When selecting your footwear, there are a lot of variables to think about (and you thought running was simple). For a long time, running shoes have been designed to offer extra arch support, added heel cushioning, and corrective shaping for issues like pronation. At a time when more is better, there is a movement gaining traction based on less. It is known as minimalist or barefoot running, and there is plenty of science to support its validity.
Before you get too excited, minimalist running is not the latest and greatest exercise fad from the nudist community. Minimalist or barefoot running embraces the natural mechanics of the body and is focused around footwear that offers the most minimal support possible (or none at all), allowing for maximal movement in the feet. The average running shoe has a sole thickness of around 24.0mm like the Nike Lunaracer, in contrast, the minimalist shoe, Vibram Five Fingers Speed model, has a sole thickness of 4.0mm at the heel. Critically, this extra 20.0mm of cushion prevents foot muscles from acting in a natural mobile fashion when exposed to a force (the ground). Inhibition of foot muscle movement is one point of contention in the conventional runners versus minimalist debate. The other point of debate is centred around heel drop, that is, the tendency of conventional running shoes to force a heel strike method of running because the heel is elevated from the ball of the foot by extra cushioning (often by a difference of 8mm or greater).
A 2012 study using Harvard University runners found that those who "habitually rearfoot strike had approximately twice the rate of repetitive stress injuries than individuals who habitually forefoot strike”. Of note, the footwear worn by research subjects actually dictated their running style in most cases. When presented with thicker soled runners, subjects used the traditional heel-strike method (landing each forward stride on your heel first), however, without any prompting, when test subjects were outfitted with minimalist shoes or were asked to run barefoot, they almost immediately assumed a more mechanically proper (and less impactful) landing that was on the ball of their foot (front of the foot). This achieves two things: 1) Landing on the ball of one’s foot dissipates foot strike forces throughout the leg muscles rather than focusing them in the knees 2) More calories are burnt by landing on the ball or your foot than using the heel-strike method. If fitness and weight loss is your goal, calorie expenditure is paramount!
A word of wisdom from personal experience, even to those who have been running for years: If you are going to try minimalist running, start at a distance no longer than 1km and work your way up. You will find some initial calf stiffness and/or soreness from the extra work they are getting.
I'm sorry there was no nudity in this article, you might say my title was misleading...