Waffled treads and a slew of standard, stride-correction features built into running shoes since the 1970s haven’t reduced the risk of running injuries—up to 80 percent of runners report being sidelined with at least one lower extremity injury. That’s why some experts say it’s time to toss out highly structured kicks and set your feet free.
“Traditional running shoes are so stiff and padded that they do too much of the work your joints were meant to do on their own,” says Irene Davis, Ph.D., director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard Medical School. “This can leave your feet and ankles weak and susceptible to injury.”
As Davis explains it, running in typical training shoes with a cushioned midsole encourages you to land on your heels. By comparison, an ultra-light “barefoot” or “minimal” shoe that’s been largely stripped of padding exposes your heel to impact and promotes a shorter running stride so you land closer to the ball of your foot—the way the foot was meant to move.
Sophisticated treadmill tests Davis performs in her lab show that an up-near-the-toes running style diminishes the initial impact peak of foot strike. That is, the initial force that shoots up through your ankles, knees and hips when your foot hits the ground. In theory, removing this force prevents injury.
However, studies show that the average barefoot runner’s stride is about seven centimeters shorter than normal. Over the course of the marathon distance, this translates to about 7,000 additional footfalls above the 40,000 steps a typical racer takes to cover the 26.2 mile distance. In other words, there’s less force per step but 7,000 additional opportunities for something to go wrong.
So which is it? Does switching to a more minimal shoe prevent or increase the chances of achy Achilles and gnarly knees?
A new study from a team of exercise science professors at Brigham Young University found that runners who transition too quickly to minimalist shoes may be in for trouble. After 10 weeks of running, subjects who ran in minimal footwear experienced the greatest increases of inflammation in their foot bones and suffered more stress injuries than those who ran in traditional shoes.
And the runners who tended to have the most problems while wearing the minimals? Women.
Davis says while this was a good study, it doesn’t prove that light and lean shoes leave you more prone to injury. Rather, it underscores the need to gradually transition into minimalist training shoes after a lifetime of wearing traditional running shoes.
“Your bones and muscles need a chance to rebuild some of their natural strength, and this doesn’t happen overnight,” she explains.
Diabetics or anyone who doesn’t have full feeling in their feet should probably steer clear of the minimal shoe trend, Davis advises. Otherwise, if you’ve got the patience to do several months of foot and ankle strengthening exercises and slowly adjust to minimal shoes and a new running style, Davis believes you may be able to avoid and even correct many of the joint problems that plague the average runner.
If you’re interested in trying out this new trend, check out our review of five of the most popular minimal running shoes to see which ones might work for you.
Vibram Five Fingers Bikila
Vibram’s signature separate toe pockets are designed to push your stride forward onto the forefoot and spread the impact of foot strike more evenly across the entire foot. The Bikila may be too strange a running experience for the average runner who only wants to dip a toe—rather than all 10—into minimal footwear, but Vibram is still the choice of evangelical minimal runners.
Like every model made by Altra, the Torins are a true zero drop shoe, meaning the toes and heels are the same distance from the ground for less impact, greater stability and to push you towards a more forward-on-the-foot running style. The roomy toe box is a real revelation, designed to ensure the foot has room to spread out naturally. Our testers loved this shoe because it allowed them to shift to a minimal running style while offering plenty of cushioning.
New Balance Minimus Hi-Rez
The Minimus—stripped of the padding and “correction” features most runners have come to expect from their footwear—is as close as it gets to naked feet without tossing your shoes out altogether. Perhaps that’s why it’s so surprising our testers rated the Minimus their overwhelming favorite. For most, concerns that knee and ankle problems would be exacerbated by lack of support melted away on first wear. Some testers even claimed their joint aches actually improved within a few runs.
Adidas Energy Boost
Our testers pegged the Boost as a “transition” shoe—nearly weightless but significantly more built up than a true minimal. Lots of interesting technology here: The “Boost” padding, for which the shoe is named, replaces the EVA cushioning found in most traditional running shoes, propelling the runner to a considerably springier push off. Testers said they could absolutely feel the “Leaf Springs” embedded into the heel, which further added to the shoe’s buoyant ride.
Nike Free 3.0
Free is a somewhat ironic name for a shoe our testers felt was the stiffest, most structured example of the minimal genre they tried. That’s not a bad thing for runners who like to keep their feet light but still crave a glove-like fit, solid structure and superior motion control. The heel is dropped but not to zero. This helps shift gait onto the midsole and forefoot but not to the extreme, making it a good choice for someone who wants to flirt with minimal without going all the way.
Brooks Pure Drift
This shoe was a big hit with our testers because it represents the best of both worlds: minimalism and support. Without the included insert, it is a zero drop, true minimal shoe. For times a runner prefers slightly more support and cushion, the insert adds four millimeters between the heel and the ground. The expansive toe box provides plenty of wiggle room, while the split grooved treads allow the forefoot the freedom to flex. But them a half size smaller than usual for a a more snug fit.
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