.” She also said she had never been injured since taking part in the study.

Cheung said the definition of minimalist shoes was “not black and white but a spectrum”. He said a pair of white canvas shoes which cost less than HK$100 and a pair of top-of-the-line lightweight running shoes could both be categorised as “minimalist shoes”.

“We have done research in Kenya {in 2015] where people who have never worn shoes were given different running shoes,” he said, “Simple canvass shoes and heavily engineered running shoes show no difference in performance.”