As mentioned in “A Tale of Two Races,” gnarly, technical trails are not a reason to bring out the cushioned, motion-controlled shoes. Trail runners seem to be embracing minimalist running, more than their road running counterparts.
There are probably a myriad of reasons for this disparity, however, the fact is that trail running in minimal shoes is not only achievable, but in some cases preferable.
Trail running technique in minimal shoes is not any different to trail running in conventional trail shoes. Hitting the trails in a minimalist shoe has it’s own unique advantages and disadvantages.
So what are the advantages?
1) Increased foot and ankle strength. The hours you have spent running barefoot or in minimal shoes has strengthened your ankles and feet enabling you to handle those trails with potentially less injury.
2) Ground-feel. Having less between you and the ground means you can intimately feel the changes in terrain and react to it
3) Increased cadence and shorter stride length. When navigating technical terrain the shorter stride means you can navigate those tree roots and rocks with less conscious effort.
4) Ascents are easier. The calf muscles you use for a mid-foot landing are the same muscles you use to run uphill. Many minimalist runners claim to find hill ascents easier after transitioning.
5) Running lightly. The tricks you have learned running in minimal shoes or barefoot will enable you to run the trails lightly — a recommended skill for trail running.
All of these advantages can be achieved with learning proper running form and strength conditioning, but when both of these naturally occur with barefoot running, you can see the attraction of minimalist running on the trails.
What are the disadvantages?
1) Running downhill. The lack of cushioning on the heel is the one disadvantages of minimalist running because as you descend you naturally feel the inclination to heel-strike. The technique for descending mountains in minimalist shoes is the same as those recommended for trail running. It isn’t easy to perfect however.
You should increase your cadence, shorten your stride and lean back a little into the descent – almost as if you are running with a jogging stroller. This will allow your body to be above your centre of gravity as you land. If the descent is steep but the trail is wide enough you can lessen the gradient by following switch-backs (running from one side of the trail to the other). If the trail is steep, technical and not wide enough to switch-back, it’s almost a case of hopping down the trail – ensuring you don’t favour one leg over the other— and choosing the easiest path you can.
2) Speed vs. Cushioning. On technical trail you will always have this inverse relationship. If you can’t avoid the hazards in your way – as is the case on very technical trail – you will have to make a decision on what is important to you. The more cushioning you have on your feet the less the obstacles are going to hurt, the quicker you can run. If you are running with less cushioning you will have to accept you will need to run slower so that you can navigate the terrain more and limit any impact. With time your speed will pick back up as the ‘advantages’ come into play.
There are a number of minimalist trail shoes out there and the range is growing daily. Below is a list of the most popular:
Vibram Five Fingers. I used the Vibram Five Finger Flows for my first ever trail race in 2010. Since then Vibram has developed trail specific shoes that provide more grip and more cushioning. The Spyridon LS is their latest offering.
Merrell. Merrell Trail shoes (Pace/Trail/Lithe/Sonic gloves) have a rock plate that provides protection from the terrain whilst the lugged sole provides good grip. I prefer the wider width version of these shoes as they are more comfortable.
Inov-8. Developed in the U.K. for Fell Running (known as mountain running in North America), these shoes are becoming popular with experienced minimal trail runners. The BareGrip series has possibly the most aggressive lugged sole found on a minimal shoe.
Huarache Sandals (Invisible shoes, Luna Sandals, Bedrock Sandals, Branca Sandals). For easy trail, this is a interesting option. Surprisingly trail debris doesn’t get caught between the sandal and foot. Good for a gentle run on dirt trail during the summer — with toe-socks a good winter alternative. Probably not something you could wear on a technical trail, but a funky addition to any trail runners’ collection.