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Minimalist shoes increase leg and foot muscles, study finds

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New research shows that running in minimalist shoes can increase leg and foot muscle volume.

The study, conducted by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and Harvard Medical School, suggests that minimalist shoes could play a role in rehabilitation after injury.

Dr Roy Cheung, Assistant Professor in PolyU´s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, together with his team, recruited 38 runners from local running clubs. The 21 males and 17 females had a mean age of 35 and had been running for six years on average whilst wearing traditional running shoes (TRS): footwear of heel-to-toe drop over 5mm, with additional cushioning pad and artificial arch support.

Among the 38 participants, 20 runners were randomly selected for a six-month training programme. They were each given a pair of minimalist running shoes (MRS) and a self-monitoring programme including transition exercise regimes such as calf strengthening exercise and balance training.

The 18 runners in the control group received the same training programme but used their own TRS for running.

After six months, the group wearing minimalist shoes exhibited significantly greater leg and foot muscle volume. The study also found a positive correlation between participants´ MRS compliance and changes in leg muscle volume.

The volume of leg and foot muscles in the control group remained unchanged.

As minimalist shoes provide minimal cushioning and no mechanical support to the foot arches, the intrinsic foot muscles (from the heel to toes) and extrinsic foot muscles (from the leg to foot), which function as important foot arch stabilisers, experience greater demands for strength, the research team explained.

The volumetric growth of the extrinsic foot muscles may also be due to higher strain and greater force generation in the posterior and medial calf muscles when running with MRS.

Additionally, runners tend to land on their heels with traditional shoes, and the forefoot with minimalist shoes. Mid or forefoot landing imposes more stimuli to the anterior part of the foot, especially the metatarsophalangeal joint, strengthening the muscles responsible.

Stronger muscles and a different footstrike can help avoid common running injuries such as plantar fasciitis, which results in pain in the heel and the bottom of the foot, said Hong Kong newspaper The Standard, reporting on the study.