Runners come in all shapes and sizes.  Runners also run in all different styles.  There have been many debates about which style is better or best if you will.  Lately though a new argument has been coming to the forefront of the running world: Which shoes (traditional or minimalist) gives the runner the optimal performance.  In the following article, we will compare both styles of shoes and find out which one is better.

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Minimalist running shoes vs traditional

Runners have been performing the same from the 1970s until recently.  Shoe manufacturers have focused on cushioning and motion-control technologies as solutions to contemporary running problems, such as paved surfaces and overpronation. From the 1970’s until recently running shoes were manufactured with flat, thin-soles, to incorporating thicker soles with elevated heels.

The rationale for adding cushioning in the midsole and motion control features in running shoes was to absorb impact forces and control movement, specifically pronation, of the foot.  However, you still had your runners who were running in thinner soles and barefoot.  They were not the mainstream.

Then in 2009, Chris McDougall wrote “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”.  This book brought the minimalist running movement to critical mass, arguing that people have been running the wrong way for the last 30 years with one of the biggest reasons being the shoes they were using.

According to the experts, traditional shoes do have their advantages.  The most significant argument in favor of running in traditional, motion-control shoes is that most people have been doing that, relatively injury free, for a very long time.  It is like the old saying goes; “If it isn’t broke, why fix it”?  People that have certain issues with running, but continue to run (ie. Overpronation, leg-length discrepancies, etc.) traditional shoes can represent a solution to personal biomechanical issues. More and more people are running regularly, and their choice is to run in traditional shoes.

This rationale however was probably misguided. According to (Bishop et al. 2006), cushioning materials in shoes actually increases overall leg stiffness . (Hewett et al. 2004) stated that a little leg stiffness is beneficial to running well, but if it is excessive, it may be a factor for increased risk of injury.  Another study by (Richards et al 2008), concluded that the prescription of “pronation control, elevated cushioned heel running shoes to distance runners is not evidence-based.”  Additionally, a study by (Ryan et al 2010), showed that motion control shoes had the highest incidence of injury in their research group, regardless if the wearer had highly pronated feet or not.  Injury rates in runners today remain high.

Do minimalist running shoes influence sport performance?

People who argue in favor of minimalist shoes

claim a zero-drop heel, minimal design, and roomier toe box in order to deliver a more correct, forefoot-first stride than motion-control shoes. By striding with the forefoot first, they give the runner a wider toe splay.  This is biomechanically more natural than the heel-first stride of many modern runners.  In theory, this minimizes repetitive motion injuries by varying the footfall.  A minimalist shoe also puts less weight on the runner’s foot. This allows for less energy expenditure by the runner.  The person should be able to run faster, longer, and more comfortable.

Before someone reads this and automatically jumps from running in traditional shoes to minimalist shoes, they should understand that minimalist shoes demand strength and flexibility in a forefoot first stride. Switching to minimalist shoes center mostly on the risk of injury in making that switch too quickly, without building up the muscles in the foot, ankle, quads, and core.  Though zero-drop heels promote a forefoot first stride, minimalist shoes still dampen sensory feedback to the foot to some degree. This dampening effect coupled with a lack of motion-control support could for some runners increase the chance of injury.  Recent research demonstrates an increased risk of bone marrow edema, the accumulation of fluid in the bones, in minimalist runners. However,  this is only one study.  (Lieberman et al. 2010) found that if a barefoot runner lands with a forefoot landing there is not a very rapid rise in impact forces as compared to landing heel first in shoes. However, Lieberman and his group did not claim that heel striking caused injury.

Currently, neither the minimalist side nor the traditional side can conclusively say their method of shoe construction is superior in regards to injury prevention. There are more studies being done with minimalist shoes and it will be interesting to see the data.

As stated earlier, if someone does switch, caution must be taken in how quickly and how much a runner transitions away from a regular, traditional running shoe.  If a person has been relatively injury free and is content with their performance in traditional shoes, there should be no reason to push them into minimalist shoes.  However, if a person has had repeated injuries and setbacks with traditional shoes, it may be time to transition to a more minimalist shoe.  Transition being the key word!

Need more expert running tips? Check out Shona Thomson’s running plan!

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