There had been a growing movement in the running community that was endorsing ‘minimalist’ running, which advocates either barefoot running or using very thin soled shoes as a more efficient, and natural way to run which ultimately would reduce injury.
In the five years since the minimalist movement appeared around 2010, there hasn’t been much more than anecdotal evidence and conjecture regarding the safest and most productive way to run.
That was until a number of recent studies were done indicating some of the claims of minimalist proponents are unfounded.
The foundation of the claim that running either barefoot or with minimalist shoes (very thin soles and often individual toe compartments) is preferable to traditional shoes comes from the claim that barefoot running requires you to shorten your stride, and land more toward the forefoot which is supposed to decrease the forces in your foot and reduce injury.
It was proposed that landing on your heel increased the forces in the whole lower leg by as much as three times the force as forefoot landing, leading to a potential cascade of injury problems from the foot up to the hip and back. And the reason for the high amount of cushioning in the heel of standard running shoes was that this was needed to absorb these greater forces.
It was also thought that a forefoot gait was a more efficient, economical and natural way to run. The author of the Nature study proposed that runners who have been heel-strikers should change their running style to be forefoot-strikers, despite that fact that roughly about 75 per cent of all runners are rear-foot strikers.
One study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2013 looked at the forefoot vs rear-foot controversy. They took a group of habitual forefoot runners and had them first run with their usual gait and then measured oxygen and carbohydrate utilization and then had them change to a heel-strike gait. Then they did this with the habitual heel-strikers measuring the same variables using both gait patterns. What they found was that both oxygen and carbohydrate consumption was less with the rear-foot strikers at all speeds except sprinting in which case carbohydrate use was equivalent in both gait styles.
This means that since the oxygen consumption was lower, rear-foot strikers don’t need to work as hard at a given running speed. And because carbohydrate use was less, rear-foot strikers who longer running events such as marathons, can save their valuable carbohydrate stores in their muscles and therefore better avoid ‘hitting the wall’. This is a very crucial issue for long distance racers since running out of carbohydrate stores will basically end your race.
On the issue of reducing injuries with the minimalist or barefoot style, a study done in 2013 published in Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise found that runners who changed from traditional shoes to either minimalist or barefoot over a 10 week transition period acquired signs of injury or stress fracture in at least one of the bones in the feet. A number of other recent studies have shown an increase in injury rate with the transition to minimalist footwear that included metatarsal stress fractures, calcaneal stress fractures, and plantar fascia rupture.
Of course there are many runners who wear minimalist shoes very successfully with little to no injuries.
So the lesson here is that if you are comfortable running with a certain gait pattern and shoe, you should probably stick with it. And if you want to transition to minimalist shoes, you should do it very gradually in order to reduce the chances of injury.
Kerry Senchyna is the founder, owner and president of West Coast Kinesiology since 1992 and is a provincially registered kinesiologist (BCAK). He provides active injury rehabilitation, ergonomic assessments as well as elite athletic conditioning programs for clients.