We all remember running barefoot in our yard with our friends when we were young. Minimalist shoes play into the desire to run barefoot, but with the added foot protection from hazards like glass and sharp rocks. Barefoot running enthusiasts claim it can help with both an improved running economy and a decrease in injuries. While they typically have significantly less padding and support than traditional shoes, minimalist shoes have been shown to help prevent several common running injuries. Vibram Five Fingers is the most recognized brand of minimalist shoes on the market, but just about every brand that makes shoes has come up with their own version as well.
Typically, when we wear traditional running shoes, we heel strike first. Then our weight then shifts to the middle of the foot, and then to the front of our foot before we push off. When we run barefoot, striking the ground with our heel would be painful, so it's more natural to put your forefoot or mid-foot down first to help absorb shock. In order to wear minimalist shoes safely, it's necessary to learn to change your running style in order to absorb shock safely. This is not just a matter of learning this new running technique; your muscles will also have to get use to this new way of running.
To transition as safely as possible, start by running very short distances, such as 100 yards to a quarter mile, with a strong focus on proper technique. This technique should involve teaching yourself to forefoot strike first. Build on this gradually and patiently until you are able to run comfortably at your desired distance. If you feel pain at any time, either while you are running or in between runs, rest until the pain subsides.
This new running technique is very demanding on the calf muscles. In an effort to prevent injury to the calves and related structures, I recommend stretching the calf muscles at least once daily and to do calf raises for strengthening every other day.
While there's still a lot of research needed, minimalist shoes have the potential to help with a variety of injuries including patellofemoral syndrome, iliotibial (IT) band syndrome, as well as injuries related to “flat feet.” The difference in running mechanics helps with shock absorption and also forces your hip muscles to work harder. One research study also documented an increase in muscle thickness of the abductor hallucis muscle, which helps to support the medial longitudinal arch of the foot*. This increased shock absorption, increased muscle strength, and overall change in biomechanics could be what has led minimalist and barefoot running enthusiasts to claim that it has helped their injuries.
Minimalist shoes are not for everyone, and research has yet to clearly define all risks and benefits. It’s not unusual to develop injuries quickly from wearing these shoes. In fact, your chances of developing an injury could potentially increase while running barefoot or in minimalist shoes than in traditional running shoes. Typical injuries can include, but are not limited to, stress fractures, plantar fascia injuries, and achilles tendinopathies. With that said, there is also no proven performance benefit to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes.
There's still a lot of research to be done in this area to get more clear and definitive answers on risks and benefits. Until then, if you decide to jump on the minimalist or barefoot running bandwagon, please do so cautiously. As always, consult with your physician, physical therapist, or athletic trainer if you are thinking about using minimalist footwear or experience new aches or pains along the way.
*Campitelli, DPM*, N. A., Spencer, DPM*, S. A., Bernhard, DPM*, K., Heard, DPM*, K., & Kidon, DPM, A. (2016, September). Effect of Vibram FiveFingers Minimalist Shoes on the Abductor Hallucis Muscle. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, 106, 344-351.