This is a common question from patients. And the answer is, it depends. It depends on many factors all of which are unique to each and every runner.
Here is what I will generally tell patients…
I love the concept of barefoot (aka minimalist) running, but it is not for everyone. There are great aspects to barefoot/minimalist running. Some of these features may include:
- reduced joint stress particularly at the knees, as well as ankles, hips
- using muscles designed for endurance running versus compensating musculature that can lead to injury
- possible reduction in stress fractures
- inner-foot muscle/arch strengthening (this helps with your balance, may prevent conditions like plantar fasciitis/heel pain)
- stronger hip muscles which can reduce low back and knee pain
Given current research, all of these claims can be justified. However, most of these claims are under the assumption that minimalist runners adopt a midfoot/forefoot striking pattern versus a heel strike. Research has shown that the midfoot strike pattern has a reduction in ground reaction forces. This leads to less stress on the joints. Yet, there is no conclusive evidence at this time to suggest either strike pattern can prevent a running injury. Experts at this time state there can still be injuries from both shoes and strike patterns – types of injury will just be different.
Given the possible advantages of minimalist running, just remember most of the claims are based on the assumption that barefoot runners adopt the midfoot pattern. Here is recent evidence that when runners convert to a minimalist shoe, runners may not adopt a midfoot striking pattern. So then the question becomes, if I am still striking with my heel in the minimalist shoe, should I just stay in my conventional running shoe? Possibly.
All of these concepts are up for debate and there are individual factors for each runner. If you do not have a history of running injuries and you are running in a conventional shoe, you may just stick with the old phrase, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it!” On the other hand, if you are looking to switch, it may be more beneficial to develop a midfoot strike pattern prior to converting over to a minimalist shoe.
Ultimately, running in a minimalist shoe can have many great benefits. If you decide to convert, it should be a very gradual process to see if it is right for you. Still have questions? Ask your physical therapist which method may be best for you and your unique running style!