Point-Counterpoint: Minimalist Running Shoes: A Significant Advance Or Injuries Waiting To Happen?

Nicholas A. Campitelli, DPM, FACFAS, and Kevin A. Kirby, DPM

   For further reading, see “When Patients Ask About Barefoot Running And Minimalist Shoes” in the May 2013 issue of Podiatry Today.

Injuries waiting to happen.

This author notes that minimalist running shoes are not a new advance in shoe design and cites research that says these shoes may precipitate higher injury rates in runners.

By Kevin A. Kirby, DPM

The popularity of running has been gradually increasing ever since the early 1970s when the running boom began in America. Along with the rapid increase in running as a sport and fitness activity, the running shoe industry has also responded with a profusion of running shoe types and styles over the past four decades.

   One of the types of running shoes that has recently received considerable attention within the popular media is the minimalist running shoe. Minimalist running shoes are lighter in weight, have thinner soles, and have less difference in heel to forefoot shoe sole thickness (i.e. heel height differential) than do traditional running shoes.1

   The interest in minimalist running shoes was heightened with the publication of a 2009 book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall.2 In his book, McDougall claimed that thicker-soled running shoes with a large heel height differential are potentially harmful since they don’t allow runners to have a “natural” running form. McDougall claimed that running either barefoot or in thinner-soled minimalist running shoes would result in fewer injuries since our early ancestors ran barefoot.

   Many runners, caught up in their passionate desire to “run more naturally” after reading Born to Run, either began to run barefoot or run in a five-toed minimalist shoe, the FiveFingers™ shoe (Vibram), which was advertised to mimic barefoot running.2 Many of these runners, excited by the idea that it may be best or “more natural” to run barefoot or in minimalist shoes, even started to claim that the minimalist shoe was a new idea that would revolutionize the running shoe industry.

Why Minimalist Running Shoes Are Nothing New

However, contrary to the beliefs of many barefoot and minimalist running shoe advocates, the fact is that thin-soled, lightweight, low heel height differential running shoes are neither a new idea nor a new trend since these shoes have been continuously available in running shoe stores as racing flats ever since the 1970s. Runners routinely wore racing flats while racing or running speed workouts for years. I purchased my first pair of racing flats in 1972 while running as a sophomore for my high school cross-country team and I wore racing flats during my entire long-distance racing career for the next 20 years.

   In other words, these racing flats that myself and thousands of other distance runners wore from the 1970s onward had nearly identical shoe construction to today’s “minimalist running shoes.” Therefore, minimalist shoes represent simply a renaming of a four-decade-old running shoe type, not a radical new idea in running shoe design.

   Likewise, over 30 years ago, it was not uncommon for many collegiate long-distance runners, including myself and many of my college distance running teammates, to run workouts while barefoot as a way to vary the stress on our bodies during our intense workout and racing schedules. Therefore, the notion that running barefoot or running in “minimalist shoes” is a significant advance or is something new that just began a few years ago is not only a ridiculous idea but also fails to acknowledge the long history of barefoot running and the evolution of running shoe design within the distance running community over the past four decades.

A Closer Look At The Research

As a result of this misinformation that the barefoot running and minimalist shoe enthusiasts are promoting, it is very important for podiatrists to be knowledgeable of the research on minimalist running shoes in order to determine whether the claims that the minimalist running shoe advocates make are supported by the scientific literature.

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