Who would have thought that those funny-looking sock-like shoes with five separate compartments for each toe would become so popular? Barefoot-style shoes, also known as minimalist shoes, have quickly exceeded the sales growth of nearly any other shoe in the market in recent years. In 2010, minimalist shoes experienced double-digit sales growth, according to OIA Vantage Point and Leisure Trends, with brands like the Vibram FiveFingers ($75.00–$125.00) taking the fitness world by storm. Barefoot enthusiasts would swear to you that the minimalist style of the shoe allows for greater stability and balance, lowered risk of injury, and improved overall body tone. Minimalist shoes can be worn for a variety of exercises too, including water sports, yoga, hiking, weightlifting, and even running.
But are minimalist shoes actually good for your health, or is the barefoot trend just hype?
According to a recent study sponsored by the nonprofit group The American Council on Exercise (ACE), the shoes have mixed results among runners. Minimalist shoes are designed to imitate barefoot running, but provide the protection needed to prevent abrasion to the soles of the feet from terrain and urban environments. Unlike traditional running shoes, the minimalist shoes lack the over-cushioning and excess support which can hinder flexibility and cause high-impact shock to the joints (the leading cause of injuries in runners). Yet when experienced runners have been conditioned for many years to run in traditional running shoes with a heel-strike gait, adapting to the new ball-strike gait needed in the minimalist shoes (which, once learned, is said to eliminate impact-related injuries) can pose a challenge.
To test how the minimalist shoe matches up to the traditional running shoe as well as barefoot running, ACE and a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse’s Exercise and Health Program enlisted 16 healthy young adult female recreational joggers to experiment the various running styles. For two weeks, the participants were asked to wear a pair of FiveFingers (<5 oz.) while running up to 20 minutes per day and three days a week in order to become acclimated to running in minimalist shoes prior to the experiment. The researchers also encouraged the participants to attempt running in a forefoot-strike pattern while wearing the shoes. Once back in the lab, the researchers used 3-D motion analyses and ground-reaction force measurements on the participants as they ran in traditional running shoes and minimalist shoes (in random order), followed by barefoot running. The participants ran 20 meters in all running styles, for 7 experiments each (totaling 21 tests per person).
In their analysis, the researchers found all of the participants to be rear-foot strikers while wearing traditional running shoes. However, when the participants ran in minimalist shoes or barefoot, about half of them switched their gait to a forefoot strike. Even though the participants were given time to practice running in the forefoot-strike pattern, the experiment showed just how hard it is for the body to readjust basic motor functions. Those runners who maintained a heel-strike gait while in the FiveFingers or barefoot had an even higher risk of injury—like loading which causes new stresses to the lower muscles not previously felt—than those associated with traditional running shoes, most likely due to over-exposure or lack of cushioning. However, those who were able to learn the forefoot-strike gait while in FiveFingers or barefoot experienced greater flexion, allowing for better impact absorption which decreased their lower extremity injuries. Overall, barefoot running for all the runners was shown to cause less pronation. Like barefoot running, the FiveFingers also caused less knee flexion in all the participants, which is known to lower risk of injury.
The biggest culprit for running-related injuries while in the minimalist shoes, the researchers note, was non-adaptation of the forefoot strike, along with overuse of the shoes without allowing for acclimation. As a recommendation, the researchers suggest that runners who do not experience chronic pain or injury from running should stick with their traditional running shoes. Yet for runners with chronic pain, they may consider the minimalist shoes to avoid their risk for injury, but while taking gradual steps to adjust to the new running style. ACE experts highly recommend the minimalist shoes for fitness training purposes, but also recommend caution when considering the shoes for running.
If used correctly, minimalist shoes can create an assortment of positive physical changes, including better impact absorption, strengthened muscles, less stress on the joints, improved strides, decreased running time, and improved proprioception, balance, and form. Yet if heel-strike runners run in the minimalist shoes, they may face even more severe injuries than before. It all depends on timing: your ability to pace yourself while transitioning into the minimalist shoes, and willingness to take baby steps toward a successful barefoot lifestyle.
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