In the last few years, there has been an ongoing debate in the running industry regarding footwear. At one extreme are the barefoot and minimalist running shoe proponents who argue that no shoes, or at most, shoes with minimal structure, are best. On the other end are experts who hold that the traditional thick-soled, cushioned shoes are optimal for injury prevention.
Traditional Running Shoes
In the late 70s and early 80s, running shoe construction began incorporating thicker soles with elevated heels. The rationale for adding cushioning in the midsole and motion control features in running shoes was to absorb impact forces and control movement, specifically pronation, of the foot.
This rationale, however, was probably misguided. Cushioning materials in shoes increase overall leg stiffness (Bishop et al. 2006). Some leg stiffness is beneficial to running well, but excessive leg stiffness may be a factor for increased risk of injury (Hewett et al. 2004).
A review study by Richards et al. in 2008 concluded that the prescription of “pronation control, elevated cushioned heel (PCECH) running shoes to distance runners is not evidence-based.”
Additionally, a study by Ryan et al. in 2010 showed that motion control shoes had the highest incidence of injury in their research group, regardless of whether the wearer had highly pronated feet.
There is good evidence that the shoe construction of the last thirty years has not accomplished what it was initially intended to do. Injury rates in runners today remain as high as ever.
Since Christopher MacDougall published Born to Run in 2009, there has been tremendous growth in the number and styles of so-called minimalist shoes. Virtually every major shoe manufacturer and several smaller upstarts now have minimalist shoes.
These shoes were designed to mimic how the foot functions barefoot. Generally, running barefoot will cause a runner to land with a flatter foot (De Wit et al. 2000).
In addition, Lieberman et al. (2010) found that if a barefoot runner lands with a forefoot landing, there is no impact transient (a very rapid rise in impact forces) compared to landing heel first in shoes. However, it should be noted that Lieberman and his group do not claim that heel striking in and of itself causes injury.
Minimalist shoes share the following characteristics:
- They’re lightweight.
- They have a flexible upper and sole.
- They incorporate less or no cushioning material in the midsole.
- And there is a minor difference between the heel and forefoot height (also known as heel drop). Traditional shoes have a heel drop of 11 – 15 mm, while minimalist shoes have a heel drop under 10 mm.
Minimalist Shoe Heel Drop
Within the minimalist shoe category are three main sub-categories:
- Barefoot-style shoe. This shoe is minimal in structure with no cushioning, a zero-drop (heel and forefoot are levels), and the thinnest sole. Examples include the Vibram Five-Fingers and the Merrell Trail Glove.
- Minimalist shoe. These shoes have some cushioning in their midsole, slight or no heel drop, and a wide forefoot allowing the toes to be splayed. Examples include the Altra brand shoes.
- Transition shoe. These shoes are most similar to traditional running shoes but are lighter, more flexible, and have a lower heel drop. Examples include the Nike Free, Saucony Kinvara, and Brooks Pure models.
Currently, neither the minimalist nor the traditional side can conclusively say their method of shoe construction is superior in regards to injury prevention. More and more studies are being done with minimalist shoes, and it will be interesting to see the data.
As a coach, I think most runners could benefit from some amount of running in minimalist shoes. However, caution must be taken in how quickly and how much a runner transitions away from a regular, traditional running shoe.
There will be a wide range of individual variability in adapting to a more minimalist running style. A runner’s experience, ability, strengths, weaknesses, injury history, and psychology are considered.
The choice of running shoe style needs to be part of a well-thought-out training program. If a runner has been relatively injury-free and is content with their performance in traditional shoes, I see no reason to push them into minimalist shoes.
On the other hand, if a runner has had repeated injuries and setbacks with traditional shoes, it may be time to transition to a more minimalist shoe.
My advice would be to first look for a shoe with a wide toe-box to accommodate splaying of the toes during running. This will facilitate the proper function of the big toe. Less cushioning and more flexibility are other characteristics to look for. Lighter shoes will help improve the running economy.
I would be more cautious in regards to heel drop. Going to a zero-drop shoe for many runners will put too much strain on the Achilles tendon and lower posterior chain. Look for a 4 – 8 mm heel drop initially.
Use the shoes indoors during strength training sessions first, then try them for short runs and running drills. Build the mileage gradually. Some runners may adapt to where they can run with minimalist shoes all the time. Others may only be able to progress to using them for shorter runs.
But keep in mind that traditional or minimalist shoes are not a solution by themselves. Runners need to incorporate strength training, multi-planar mobility drills, and technique exercises into an individualized conditioning program that includes adequate recovery and sound nutrition.
Vancouver Running Symposium
If you’re interested to learn more about this topic and are in the Vancouver area on January 26, I invite you to attend the Vancouver Running Symposium.
An expert panel consisting of a sports medicine doctor, physiotherapist, pedorthist, coach, shoe designer, and the podiatrist will be debating the role of traditional shoes vs. minimalist shoes.
Full details and the RSVP form can be found at Vancouver Running Symposium.
Curb Ivanic, MS, CSCS, is a Vancouver-based trainer, running coach, and experienced ultrarunner. He is the Core Running system creator and has coached hundreds of runners from beginner to elite over the last 12 years. You can contact him through CoreRunning.com.
Big thanks to Curb; that was great.
I recommend that you do what you can to make the Vancouver Running Symposium. It looks great.
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