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The Truth About Barefoot Running And Minimalist Shoes

EndurElite Chief Endurance Officer discusses if barefoot running  or minimalist running shoes are superior to traditional running shoes as it relates to performance and injury prevention.

Video Transcription:

Do minimalist running shoes or running barefoot improve performance and decrease injuries compared to traditional running shoes?

Good morning, family of fast. Matt Mossman, the Chief Endurance Officer over at EndurElite. Today, we're gonna cover, kind of, a hot debatable topic, and this is if minimalist/barefoot running is better than traditional running shoes when it comes to things like improving running economy, preventing injuries, and increasing running performance.

When Did Barefoot Running And Minimalist Shoes Become A "Thing"

Now, this whole minimalist barefoot running boom started probably about 10 to 15 years ago, and really got started up with the "Born to Run" book by Chris McDougall, I believe, who went down and ran with the Tarahumara Indians and saw how awesome they ran, and it spurred this whole minimalist barefoot movement. And then you saw shoe companies, kind of, hopping on board with this, like, with first the Nike Free, and then you had those freaky, little, Vibram FiveFinger toe shoes, and you've just seen other companies over the years adopt more of a minimalist type/mimic barefoot running shoe.

The Difference Between Minimalist And Traditional Running Shoes

Now, traditional running shoes something like here like this Brooks glycerin is very, very built up. It's very cushioned. It has a pretty large heel-to-toe drop. So this is what you think of when you think of more of a traditional shoe.

Now, a minimalist running shoe and this is probably a pretty poor example, but you kind of get the point. It's a lot less cushioned and then the drop from heel to toe is slightly less, or it's more even across the bottom from heel to toe. And this, kind of, puts you in a similar, but not exactly positioned to if you were running barefoot. Now, full disclaimer. I've ran in the Nike Frees when they first came out, you know, I ended up getting hurt in them, but that's beside the point. I probably went a little too fast to join the minimalist movement, and since then, I really haven't run in a minimalist shoe. You know, I found something that really works for me and I stick with that.

What's Better? Running Barefoot Or In Shoes?

But, with that being said, you know, I really don't have a strong stance on if minimalist shoes are the way to go, compared to a traditional running shoe, and this is basically because of how conflicted the research is. So I'm not gonna sit here and just give you my opinions on if minimalist running shoes are better than traditional running shoes. We're actually gonna look into the research today and we're gonna see if minimalist running shoes improve running economy and prevent injuries, compared to traditional running shoes.

So grab your popcorn and grab a drink because this is gonna be one of the longer videos. But I hope you'll be able to walk away with some good information after watching this video, and make the decision if trying a minimalist running shoe or running barefoot is right for you.

Now, throughout this video I'm gonna be throwing up some slides too, so you guys can kind of see the information right in front of your face. Sometimes it's just, kind of, easier to read and digest that information, as opposed to just listening to me the whole time.

What Are The Claims In Favor Of Barefoot Running And Minimalist Shoes?

So, let's get started first with what people claim that are in favor of/barefoot running and minimalist running shoes. So a lot of times, you're gonna hear people say that running barefoot or in a minimalist shoe, it basically, causes people to run with a more plantar flexed ankle at initial contact, adopt a four-foot footfall pattern, which we know from previous information this may help decrease rates of shin splints and other injuries. This is gonna increase stride rate, reduce stride length, increase ankle planter flexor moments at decrease knee extensor moments, which basically that means, it's gonna reduce risk of injury or how long your foot is on the ground causing that high impact. And then probably most importantly, all these people are claiming that it improves running economy. So that's kind of all the people, the claims they make who are in favor of barefoot/minimalist running.

What Are The Claims Against Running Barefoot And Minimalist Shoes?

Now, let's look at the other side. Those against barefoot minimalist running say it leads to more injuries when you run barefoot or in minimalist shoes. Your muscles fatigue quicker because the minimalist shoes aren't able to absorb the shock of your foot, you know, slamming down against the cement. They say it doesn't really increase your running economy compared to more of a traditional running shoe. It isn't the right shoe for everyone. Well, the minimalist ones, which to this point, I kind of agree with them. I don't know if minimalist shoes are the best decision for people who are a little bit overweight, but we'll get that to that later. They also claimed that, you know, doctors are seeing more and more patients show up at their doorsteps because of minimalist running shoes causing more injuries.

And then lastly, they claim it doesn't improve running economy at all. So that's really, kind of, the two sides, those in favor of minimalist running shoes/ barefoot running, and those against.

Does Running Barefoot Or In Minimalist Shoes Improve Running Economy And Decrease Risk Of Injury?

So, instead of like taking all these claims and opinions, let's actually look at the research behind barefoot/minimalist shoes compared to traditional running shoes. First, we're gonna look at if these types of shoes improve running economy or running performance, and then we'll look at if they decrease rates of injury. So, let's hop right to the slides here again. I feel like I'm a college professor all over again throwing up these PowerPoint slides. So, does minimalist footwear improve running performance? So, we're gonna cite three studies here.

Study #1: Minimalist Running Shoes Improve Running Economy By 3.32%

Study number one, examined if running economy differs in minimal shoes versus standard running shoes, and in forefoot versus rear foot strike gaits. The subjects in this study were 52 collegiate cross country runners, so lots of experience running if they're competing that level. And what the researchers have the subjects do is run on the treadmill at three meters a second and to, kind of, get rid of some variables that could be argued that shoe mass and stride frequency were controlled, so they didn't play a factor in that. Now, what was measured? The cost of O2 transport, our VO2 max, how efficiently people will run when they're at those speeds. Force and kinematic data. So, important part here, what were the results? The researchers found that runners were 2.41% more economical in the minimal shoe condition when forefoot striking, and 3.32% more economical in the minimal shoe condition when rear foot striking compared to the traditional running shoe group. Then they basically concluded that running in a minimal running shoe was more economical than a traditional running shoe and they thought this was due to because of the buildup of elastic, energy, and then the release of it.

So, you may be looking at this study and saying, "You know, 2% to 3% running economy improvements isn't really that much." But over the course of like, you know, half marathon to a marathon, that adds up to a lot of distance compared to running in a traditional running shoe. So, so far so good. It looks like, you know, these minimalist running shoes are the way to go because it's improving running economy. But let's, kind of go on to the second study.

Study #2: Minimalist Running Shoes Only Improve Running Economy After A Period Of Familiarization

The second study evaluated the effects of four weeks familiarization to simulated barefoot running on running economy compared to a traditional running shoes. Subjects in this one were 15 trained male runners, and just hang tight with me here. So, the researchers had these runners complete two running economy test 24 hours apart, in both the barefoot condition and then in traditional running shoes at 11 kilometers an hour and 13 kilometers an hour.

Subjects then completed a four-week familiarization period of simulated barefoot running before repeating the two running economy test. So the pre-test, they just had them do barefoot running and then running in the traditional running shoes. There is no, like, adaptation period to the minimalist shoes at all which is important, which I'll tell you here in a second. What was measured? Oxygen uptake, heart rate, stride rate frequency, and foot strike patterns were measured in both conditions. Now, what were the results? Now, pre-test, there was no difference in running economy compared to the minimalist group and the traditional running shoe group. But after the familiarization of the minimalist running shoes, so training them for four weeks, there was an improvement of 6.9% in running economy compared to the traditional running shoe group when post-testing was done. So, conclusion here, running economy improved in the simulated barefoot running condition only after familiarization, not before, when if you were to just barefoot and have that tested right away, then immediately after running in traditional running shoe, you probably wouldn't see much difference. But if you have a familiarization period with the minimalist/barefoot running, you will see improvements in running the economy as demonstrated by this study.

Study #3: Minimalist Shoes Are More Economical

Let's go on to study number three, and this one is kind of a big one. This was a meta-analysis, which means the researchers took a look at a bunch of different research that looked at how minimalist running shoes and traditional running shoes did in terms of running economy and performance. So, like the study said, this meta-analysis investigated the effect of footwear running performance in running the economy, and distance runners reviewed controlled trials that compared different footwear conditions or compared footwear with barefoot. So basically, they're just looking for studies that compared minimalist shoes to traditional shoes and seeing if that made any improvements in performance or running economy. We won't look at the methods right here, but yeah, like before, they were just looking for studies that compared that thing. And what they found after they did the meta-analysis, I think they reviewed over 1,000 different articles and they ended up with 19 studies that identified the things they were looking for.


And what they found is beneficial effects on running economy for comfortable and stiff-soled shoes, so not necessarily minimalist. A significant small beneficial effect on running economy for cushion shoes, so like more of a traditional running shoe. And a significant, moderate, beneficial effect on running the economy for training and minimalist shoes. All this means is, there is benefits across the board, but maybe more so in the minimalist shoe group when it came to running economy. It also found significant small beneficial effects on running economy for light shoes, and barefoot compared with heavy shoes, and for minimalist shoes compared with conventional shoes. So basically, they're saying that lighter shoes are more economical, which makes sense because that's less weight your foot has to move.

And then lastly, a significant positive association between shoe mass and metabolic cost of running was identified. So the metabolic cost of running, just again, like things like oxygen, transport, and stride, rate and efficiency and things like that was identified. Again, more than likely because the minimalist shoe was a little bit lighter. And their conclusions are very, very vague and very, very simple. They said, "Certain models of footwear and footwork characteristics can improve running economy." Well, no shit, sheer luck. Thanks for that information. So, those are three studies right there, and all of them seem, you know, pretty positive as far as, you know, minimalist shoes/barefoot running improving running economy. So you might be saying, "

Does Running Barefoot Or In Minimalist Shoes Decrease Injury Rates?

At this point, wham, there's really no downside to going the, you know, the minimalist route." But I'm gonna play devil's advocate here and now, we're gonna look at does minimalist footwear reduce the risk of injury? So again, we're not gonna rely on bro science. We're gonna go to the real science.

Study #1: Runners in minimalist shoes reported greater rates on injury, shin and calf pain 

So, study number one examined the effects of progressive increases in footwear minimalism on injury, incidence, and pain perception in recreational runners. So when they're talking about progressive increases in footwear minimalism, they're talking about using shoes that have something like a 10-millimeter drop, a 6-millimeter drop, and then a 0-millimeter drop. Subjects in this were 103 runners with neutral or mild overpronation, and they were assigned to receive 1 of 3 shoes, the Nike Pegasus, which had the 10-millimeter heel drop, the Nike Free which had a 6-millimeter heel drop, and then the Vibram FiveFingers that had the 0-millimeter heel drop. And all these runners trained in these shoes for 12 weeks in preparation for a 10 kilometer run.

And the researchers wanted to measure a few different things. The number of injuries that happened, foot and ankle disability scores, and visual analog scale pain rating, so they would, you know, throw up a scale of 1 to 10 in front of these runners in these different shoes. They would say, "Hey, did running in those shoes was hurt? If so, how bad? Zero being nothing, 10 being the worst." So what were the results? In this one, neutral shoes reported the fewest injuries, which was four, and the partial minimalist shoes, so the Nike Free reported the most, of 12. And basically, runners in the minimalist shoes reported greater shin and calf pain too, compared to the more cushion neutral shoe, or the Nike Pegasus. So, what the researchers concluded here, and this may get your blood boiling if you're on the minimalist shoe movement is, running in minimalist footwear appears to increase the likelihood of experiencing an injury and increasing pain at the shin and calf.

Study #2: Minimalist Shoes With A Smaller Heel To Toe Drop Increase Injury Risk In Runners

So that's study number one. Let's go on to study number two. And this one examined whether the drop of a standard cushion running shoe influenced running injury risk. So again, we're looking at the heel-to-toe drop of various shoes. And this one was a pretty big study. There was 553 recreational runners that were classified as either occasion runners, meaning they've been running for six months or less, or regular runners, meaning they ran for six months or more. And they were randomly assigned to receive a shoe of a 10-millimeter drop, a 6-millimeter drop, or a 0-millimeter drop, and they were instructed to run in these shoes for 6 months. And what was measured here is they just wanted to see overall injury risk. So here's the results. Of the 553 runners, 136 total were injured across the board. The 10-millimeter drop group had an injury rate of 21.6%, the 6 millimeter group, 27.4%, and the 0-millimeter group, 24.6%. And when they analyzed all these statistics, they found that it wasn't statistically different, meaning injury rates weren't greater in one group over the other, and the researchers basically said it doesn't really matter what running shoe you're in, whether its traditional or minimalist, injury rates are the same.

So, their conclusions, statistically, injury risk was not modified by the drop of the shoe. But here's the one caveat, regular runners who ran in the minimalist shoes, so the runners that have six or more months of experience running, had more injuries in the minimalist shoe group compared to the group that had been running less than six months. And the researchers really didn't have a very good explanation for why this was, but interesting to know.

Study #3: Running Barefoot And In Minimalist Shoes Cause Greater Bone Marrow Swelling

Let's go on to the last study. Study number 3, this one examined bone marrow swelling in the foot before and after a 10-week period of transitioning from traditional to minimalist running shoes. And this study had 36 total runners. Here's what happened, here's the, kind of, what the methods. Seventeen subjects ran in traditional shoes over the 10-week period, while 19 transitioned from traditional running shoes to minimalist running shoes over the 10-week period.


So, essentially, 17 runners stayed in their traditional running shoes for 10 weeks, while 19 started in the traditional running shoes, but, kind of, slowly converted to the minimalist shoes over the 10-week period. And what was measured here both pre and post-test was bone marrow swelling in the foot measured by MRI. And here's where it gets interesting. The results showed that post training MRI scores showed more subjects in the minimalist group showed increases in bone marrow swelling compared to the traditional running shoe group. Meaning there was more swelling in the bone marrow in the minimalist shoe group compared to the traditional running shoe group. But the researchers warn all hating on minimalist shoe groups here because they basically said in the conclusions, "Runners interested in making the transition to minimalist shoes should transition slowly and gradually to avoid potential stress injury." So basically, what they're saying is 10 weeks may not be enough time to make their transition from a traditional to a minimalist running shoe. Maybe more need to be more slow and gradual to prevent that bone marrow swelling.

I'm Confused Now.  Is It Good Or Bad To Run Barefoot Or In Minimalist Shoes?

Now, you see the, kind of, the pros, the key...of minimalist running shoes improving running economy, and then maybe some of the cons of causing injuries. But when it comes to injuries, I gotta be fair too because there's other studies out there that show running in minimalist shoes can actually prevent injuries from happening more often. So at this point, you're probably throwing your hands up in the air and being like, "What the hell is going on? Is minimalist shoes the way to go, or is it not?" And my answer to you is I don't think anybody knows at this point, and I need to make a really important point here. All these scientific studies done on, you know, minimalist shoes, barefoot shoes, and compared to traditional running shoes, they don't prove anything. Science doesn't aim to prove anything. science basically wants to demonstrate things.

So a scientist does a study. He gets a certain result. That study should be replicated again, and again, and again, and again, till we get closer to an answer on anything when we're studying science. So, the case with, you know, barefoot running shoes. If there's one study that shows it improves running economy, that experiment should be replicated over, and over again till we get to a better answer. And again, none of this proves anything. It just demonstrates certain things. The point being, at this point in time, I think a lot more research needs to be done on minimalist running shoes and barefoot running shoes compared to traditional running shoes, so we can make maybe a stronger argument for each...or the other one, as time goes on. But here's my personal opinion right here. Again, I haven't really ran in minimalist shoes, but on the same token too, I really don't have a problem with minimalist shoes. Like, if you like them and they're working for you and you're noticing less injuries and you're running faster, so be it. Stick with the minimalist running shoes.

On the other hand, if you try them and try them over again and it's just not your thing, and you really like your traditional running shoe, you know, definitely stick with that. At the end of the day, you know, science only demonstrates so much, but then you also have to consider field experience too, or personal experience. We're all so different, you know, biomechanically and physiologically that there's not gonna be a right answer for everyone. So let's just end with this. We're gonna do a couple more slides and we're just gonna look at the potential benefits of barefoot running and the potential negative outcomes of barefoot running. Again, this is all based on the research, and take this with a grain of salt. You know, not my intention here to piss anybody off with any of this, it's just kind of keeping an open mind when it comes to this stuff.

Potential Benefits Of Barefoot Running And Minimalist Shoes

So, potential benefits of barefoot running may strengthen muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the foot and allow one to develop a more natural gait. This is probably pretty true. You're not having as much support underneath your foot. It's making your foot and your lower legs, maybe work a little bit harder. Runners will learn to land on the forefoot rather than the heel. Like we discussed before, this can have certain benefits when it comes to injury prevention, specifically shin splints. May improve balance and proprioception. Yeah, absolutely, I get it. There's less underneath your foot, and that would require more balance and proprioception. And then let's see. Running barefoot helps one improve balance, we already said that. Okay, so that's the potential benefits of barefoot running in addition to, like, running economy and some of the things we mentioned in the studies.

The Potential Risks Of Running Barefoot And Minimalist Shoes

Now, the potential negatives of minimalist barefoot running. You know, I think if you go this route you have to be really careful about slowly transitioning, and I don't think you just want to go 0 to 100 going from a traditional running shoe to a minimalist running shoe. It might be a little bit of a shock to the system. If I were to do it, I would start slowly and gradually. Maybe run in a minimalist shoe, you know, one or two times a week and slowly build up from there. Point number two, I mean, if you're having any...you know, existing issues or pain, do you really need to make this switch? Why do you wanna make the switch to a minimalist shoe? That's a really a question you have to answer. If you think it's gonna, you know, provide performance benefits, hey, give it a try. But if nothing hurts, I'm under the mindset of, you know, nothing hurts, you're running good, maybe nothing needs to be fixed.


Minimalist running shoes offer less protection, you know, on rocks or if you were to step on glass or things like that. I don't know. You know, it may cause, again, stress to the foot like, you know, plantar fasciitis. But again, this may just be because if you go from 0 to 100 hoopling in from the minimalist shoe...or hopping from the traditional shoe to the minimalist shoe, you know, you may have a higher rated injury just because you're trying to do it so, so fast. And then the last point, potential negative. This is more specifically for running barefoot, you're gonna get blisters, you're gonna step on shit. You might get your toes cut up and tear your foot calluses up.

The Bottom Line On Running Barefoot, Minimalist Shoes, And Traditional Running Shoes

So, that is the long and drawn out video on minimalist running shoes versus traditional running shoes, and if they improve running economy, if they prevent injury, and things like that. Again, my stance on this is simple. If you like the minimalist barefoot running shoe movement, stick with it. If you don't, don't do it. At the end of the day, it's a personal preference, and whatever works best for you is probably what you should stick with. So, I hope you enjoyed your popcorn and your soft drink for that extended video. If you have a friend who runs in a minimalist shoe or argues with you all the time about minimalist shoes, share this video with them. If you want other videos on endurance training, nutrition, and supplementation, subscribe to the EndurElite YouTube channel, or head on over to the EndurElite blog at www.endurelite.com. Get social with us on Instagram, in our EndurElite Facebook Training & Nutrition Club, and until next time, my endurance friends, stay fueled, stay focused, and stay fast.

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