Barefoot and minimalist footwear running has garnered a lot of controversy among athletes, coaches, and researchers since the turn of the century. Those in favor of more minimalist running footwear claim that they benefit from a lower likelihood of injury and improved performance. However, those in favor of more traditional or maximalist footwear also make similar claims. Research literature exploring this topic has further added to this confusion at times as some research favors minimalist footwear for certain outcomes while other research favors more traditional or maximalist footwear. The purpose of this post is to help you, as the reader, make some sense out of the confusion on this topic and better understand what the pros and cons are to running in different types of footwear. The topic of barefoot running is a separate topic on its own; so, for the purposes of this post, the conversation will be limited to the three most common categories of footwear on today’s market: 1) minimalist footwear, 2) traditional footwear, and 3) maximalist footwear.
Minimalist vs. Traditional vs. Maximalist Footwear
Before we start discussing the benefits and drawbacks of different types of footwear, we first need to understand the differences between them. In today’s running footwear market, there are generally three categories of shoes to choose from. The image below is a table from a review paper by Andreyo and colleagues (1) that I will be referring to throughout this post. The table describes the key differences between minimalist, traditional, and maximalist footwear.
Running Mechanics by Footwear Type
A very common misconception among runners and running coaches is that certain types of footwear, or lack of footwear (i.e., barefoot running), are “better” or “worse” than others. Running mechanics change depending on the type of footwear an athlete chooses. This is not inherently “good” or “bad” as some mistakenly believe. It is for this reason that running footwear selection is often very personal to each individual athlete. What works best for one athlete might be entirely different from another athlete. Footwear selection can be influenced by a variety of factors, including:
· Personal preference for what “feels good”
· Injury history
· Running style
· Running surface and environment
· Training history
· And more…
I think athletes and coaches, and sometimes researchers, get too caught up in trying to label certain types of footwear as “bad” in comparison to other types of footwear. However, the real challenge is to understand how running mechanics changes by footwear selection and how these changes might be used in determining what footwear choice is best for an individual athlete. For example, it is well-documented that when running in minimalist footwear, athletes tend to land with a forefoot or midfoot strike (2). When athletes run in traditional or maximalist footwear, they tend to exhibit more of a rearfoot strike pattern (2). Additionally, footwear choice has an impact on the loading forces that are experienced during running. When running in minimalist footwear, there tends to be an increased demand placed on the metatarsals (i.e., toes), the ankle joint itself, and the ankle plantarflexors (i.e., calf musculature) (3). However, when running in traditional or maximalist footwear, a greater demand tends to be placed on the hip joint, knee joint, and shin bone.
Again, these changes in load demands and mechanics are not inherently good or bad. They just are what they are. However, given this information, an athlete can use it to help in their selection of footwear. For example, knowing that minimalist footwear tends to promote a forefoot or midfoot striking pattern and an increased loading demand on the Achilles tendon and plantarflexor musculature, an athlete with a recurring history of Achilles tendon injury might want to avoid choosing minimalist footwear. This is just one example of how an understanding of mechanics and footwear can be used to an athlete’s advantage.
Is Minimalist Footwear More Efficient?
Some athletes and coaches will make the claim that running in minimalist footwear is more efficient or economical than running in more cushioned footwear. There is some research to back up these claims as studies have shown a lower utilization of oxygen when running in minimalist footwear compared to running in traditional footwear (4). There are multiple proposed theories as to why this is the case, including a reduced weight of minimalist shoes compared to traditional shoes and a greater reliance on the elastic qualities of the plantarflexor musculature when running in minimalist footwear, to name a few. However, this documented improvement in running economy has yet to be shown to improve real-world running performance (4). This is important as, while improvements in running economy measured in the lab are important, these changes don’t really matter to the athlete if there is not an effect on real-world running performance out on the road or the trail.
So, What Type of Footwear is Best?
The short answer to this question is, it depends. There is no such thing as the “best” type of running shoe. The best shoe for you as an individual comes down to a variety of factors as I have outlined in a prior section. A minimalist footwear choice may work best for some athletes, while a maximalist footwear choice may work best for other athletes. The key to finding what footwear choice is best for you is simply getting out there and trying different shoes. You can certainly look at factors such as injury history, weight, age, training history, etc. and make an educated guess as to which type of shoe will be best. But at the end of the day, there is no perfect way of determining what type of shoe is best for you without simply lacing up a pair and trying it out. From personal experience, you will usually know when you have found the footwear choice, and even the shoe brand sometimes, that just feels the best.
It is also worth mentioning that the human body is incredibly good at adapting to different footwear choices. For example, if you have habitually run in maximalist footwear for years, changing to any other type of footwear may initially be a shock to the system. However, if you transition from one type of footwear to another slowly and gradually over time, the body can become used to it. I make this point so that you understand that what feels best to run in now can change in the future if you desire or if you are forced to make a change. They key to changing is just doing so in a smart manner.
Footwear selection is an incredibly personal thing for a runner. There is no such thing as one type of shoe or footwear that is “best” nor “worst”. Different athletes will find different types of shoes with different levels of cushion more comfortable. It is important to understand key mechanical and physiological changes that occur when running in different types of footwear, but these changes are not inherently good nor bad. These differences, however, can be used to an athlete’s advantage when deciding which category of footwear might be best for them, including minimalist, traditional, and maximalist footwear. Keep this in mind the next time you are deciding which shoe is best for either yourself or athletes you work with if you are a coach!
1. Andreyo E, Unverzagt C, Schoenfeld BJ. Influence of Minimalist Footwear on Running Performance and Injury. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2022 Jun 26;44(3):107-16.
2. Lieberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, Daoud AI, D’andrea S, Davis IS, Mang’Eni RO, Pitsiladis Y. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature. 2010 Jan 28;463(7280):531-5.
3. Rooney BD, Derrick TR. Joint contact loading in forefoot and rearfoot strike patterns during running. Journal of biomechanics. 2013 Sep 3;46(13):2201-6.
4. Cheung RT, Ngai SP. Effects of footwear on running economy in distance runners: A meta-analytical review. Journal of science and medicine in sport. 2016 Mar 1;19(3):260-6.
Happy training and racing!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS
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