A Closer Look At Minimalist Running Shoes

Paul Langer, DPM

How To Define A Shoe As Minimalist

What exactly is a minimalist shoe? This really depends on whom you ask. As with any other category of footwear, there are no strict criteria that formally define a minimalist shoe. The manufacturers seem to be setting their own criteria. It is generally agreed that minimalist shoes have less of everything — less weight, less cushioning and less structure than conventional shoes. They are made to be light, flexible and minimally restrictive of foot motion within the shoe.

   Some manufacturers will tell you that a minimalist shoe is one of the following: lighter, less cushioned, less elevated or less structured than a conventional shoe. Others may say that a minimalist shoe is all of those things. Still others would say that the minimalist shoe is the closest a runner could get to being barefoot. While a formal definition is lacking, there is general agreement that minimalist shoes have less structure and mass than conventional shoes.

   A recent Internet search found shoes that were advertised as minimalist vary in weight from 2.2 oz. to 9.9 oz. and midsole/outsole thicknesses range from 4 mm to 20 mm. Midsole structural features can vary dramatically as well. Some minimalist shoes such as Vibram, Vivobarefoot and Minimus Trail (New Balance) have no midsole cushioning or support devices. Other shoes in this category have a cushioned midsole that is thinner and more flexible than conventional running shoes and also lack the traditional elevation of the heel (see “Pertinent Insights On The Zero Drop Phenomenon” later in this article). Altra and the Minimus 10 (New Balance) are examples of this type of minimalist shoe. Finally, some shoes in this category include stability devices. Examples include the Mirage 2 (Saucony) and the PureCadence (Brooks).

   The following sections discuss the structural features in more detail as well as the purported benefits of each.

Does Minimalist Footwear Facilitate A More ‘Natural’ Way Of Running?

Many advocates of minimalist footwear emphasize that it promotes a more “natural” way to run. Many use the term to distinguish the different movement patterns between runners in shoes and barefoot. The most obvious difference is that 80 to 90 percent of shod runners are heel strikers while barefoot runners do not land on the heel. Other gait differences include a shorter stride length, a more flexed knee at contact and higher cadence.

   The marketing. Most manufacturers associate their shoes with running patterns that are similar to barefoot running. They use terms like “barefoot-like movement,” “ground feel,” “natural alignment” and “natural stride” to promote the benefits of minimalist shoe models. While some manufacturers have backed off earlier claims regarding reduced injury rates due to some recent litigation, there are still references and inferences to decreased injury risk.

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