Since the 2009 release of Christopher McDougal’s book Born to Run, the minimalist running movement has experienced a resurgence of popularity with a subsequent release of various minimalist running shoes. As a result, philosophical camps have formed both in support of and adamantly against minimalist running shoes, with recent litigious action against Vibram for their claims that their five finger shoes reduce injury and improve spinal alignment:
All of this leaves a runner wondering: what is the best running shoe, and is it best to go minimal?
The primary difference between running in a minimalist shoe and running in a modern (post 1970) heel cushioned running shoe is what is referred to as the heel to toe drop. The higher the cushion on the heel, the higher the value of the heel to toe drop, with minimalist running shoe companies advertising low heel to toe drop values, creating a flattened and less supportive foot bed. Essentially this shoe engineering is thought to encourage the forefoot (ball of the foot) or mid-foot first contact observed in elite runners. This running form has been demonstrated to decrease forces through the feet and legs, and encourage a faster rate of leg turn-over for a quicker stride.
A 2010 study by Daniel Leiberman conducted out of Harvard University compared the amount of force conducted through the body in runners while barefoot versus in a modern heel cushioned running shoe (the ASICS GEL-CUMULUS). Runners participating in the study included African runners whom had always run barefoot, runners who ran in Vibram minimalist shoes, and runners who habitually ran in cushioned heel shoes. Leiberman and his colleagues studied all of these runners under both barefoot and cushioned running shoe circumstances using a force plate implanted in the ground that measures the amount of force that the runner contacts the ground, and which is subsequently exerted throught the foot and legs via ground reaction forces. The results of this study demonstrate that runners who had been training in minimalist or barefoot conditions and subsequently ran with a forefoot first contact method exerted 3 times less force through their legs while running.
Leiberman et al. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot vs. shod runners. Nature(643)531-535.
Does this mean that you should toss your 135$ of cushioned Gel-Nimbus into the garbage? If you are running in a cushioned shoe and are not getting injured, then radical changes in footwear are not necessary. If you are getting injured and recognize that you are contacting heavily on your heel first, you may consider practicing a shorter running stride in which you land on the ball of your foot or mid-foot. Drastic changes from a cushioned shoe to a barefoot model are not recommended, as this is where the most injuries tend to occur. It is very important that you have strong hips and feet before subjecting yourself to a barefoot running model. If you are ready to make the switch, begin with shorter runs: 1-3 miles 1-2 times per week for 3-5 weeks before taking your barefoot running shoes for a longer run.
You may also consider a mid-range minimalist running shoe. Brooks PureProject and New Balance both offer a light weight running shoe that has a small heel to toe drop value, yet offers a bit more support than a true barefoot model.
All of this is food for thought. Anecdotally I can attest both personally and professionally that the discomfort of relearning how to run properly and in a lighter weight shoe (the Brooks Pure Connect) was worth it entirely with significant decrease in my injury incidence, and increasingly fast race times. This method is not for everyone though, and if you have questions about your running form, it is recommended that you see a physical therapist who specializes in running injuries, and who will conduct a video analysis of your running form and make specific recommendations.
Make your day great,