Barefoot Running, Minimalist Shoes and the Next New Shoe Fad

The running shoe phenomenon propelled forward in the 70s with the iconic Nike Cortez.  The shoe that Bill Bowerman made debuted in 1972 from Nike.  This shoe as you can see, has a heel lift, designed to help “propel” the runner forward and to put less stress on the achilles tendon. (1)

Nike Cortez

Little did Nike know that as Larson and Katovsky contend, in their book “Tread Lightly” that the wedge in the shoe revolutionized the shoe industry and made heel lifts commonplace.

Fast forward nearly 40 years when in 2009, Chris McDougall published his book, “Born to Run.”  This book engendered the notion that barefoot or minimalist shoes were the most natural form for people to run in.  This revolutionized the minimalist running industry, starting from the Vibram Five Fingers and giving the entire shoe industry another category of shoe to sell.

No longer is the cool thing to get your foot typed and fitted for the right shoe.  In reality, there really was no evidence that fitting a shoe depending on your foot type did anything to prevent injuries.  There have been many studies that it really doesn’t matter which shoe you wear. (2)
So, we used to preach:

1. Cushioned shoes for high arch
2. Stability shoes normal arch
3. Motion control shoes for flat foot and the overpronator

This dominated the running industry for years but now with the minimalist movement, this has turned the running shoe industry upside down.  But, now we are finding out from research that maybe the shoe isn’t really the story here.  Let’s take a closer look to see where the next phase of running shoe will evolve.


First lets look at the research.  “Born to Run” showed that Kenyans with minimally shod shoes or  running barefoot was associated with forefoot landing.   The theory was that the forefoot landing miminized the forces across the knees and forces aligned through the tibia and up the axial spine, minimizing forces directly on the knees and tibia.

Hence, the theory goes that barefoot running makes you land on your forefoot and minimizes risk for anterior knee pain (patellofemoral knee pain) and shin splints.  But what does the literature say?  Are there any studies?

Studies looking at forefoot running showed that changing to a forefoot strike may mitigate knee pain in patients and that a forefoot running technique can actually reduce forces across the knees. (3,4)

However looking at the research into barefoot shoes suggest that the shoe does not change the style of the running.  So just because you wear minimalist type shoes, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will automatically change your running to a more forefoot strike.   Therefore, running in minimalist shoes does not necessarily  force you to run with a forefoot strike, but in reality may actually increase injuries. (5)

So how do you change to a forefoot running style if it isn’t the shoe?

First point

Forefoot landing distributes the forces up the tibia and decreases the  forces across the knee.  POSE running has successfully changed and improved patients with pfps and those with chronic shin splints .

Second point

An increased cadence of 180 steps a minute may induce forefoot landing, something that born to run enthusiasts recommend and reduce joint forces across the knee. (6)

Looks like you actually have to train your body to do it.  One well known method is the POSE running technique.


Putting this all together, what is the next phase in the running shoe?  I think we are seeing it already.  The Nike Free series are a popular line of shoes that have different heel drops, ranging from 4mm to 8mm.  But instead of providing a “barefoot feel” with little cushion, the sole provides ample cushion with a higher stack height.

Free 3.0 V4 Mens Shoe Dark Grey Reflect Silver Blackfooter-slider2

Similarly, the ALTRA has a zero drop shoe with maximal cushioning to prevent the stress injuries from constant pounding on your metatarsals.

So, perhaps the optimal type of running wear is one that has minimal heel lift, a wide toe box but with maximal cushioning in order for you to feel the road but provide enough cushioning to help decrease the force across the foot and plantar fascia?

However, as the study has shown, the runner has a responsibility to relearn how to run.  To lean slightly forward, and to increase step cadence.  These are some cues that can help the recreational runner to run forefoot.  Some though will need more formal running classes and gait analysis.

In fact, the ACSM has a recently published article on choosing shoe wear that is summarized here:  (Selecting Running Shoes). (7)


1. Minimal heel-to-toe drop (zero to 6mm)
2. Neutral: no stability or motion control components
3. Light weight 10oz or less

What great advice.   Especially for runners with pfps or shin splints.
Let’s see where this story goes!


1.  Larson P, Katovsky B.  Tread Lightly-Form, Footwear and the Quest for Injury Free Running.  2012.
2. Knapik et al.  Effect of injuries of assigning shoes based on foot shape in air force basic training.  Am J Prev Med 2010: 1Suppl: S197-211.  PMID: 20117594.
3. Bonacci J, Vicenzino B, Spratford W, Collins P. Take your shoes off to reduce patellofemoral joint stress during running. British Journal of Sports Medicine. March 1, 2014 2014;48(6):425-428.
4. Arendse RE, Noakes TD, Azebedo LB et al.  Reduced eccentric loading of the knee with the pose running method.  Med Sci Sports Exerc 2004;36:272-7.  PMID: 14767250.
5. Ryan M, Elashi M, Newsham-West R, et al. Examining injury risk and pain perception in runners using minimalist footwear. Br J Sports Med 2013 doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2012-092061
6. Lenhart RL, Thelen DG, Wille CM, et al. Increasing Running Step Rate Reduces Patellofemoral Joint Forces. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2013 doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a78c3a[published Online First: Epub Date]|

7. Vincent H, Vincent K.  ACSM Information on…Selecting Running Shoes.



Posted on May 26, 2014, in Exercise, Fitness, Running and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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