Running: should I choose minimalist shoes?
In recent years, many runners have embraced “minimalist” shoes. This type of footwear offers basic support and favours natural foot movements – similar to barefoot running – while providing a certain amount of protection. These shoes’ popularity stems from recent studies suggesting that barefoot running may reduce injuries and improve running form and overall performance.
Minimalist footwear and injury risk
To date, no study has directly assessed the risk of injury associated with using minimalist shoes. However, there is consensus on the lessening of impact forces on lower-leg joints while running; with their much thinner padding, minimalist shoes encourage a forefoot strike and reduce the dorsiflexion angle of the ankle by 40% when the foot strikes the ground, which limits the risk of injury and protects joints, in particular the knee.
The Running Clinic reports that the more minimalist a shoe’s construction, the less stress on the knees, hips and back. As a result, wearing this type of shoe can limit long-term degenerative damage to the entire body due to the minimization of impact forces transmitted through the heels. In addition, decreased impact forces lead to enhanced calf musculature, thus allowing for proper absorption with each stride. However, since minimalist shoes require greater effort from the Achilles tendon and foot, a taxing training schedule may cause excessive calf contractions and could result in tendinitis in the Achilles and posterior tibial tendons.
As with other types of training, safe running should be practiced by gradually increasing the number, distance, and speed of training sessions. The choice of footwear is only one factor in preventing running injuries.
Run properly before running minimalistically!
Despite the tremendous popularity of minimalist footwear, there are a few prerequisites for its use. Runners must learn good running form before opting for this type of shoe. On its own, minimizing interference between the foot and the ground is insufficient to induce the biomechanical corrections to running form that are required to properly protect the skeleton from injury.
Another school of thought claims that before wearing minimalist shoes, runners need specific physical attributes, including an appropriate range of motion in terms of ankle dorsiflexion and hallux extension, optimal muscle strength and endurance, and good proprioception.
Ensuring the transition to minimalist shoes is smooth and progressive will enable your body to adapt gradually and enhance the biomechanical optimization these shoes will provide.
Impact on running form and performance
Minimalist shoes are more flexible and lightweight, less restrictive on foot movements, and provide better ground feedback that their traditional counterparts. In turn, this improves biomechanical adaptation and better solidifies the structures of the foot.
While most manufacturers of minimalist shoes claim that their products promote a more natural running stride, no scientific study has validated these claims. However, it’s clear that unlike more massive maximalist shoes, this footwear is specifically designed and manufactured to encourage a forefoot strike. These characteristics also have an impact on running speed and pace.
Shoes which simulate barefoot running promote faster running speeds. This is primarily due to their lightness and effect on ankle position as the foot strikes the ground. As a result, runners wishing to improve their results should consider wearing minimalist shoes.
Minimalist shoes: an informed – but not mandatory – choice to improve performance
Runners wishing to transition to minimalist shoes should do so gradually and prudently, and discontinue their use if pain ensues.
Without a doubt, one of the most important aspects in preventing running injuries is the quantification of mechanical stress. Running form, footwear, training program, running surface, and preparing tissues for effort are all crucial factors which affect this stress as well as how your tissues respond to it.
Despite the many available technologies on the market, minimalist footwear cannot fully reproduce barefoot running, mainly because of the differences in biomechanics and the energy demands associated with this type of running. Consequently, and regardless of the footwear you ultimately choose, make sure your shoes are well-fitted, streamlined and low, free of outlandish technology, provide good ground feedback, and designed specifically for your sport.
If you have any questions, contact one of our physiotherapists.
By Florence Arscott-Gauvin, physiotherapist
Bonacci, J. Running in a minimalist and lightweight shoe is not the same as running barefoot: A biomechanical review, Br J Sports Med, 2013
Donald, L. Lower Extremity Biomechanics and Self-Reported Foot-Strike Patterns Among Runners in Traditional and Minimalist Shoes, Journal of Athletic Training, 2015
Dubois, Blaise, B.SC. Préalables minimalistes et Prévention des blessures en course à pied, La clinique du coureur, 18 avril 2017
Gervais-Hupé, Jonathan, Pht, FMAPT cert. physio sport. Les blessures en course à pied, Traumatologie sportive, Université de Montréal, 2016
Jeffrey, A. The Barefoot Debate: Can Minimalist Shoes Reduce Running-Related Injuries?, American College of Sports Medecine, 2012
Perkins, K.P. The Risks and Benefits of Running Barefoot or in Minimalist Shoes: A Systematic Review, College of Health and Public Affairs, 2013
Squadrone, R. Acute effect of different minimalist shoes on foot strike pattern and kinematics in rearfoot strikers during running, J Sports Sci, 2014