There is a lot of confusing (and downright conflicting) messages out there in the sports footwear world, with various companies spruiking all kinds of benefits from all different types of running shoes. What do we make of all this?  Is this a fad, or are these shoes here to stay? Let’s take a look at the history of the modern running shoe.

First there was (and still is) the minimalist shoe craze, which began after a study into the Tarahumara native American Indians of Mexico,  who regularly run hundreds of kilometres a week wearing nothing but flat sandles or no shoes at all! Based on this study, which the author has since admitted to being fundamentally flawed, claims have been made to have us believe…..

  • minimalist footwear will make you run on your midfoot or forefoot
  • minimalist footwear reduces impact loading
  • minimalist footwear will improve running economy
  • minimalist footwear will reduce injuries
  • minimalist footwear will improve you running “form”

Let’s look at some of the current evidence regarding these claims, to see if they have any merit.

1.. In relation to minimalist footwear making you run on your mid/forefoot, a recent study by Larson et al looked at 936 recreational distance runners, at the 10 km point of a half-marathon/marathon. They classified 88.9% of runners at the 10 km point as rearfoot strikers, 3.4% as midfoot strikers, 1.8% as forefoot strikers, and 5.9% of runners exhibited discrete foot strike asymmetry (all over the place!)

The same study compared foot strike patterns of 286 individual marathon runners between the 10 km and 32 km race locations and observed increased frequency of rearfoot striking at 32 km. A large percentage of runners switched from midfoot and forefoot foot strikes at 10 km to rearfoot strikes at 32 km. The authors presumed this was “due to fatigue”.

This therefore begs the obvious question, if forefoot or midfoot running is ‘better’, why do marathon runners change their foot strike pattern to a rearfoot strike when they become fatigued?

Distinguished biomechanics researcher Joe Hamill and co workers, from the University of Massachusetts, states: “We propose that one’s footfall pattern is an intrinsic dynamic and thus difficult to alter. However, the change from shod to barefoot running often requires an alteration in footfall pattern that may ultimately lead to injury.”

So essentially, not only is there no one correct way to foot strike, but changing that foot strike is extremely difficult, and if one does attempt change, injury may well be the outcome!!

Even worse, many studies have concluded that even when people are shown the “correct” way to run in minimalist shoes, such as the Vibram Five Fingers, only half will change their running technique to a forefoot strike pattern. This is fraught with danger for obvious reasons. Minimalist shoes will not necessarily make you run on your midfoot or forefoot.

In short, running is relatively hard wired, and it is difficult to change a footstrike pattern. Moreover, if that footstrike pattern cannot directly be linked to an injury, changing it may well precipitate injury.

2. Minimalist footwear reduces impact loading.

There has been much discussion on this topic, mostly stemming from the Lieberman Nature article which looked at barefoot vs. shod African runners. This paper asserted (and the media went insane!), that if one landed on ones heels, the first impact peak of the vertical ground reaction force was high, as was the loading rate, and this was most likely to be a cause of injury. Lieberman went on to say that if a runner was barefoot, the initial impact was absent (because it was impossible to heel strike barefoot as it hurts too much), and therefore there was no impact. In fact, there is a large impact, in relation to forefoot loading.

Last year, Kevin Hatala did an almost identical study with African runners. He concluded “These results indicate that not all habitually barefoot people prefer running with a forefoot strike, and suggests that other factors such as running speed, training level, substrate mechanical properties, running distance, and running frequency, influence the selection of foot strike patterns.”

3. Minimalist footwear will improve running economy

In a black day for minimalist running, 5 papers were presented at the ACSM meeting this year in July. All looked at the effect of minimalist footwear on running ‘economy”, or “efficiency”. NONE found any statistically significant advantage over traditional footwear.

In at least one of the studies, the following conclusion was drawn: “Adaptation to minimal footwear does not affect metabolic efficiency. The use of minimal footwear did not provide an advantage over standard running shoes despite a reduction in shoe mass (μ 217g).

4. Minimalist footwear will reduce injuries.

Distinguished researcher Craig Payne, recently wrote on his website Running Research Junkie:

Quote “What evidence is there that ‘barefoot’ running is better to reduce injury risk? I have two options for this question:

1) I could just leave it blank as there is no evidence.

2) I could explain why there is no evidence.

There simply is no evidence that ‘barefoot’ running is any better than traditionally shod running when it comes to reducing injury rates, yet everywhere you go, you see the claims about all the extraordinary evidence that supports barefoot running.

I get emails telling me I need to read Chris McDougal’s book, Born to Run, with all the evidence in there that shows barefoot is better. I actually own two copies and I see no evidence in it that shows that, and all I see is a serious case of misuse, misunderstanding, misquoting and misinterpretation of the evidence. Others keep mentioning the Lieberman et al paper in Nature as proof that barefoot is better. All that study showed was that traditional running shoe wearer’s heel strike and barefoot runners don’t. It did not show that one was better than the other. Even Lieberman himself published a disclaimer on his website over the way that this study was being interpreted!

Put simply – minimalist running shoes do not reduce the incidence of injury any more than traditional shoes do. There is NO evidence either way.

 5. Minimalist footwear will improve your “form”.

This is one of the most perplexing claims, as it somehow takes the extremely complex biomechanical, physiological and psychological elements of running, or sport in general, and puts forth the extraordinary premise that:

  1. there is such a thing as a universal way to move
  2. that by wearing a particular style of footwear, this Nirvana shall be achieved.

Consider these two points carefully, and then decide if in any way this seems reasonable..

There are well recognised faults in running style that every runner should attempt to remove. Overstriding foremost among them. However, we need to agree that less than 1% (way less actually) of all runners would be considered elite. And the rules for elites are different to mere mortal runners. They are exposed to high level coaching, analysis and training, and for these athletes, any advantage can mean the difference between a win and coming second. For these athletes, changing and tweaking is a part of their professional lives, and these changes are made with the utmost care and scrutiny, and, hopefully with the minimum of risk that change most certainly brings. Even so, there is no such thing as correct or perfect form.

Running is a learned event that is reasonably ‘hard wired’ into the brain, and therefore is very difficult to change. Running movement patterns individually evolve, usually as an independent method of conserving energy and avoiding injury. Changing this is fraught with risk, and if change is required, as it sometimes is, it should be executed slowly and with the utmost care. Besides, history is littered with great champions who, if we believed everything we read and hear about ‘form’, ran very poorly indeed. This includes the cream of the crop.. Emil Zatopek, Robert DeCastella, Stephen Kiprotich (who heel struck his way to the Olympic Men’s Marathon Gold medal in London), Tika Galena.. the list goes on.

The lesson to be learnt from all this is that we are now in a world where we have a range of athletic footwear styles to cover the individual needs of most runners, if we just take the time to assess them properly. And we enter an exciting new world where new trends have driven research to question long established theories, and propose new ways to coach, train, practice sports medicine and build athletic footwear!

Next.. where to now? Maximalism and traditional. The plot thickens!!