In recent years, the concept of minimalist running has garnered a lot of attention. The basic idea behind minimalist running is that normal running shoes, being too large and bulky, actually promote an unhealthy, unnatural running motion.
Minimalist running (also sometimes called natural running) uses shoes with only a minimal midsole, i.e., the shock-absorbing layer between the inner sole and the bottom of the shoe. Minimalist shoes also lack the heel lift present in regular shoes, feature only a thin layer of material between ground and foot, and usually have roomier toeboxes.
The hallmark of minimalist shoes is that they have much less cushioning and support than regular running shoes. While this might sound like a disadvantage, proponents of minimalist running believe it is actually a very good thing. With normal shoes, the large amount of midsole padding and raised heel allows a person to strike the ground heel first. Minimalist shoes, in contrast, forces the wearer to take shorter, quicker strides and to hit the ground with the forefoot and midfoot, which is how someone running barefoot naturally runs.
In other words, minimalist running shoes make the wearer run in the manner that humans evolved to run. In this more natural style, the running motion transfers energy much more efficiently, with less force slamming directly into the heel. This improvement in biomechanics means that the knees, ankles, and the entire foot suffer from less impact with each stride, resulting in fewer injuries and less running-related pain. Natural running also helps strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the foot, making the foot more stable.
While they might be created with the same underlying purpose in mind, minimalist running shoes are not all alike. The most basic design are not shoes at all, but rather a simple pair of thin, thonged sandals. Traditionally termed “huaraches,” sandals of this style are worn by native tribes from Mexico famed for their remarkable running abilities. With the recent boom in minimalist running, many commercial versions of huaraches are now available to interested runners.
For something more akin to ordinary footwear, runners should check out minimalist running shoes. These are shoes that, while they feature little cushioning and support, do still have a slight heel drop. Minimalist running shoes are an excellent way for the inexperienced to try out natural running without having to immediately jump in head first.
The next step up are so-called “barefoot” shoes. Barefoot shoes have no significant padding or cushioning, only the minimal amount of material between foot and earth, and absolutely no heel drop (which means that the heel is at exactly the same level as the rest of the foot). Finally, the style made popular by the Vibram FiveFingers brand features individual pockets for each toe, almost like gloves for the feet. In terms of cushioning and heel drop these unusual-looking shoes are similar to other barefoot options.
However, switching over from ordinary running shoes to more minimalist footwear is not always a simple or easy process. Most runners have spent their entire lives wearing traditional shoes. Changing to minimalist shoes isn’t just about putting on a new pair of shoes, but also requires someone to learn a whole new style of running. This can be a tricky adjustment — blisters are common early on — which is why most minimalist running proponents advocate a gradual shift. Minimalist running newbies should keep pace and distance nice and easy at first, integrating their new shoes into their workout regimen only gradually. Otherwise, injury risk will be significant.
It’s also true that minimalist running is not right for every runner. Many people try natural running as a way to relieve pain or injury caused by traditional footwear. Those who experience no such problems are probably just fine sticking with ordinary shoes, especially since minimalist shoes require a potentially difficult adjustment period and can even increase risk for certain kinds of injuries (such as calf strains and plantar fasciitis). Natural running shoes also feature almost no insulation, which can be an issue in cold climates.
While not for everyone, minimalist-style shoes do have a whole lot going for them. Minimalist running brings runners closer to the style of running for which humans are naturally suited. This more natural approach can reduce injury and pain while also restoring the simple joy of movement that should be at the heart of the running experience. Many runners who give minimalist shoes and minimalist running a try probably will be glad they did.