by Rick Kaselj
Traditional Shoes vs. Minimalist Shoes
In the last few years there has been an ongoing debate in the running industry regarding the 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 70’s and early 80’s 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 actually increases 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 if the wearer had highly pronated feet or not.
There is good evidence that the shoe construction of the last thirty years or so has not accomplished what it was originally 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 a number of 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) as compared to landing heel first in shoes. It should be noted however 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 mid-sole.
- And there is less difference between the heel and forefoot height (also known as heel drop). Traditional shoes have a heel drop of 11 – 15 or more 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 the most minimal in structure with no cushioning, a zero-drop (heel and forefoot are level) 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, small 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 or the Brooks Pure models.
Take Home Advice
Currently, neither the minimalist side 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.
In my opinion 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 style of running. A runner’s experience, ability, strengths, weaknesses, injury history and psychology are all factors to consider.
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 proper function of the big toe. Less cushioning and more flexibility are other characteristics to look for. Lighter shoes will help improve running economy.
I would be more cautious in regards to heel drop. Going to a zero-drop shoe for many runners will be 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 stren
gth training sessions first and 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 shoes, whether traditional or minimalist, 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.