Is Barefoot the way to go? New Research in Running Shoe Design

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Whether you’re a veteran marathon runner or newbie at jogging, we’ve all experienced the daunting task of trying to find the perfect running shoe. The criteria are usually pretty standard: comfort, affordability and look. This seems pretty basic until you approach the running shoe display and have dozens of shoes staring back at you. In this blog we’re going to discuss some of the recent research on running shoe design and injury prevention.

What are the different types of shoes?

Minimalist:

These are running shoes that mimic a barefoot running style. They are flexible, lightweight and have a low heel to toe drop. A low heel–toe drop simply means that there is less “shoe” between your heel and the ground (see picture below, the shoe on the left has a low heel-toe drop vs the shoe on the right). It has been shown that a low heel-toe drop encourages a mid-forefoot strike pattern, as opposed to a big chunky heel that encourages heel striking.20160203_141814Some common brands include Vibram Fivefingers, New Balance Minimus and Nike Free.

Neutral

These are meant for the average foot that doesn’t over-pronate or supinate. They are cushioned and have support, but have very little correction for any biomechanical issues.

Stability

These are meant for people who have low arches and mildly pronate during walking. There is medial and lateral support built into the shoe to help control the amount of pronation.

Motion Control

These are meant for people who have really flat feet and severely over-pronate. They provide a lot of biomechanical support to prevent the foot from falling in. You would not wear an orthotic with this type of shoe since it already is meant to correct foot alignment.

For years running shoe selection has been based on your foot shape and arches. For example, if you had flat feet and over-pronated, you would be given a motion-control shoe. Unfortunately, there is little to no research to support this method of shoe selection (Knapik et al., 2014). Furthermore, research has shown that motion-control and stability shoes don’t always control foot pronation or lower leg biomechanics, nor do they prevent injuries or lead to increased comfort.

So why do salespeople and Runners World magazine still advocate their running shoe selection based on your arch type and biomechanics? Perhaps because running shoes are a billion dollar industry and they don’t want you to know about the conflicting research.

If running shoes aren’t doing what they’re meant to do, is barefoot the way to go?

With the increased popularity in barefoot and minimalist running, a plethora of research has emerged around the topic. So what does the research show in terms of traditional running shoes vs barefoot/minimalist shoes? Research has shown that traditional running shoes will change your natural biomechanics, causing heel striking, pronation, and improper knee alignment. As a result, they also lead to a decreased cadence and increased vertical loading; all of which have been shown to lead to injuries. On the other hand, running barefoot, or in minimal shoes, has been linked to mid- and forefoot striking, lighter strides, and proper alignment of the lower body, which has in turn resulted in a higher cadence and decreased ground reaction force. Although no long-term studies have been completed to date, the current research suggests that barefoot/minimalist running MAY actually prevent running related injuries.

Based on the promising research around barefoot/minimalist running, should you throw away the motion control shoes that you’ve worn for the past 20 years and buy a pair of minimalist shoes, and try to run your regular 10 km loop? NO!!! You will get injured and jump on the Vibram class-action lawsuit requesting your money back. Transferring to a barefoot or minimal running shoe has been linked to an increase in injury, IF the transition is done too quickly. The rule of thumb for transitioning to a minimal shoe is one extra minute per day starting with one minute. It’s a very slow progression and you must listen to your body. If your Achilles or the bottom of your foot starts to hurt, you’re transitioning too fast. Barefoot/minimalist running isn’t for everyone, and people with certain health conditions (i.e., diabetes with decreased sensation in the foot), foot deformities or current injuries should not be transitioning to a minimal shoe.

If you want to learn more about running shoe selection, I strongly recommend that you check out Blaise Dubois’s website. A couple years ago I had the pleasure of taking a course with Blaise, a physiotherapist and international leader in the prevention and treatment of running injuries. A lot of the research in this blog is based on his work around running shoe design and injury prevention. Through research he has developed a number of great tools for runners to help guide and educate them on proper shoe selection. Check out his site therunningclinic.com for more great information.

If you want to learn more about the prevention and treatment of running injures, chat with one of the therapists at Sheddon.

Knapik et al. Injury-reduction effectiveness of prescribing running shoes on the basis of foot arch height: summary of military investigations. Journal of Orthopaedic Sports Physical Therapy. 201444:80512.