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Minimalist shoes vs. Conventional shoes – what should I run in?

Part 2 in the Minimalist Shoe Series
You can find Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4 in their respective links!

What shoes are best when running, if any shoes at all? Many people transition to minimalist style shoes, because it has been argued that they simulate barefoot running while providing foot protection.1,2 But, it has been shown that minimalistic shoe designs cannot exactly replicate the mechanics of barefoot running.1  In theory, the cushion of conventional shoes reduces impact forces to decrease the risk of injury. However, if we look at the research, there has not been a decrease in injuries over time.3 

In the first blog post of this series, we discussed how minimalist shoes have a firm but flexible sole while conventional shoes have a soft cushioned sole. This will impact how much bending or flexibility you have, so to speak, through your shoe. In one study, foot stiffness improved running performance and economy (VO2max) thus reducing energy cost (energy lost at the MTP or big toe joint) and improving sprint time.3 But, more research is required to determine the optimal bending stiffness of shoes.3  Softer midsoles can reduce impact forces and loading rates.3 Thicker midsoles provide cushion to attenuate shock absorption but this does decrease sensations felt along the bottom of your foot at touch down.3 

Some benefits of transitioning to minimalist shoes include improved running economy (measured by VO2max),1,3 increased cross sectional area of the Achilles (demonstrating possible improved tendon strength)3, improved foot and calf muscle development (limited evidence)2, and reduced knee joint loading.1,2,3 Improved running economy can lead to improved running performance.2  It is possible that improvements in foot and calf strength may lead to improved performance and reductions in injury, but further research is needed on this topic.  Lastly, reduced knee joint loading (both in the general knee and kneecap) may be beneficial for runners with knee pain/injury.1

Some of the pitfalls of wearing minimalist shoes include a possible increased risk of injury. However, the research on this is conflicting.  One systematic review showed an increase risk of foot, shin, or calf injury but this may have been due to the runner being accustomed to conventional shoes and not transitioning appropriately to minimalist shoes.2,3  Another systematic review showed no overall increase in injury rates, although there may be specific injury trends (i.e. increased foot injuries).2  In the early stages of the transition to minimalist style footwear, there is an increase in loading rate (increased ground reaction forces), bone marrow edema (early sign of bone stress), and plantar (bottom of the foot) focus.2 This does not necessarily mean that you should not transition to minimalist shoes, but it does require some caution and careful consideration of individual factors to determine if it’s appropriate for you.  If you do chose to transition to minimalist style shoes, you should consider transitioning slowly. 

BenefitsRisks
Possible decreased risk of injury (with improvements in foot and calf strength) Possible increased risk of injury without appropriate transition time/methods
Improved running economy
Improved foot and calf muscle development
Reduced forces through the knee joint
Benefits vs. Risks of Running in Minimalist Shoes

It is known that running in multiple different shoes can reduce injury risk due to variations in repetitive stress.2 So, it may be beneficial to include a minimalist shoe in your shoe rotation.  This same concept applies to variation in running surfaces. Changing up your running surfaces can reduce repetitive loading on the same structures and possibly reduce injury.2 If one particular shoe type is desired, you can vary the repetitive stresses placed on your body if you vary the surfaces on which you run (i.e. trail, road, sand, etc). I did find it interesting that there was no evidence linking hard surfaces to increased injury in runners, so no need to necessarily avoid these.2 

Varying running surfaces and shoes is something I actually learned based on my experiences as I transitioned to minimalist style shoes (despite my love for wearing minimalist shoes in everyday wear). With my history of foot fractures, I noticed when regularly running on harder surfaces in minimalist style shoes, my foot would begin to bother me around where an old fracture was. I learned that for me, wearing conventional running shoes (still with a lower heel drop), when running on concrete and then minimalist style shoes when running on other surfaces worked best for me.

When it comes to shoe construction and its effect on running biomechanics, there are no consistent findings in the research.3 But, there are some interesting things to note about running mechanics when running barefoot vs. in a conventional shoe. Barefoot runners tend to strike through the midfoot (middle of foot) or forefoot (front of foot) whereas a heel strike is common in runners wearing conventional shoes.1 A forefoot strike may reduce the forces the ground exerts onto your foot (peak vertical ground reaction forces) when your foot contacts the ground (initial contact).1 But, a forefoot strike does increase demand on the calf muscles for eccentric control during initial contact.1 This increased demand may explain the increase in cross sectional area previously discussed3 or the possible increased risk of injury.1 When barefoot, there may be an increase in power generation and absorption at the ankle joint.1 This increase in demand of the ankle joint may result in increased incidence of ankle overuse injuries or contribute to increased Achilles tendon thickness.1,3

Barefoot Running BiomechanicsConventional Shoe Running Biomechanics
Mid or forefoot strike (ball of foot/middle of foot hit the ground first)Heel strike (heel hits the ground first)
Increase in power generation and absorption at the ankle jointLess demand on calf muscles when the foot first hits the ground
Reduced ground reaction forces with forefoot strike
Possible changes in how you run when running in conventional shoes vs. barefoot

Overall, both conventional and minimalist shoes can have benefits, but each has trade offs. So essentially, you have to take your history, preferences, and experience into account!

If you’re interested in trying minimalist style shoes, I personally wear VivoBarefoot shoes (affiliate code, LAURAK gives you 10% off), but there are several other brands as well!

Let me know if you have any questions about the information that was shared in a comment below or at paradigmofperfection@gmail.com.

Citation of sources:
1. Perkins et al. (2014). The Risks and Benefits of Running Barefoot or in Minimalist Shoes: A Systematic Review. Sports Health, 6(6), 475-480. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738114546846.
2. Warne et al. (2017). Transitioning to Minimal Footwear: a Systematic Review of Methods and Future Clinical Recommendations. Sports medicine – open, 3(1), 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/sp40798-017-0096-x.
3. Sun et al. (2020). Systematic Review of the Role of Footwear Constructions in Running Biomechanics: Implications for Running-Related Injury and Performance. Journal of Sports Medicine and Science. 19, 20-37.

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Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here. 

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