Minimalist Shoes or Barefoot Running: Should I Switch or Not?

Minimalist Running Chris Tse Blitz Conditioning

If you have been looking down at the feet of runners and gym goers recently you might have seen a plethora of new styles of shoes. We’re not just talking about colour patterns but the emergence of five toed shoes and ultra flat or minimalist running shoes. The high tops and ultra cushioned armour-like shoes have been dramatically replaced with stripped down, low profile, and barely there foot wear. We are asked quite often about athletic foot wear simply because, as trainers, we live in running shoes. The wider diversity of foot wear available, types of sports or activities that people are undertaking, and ultimately the individual’s structural differences make suggesting footwear more complicated.

Barefoot running has been huge in the running world for the past five years since Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run. Switching from our modern day shoes to minimalist or barefoot running has been theorized to alter the more common heel strike first plant to a more softer and efficient mid or front foot strike. Heel striking has been thought to be one of the root causes of lower extremity injuries while running; things like soft tissue, knee, hip, achilles, and ankle injuries. Cushioned shoes are meant to take most of the force of the foot planting on the ground and transfer it to the shoe. The original thought behind cushioned shoes was that if the shoe can absorb this negative energy there would be less structural strain on the runner’s joints. The increased amount of running related injuries in North America coincided with the more prevalent use of supportive shoes so the exercise world did a quick 180 degree turn and started going bare naked… Before the scientific community could catch up, companies started the battle for pavement supremacy. It started off with Vibrams(TM) then with New Balance minimalist shoes, and then the market took off like a drunk squirrel chasing it’s own tail.

There are a few cautionary points to minimalist or barefoot running that we should be aware of before considering making the big switch:

  1. Most of the research on minimalist running has been done with barefoot or barely there runners and mostly on treadmills. The research on the other minimalist footwear like the Nike Free and New Balance styled foot wear has begun but only in the past year but certainly not to the point where it has caught up to all of the new products. There’s also a diametric difference between analyzing someone’s walk and running patterns on a treadmill compared to actual pavement tests; but there is more emerging research that uses pavement instead of treadmills.
  2. It’s not for everyone. Each person has a different stride and set of circumstances that need to be addressed before selecting the proper footwear. Most of us have spent decades in supported shoes and we might have injuries or other structural issues that might discourage the use of minimalist footwear. Talk to a specialist about your gait and their recommendations on switching over.  The research on this style of footwear doesn’t point to the idea that everyone should be running barefoot. It’s simply saying that it is an optimal way of running and walking for certain people.
  3. If you chose to switch to minimalist footwear there is a learning curve and it can be painful. Remember this style of shoe removes all of the shock absorption and support that our ankles and feet are used to so it takes time, upwards of 4 weeks, to adapt to this new movement pattern. Don’t just buy a pair of minimalist shoes, throw out the old shoes, and go bolting out for a 5 km run; that will leave you feeling like someone just ran a hot knife through the soles of your feet!

If you do chose to switch over, Warne et. al.  have a great 4 week program to get you walking around naked as a jaybird (Caution: keep it legal, naked feet only).

A 4-week instructed minimalist running transition and gait-retraining changes plantar pressure and force. Warne et al.

A 4-week instructed minimalist running transition and
gait-retraining changes plantar pressure and force.
Warne et al.

Get out there and get active no matter what you’re covering those toes with!

References:

J. P. Warne, S. M. Kilduff, B. C. Gregan, A. M. Nevill, K. A. Moran, and G. D. Warrington. A 4-week instructed minimalist running transition and gait-retraining changes plantar pressure and force. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2013.

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About Chris Tse

I’m a scientist turned owner of Blitz Conditioning, a Fitness Columnist at CBC Radio on Thursdays at 8:20 am, and owner of Tse Social Strategy. Follow me on Twitter or Read my full bio.

Comments

  1. Great post Chris! It took me 4 years to move from a supportive running shoe to a minimalist shoe while running 100km+ weeks. If I tried to move too quickly, my muscles and feet always felt the strain. Even now, I alternative between barefoot, minimalist and a lightly cushion shoe to train and rest my legs/feet.

    • Thanks Kendall! I can definitely empathize with switching too quickly. Love minimalist running and workouts but I also alternate between both lightly cushioned and barefoot too. Every so often it feels nice to walk on clouds!

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