Minimalist Running Shoes, What You Need to Know

Minimalist Running Shoes a Myth?

About a decade ago, an article entitled Born to Run appeared in the journal Nature. A book of the same name followed. The Born to Run authors set up a website; Biomechanics of Foot Strikes & Applications to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear.

The history of minimalist running shoes

These publications promoted the notion that those who enjoy recreational running should probably be running barefoot. Or at most in what became widely known as “minimalist” running shoes.

For a while, it was an easy sell. After all, it’s an indisputable fact that for many thousands of years our human ancestors did manage to run down their prey and run away from their enemies. And all without expensive, well-cushioned, and elaborately engineered footwear.

The concept that the un-shod (or minimally shod) human foot is perfectly adapted to efficiently running long distances was sold as a basic principle of Darwinian science and philosophy. The idea of running barefoot (or in minimalist running shoes) was well-received, at least at first, among the running community.

The sales pitch for minimalist running shoes was subtly presented

The Born to Run publications and website, at first glance, seemed to be primarily focused on discussions of foot strike patterns.

What are foot strike patterns?

  • It turns out that most of us (about 80%) naturally run with a heel strike. This means that, when we’re running, our heel is the first part of our foot to impact the ground.
  • About 10% naturally run with a midfoot strike. In this running pattern, the ball of the foot and the heel hit the ground simultaneously.
  • The remaining 5% or so use a forefoot strike, in which the ball of the foot is the first part of the foot to hit the ground.
Minimalist Running Shoes a Myth?

Note that we’re talking about medium and long-distance running, not sprinting. Sprinters, of whatever variety, skill level, or age group, always use a running pattern in which the heel never touches the ground.

The proponents of barefoot running (or their real goal, running in minimalist running shoes) linked midfoot and forefoot strikes with elite running and world-class runners.

Their literature referenced the biomechanics of running. They used phrases such as “transient impact”, “running kinematics” “ground reaction forces”, and “running kinetics” to imply that using forefoot or midfoot foot strikes is the hallmark of world-class running.

It was implied that elite runners, with their highly efficient forefoot strikes, were a natural fit with minimalist running shoes. Not only did minimalist running shoes represent primordial elite running form, they were also said to reduce injury.

The real biomechanics of running

When your heel is the first part of your foot to hit the ground, a load of 1.5 to 3 times your body weight is transmitted from the suddenly halted heel, through your unbending ankle, directly to your knee.

When the ball of your foot is the first part of your foot to hit the road, some of that load is taken up by the flexing of your ankle and calf muscles. This, of course, reduces the impact on your knee.

The basic truth is this: The same stress is going to be absorbed by the runner’s body, whatever strike is used. The only remaining question is whether that stress is going to primarily affect the ankle, the calf, or the knee joint.

The foot strike controversy bubbled along for years

But the evidence on foot strikes and injury remains inconclusive. Research analyzing injury rates among more than 1,600 runners shows no difference in the incidence of running injuries between heel strikers and forefoot strikers.

As it turns out, the foot strike issue was a marketing ploy

As the foot strike controversy subsided, it became apparent it was largely generated as a marketing device, designed to promote minimalist running footwear

Barefoot or minimally shod runners are at significantly greater risk of injury

Minimalist running shoes carry risks that runners should be aware of because they have several inherent problems.  Two of the most important to be aware of are:

  1. Minimalist running shoes expose a runner’s foot potential injury from stones, uneven surfaces, glass shards, sharp sticks, etc.
  2. They generally have less cushion and shock absorption, so we have seen a related increase in stress fractures and other stress-related injuries.

For runners committed to the minimalist shoe trend, here’s how you can help prevent injuries

Minimalist Running Shoes a Myth?
  1. It’s generally best to use barefoot running and introduce minimalist shoes for a training supplement on soft grassy surfaces.  The foot needs to be strengthened gradually, as well as tested to be sure it is going to work for the individual.
  2. Evaluate the running surface. Hard, unforgiving surfaces like cement sidewalks introduce increased risk for stress injuries.
  3. Heavier people and those with stiffer, higher arch feet are more prone to stress fractures, and the bones need to be conditioned very gradually.
  4. People with flat feet and collapsing arches are more prone to tendinitis and fasciitis, so strengthening exercises can help supplement part-time use of minimalist footwear.
  5. Minimalist shoes place significantly more strain on the Achilles tendon compared to traditional running shoes which elevate the heel 10-14 mm on average. Stretching and gradual conditioning is paramount.

Vibram is a company that makes minimalist footwear for runners

Vibram also paid for much of the Born to Run research, website, and related publications.  I keep the book, “Born to Run” on my shelf at my office.  It’s a great book that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The flaw in its reasoning I think lies in this:  if the Tarahumara Indians (who are born and raised barefoot or minimally shod, running up and down mountains on dirt trails and uneven terrain at about 140 lbs) can do it, so can I (tall, heavy, runners who sit at a desk all day and then go run on concrete).

Ultimately Vibram was sued for misleading the public

In 2014, Vibram settled a class-action lawsuit. That lawsuit contended Vibram made unsubstantiated claims that its minimalist running shoes strengthen muscles and prevent injury.

Though the minimalist footwear trend has dwindled, many styles continue to be available.

There is no such thing as a perfect running shoe, but you can get close!

Shoes should be chosen individually, based on weight, age, running style, injury history, mileage, running surfaces, shoe history, tightness of Achilles, foot type, presence of deformity, etc.

In other words, there’s a lot to evaluate to best understand the right shoe for each runner.  I would strongly recommend a lower extremity evaluation with a sports-minded physician or physical therapist and take that information to a running shoe specialty store.

What I’m seeing now is lower toe drop shoes with extra padding and shock absorption, like the Hoka and Altra shoes.  I personally struggle with painful stiff big toe joints, and I have been surprised at the success I’ve had with Altra running shoes with zero drop.

There’s certainly been an evolution of running shoes, and I’m interested to see where it goes next.  Though pure barefoot running shoes have mostly been phased out, some positive adaptations have come about from it”.

Why choose University Foot and Ankle Institute for your foot and ankle care?

If you’re experiencing foot problems, we’re here to help. Our nationally recognized foot and ankle specialists offer the most advanced podiatric care and the highest success rates in the nation. We are leaders in the research and treatment of all foot and ankle conditions.

For more information or to schedule a consultation, please call (877) 736-6001 or visit us here to make an appointment online.

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