Just four years ago, nearly every runner ran in the same type of shoe. There were plenty of different brand names, models, colors, and sizes, but most wore the exact type of shoe that American runners had been wearing since the 70s: heavy clunkers that had a 12-15 millimeter heel-to-toe “drop” and a prominent crash pad to cushion the heel-striking runners.
Since the publication of Born to Run and the vast outpour of new “minimalist” shoes and their parent shoe companies, running shoes have changed dramatically while the variety of brands has boomed. There are the neon Newtons (which by shoe engineering, force you on your forefoot) and the notorious Vibrams (which by lack of a shoe engineering, force you on your forefoot). Old brands have taken a stab at minimalism—such as the Brooks Pure Projects, New Balance Minimus series, and the Nike Free family (featured left to middle)—while an array of upstart brands have entered the market through low-drop or zero-drop running shoes.
Minimalism—defined as a shoe that has a heel drop of at most 7 millimeters—has revolutionized the running shoe industry to be lighter, more anatomically focused, and above all more natural. Each brand tells you that their shoe is the best at helping you land on your forefoot and run the way we were meant to run. Many claim to let you run happier, faster, and healthier.
However, despite the boom many people have asked the question: is there any evidence that this stuff works? Does minimalism really help you enjoy running more? Do they make you faster? And, as many of these companies profess, do minimalist shoes really prevent injuries?
As a socially conscious running apparel company that has no plans to enter the competitive running market, we at Janji like to think of ourselves as the impartial observer. And, from what we’ve concluded, the answer to all the above is a definitive: “maybe.”
For one, there is scant scientific evidence supporting minimalism. There has been no major study that has confirmed that minimalist shoes really prevent injuries. There has been no proof that they make you faster or allow you to enjoy running more. On the other hand, no scientific study has proven that they hurt you, make you slower, or dampen a love on running.
The lone piece that touches on minimalism is a small study that examined the running gaits of the Harvard cross country team. The study looked at whether the athlete was a heel-striker (lands on the heel of the foot) or a forefoot striker (lands on the ball of the foot) and cross-compared it to the athlete’s injury history. Of the 52 runners, 36 were heel-strikers while 16 were forefoot strikers. Of the group, heel-strikers were far more likely to be injured (defined as forced to miss 2-3 days each year) than their forefoot striking teammates. While the sample size is small and hardly conclusive, it supports one underlying assumption of the minimalist movement: we should be landing on the forefoot, not the heel, when we run.
Such a notion makes total sense when you realize heel-striking dramatically increases the shock on joints, knees, and the body as a whole, while landing on your forefoot cushions it (to exercise this point, try jumping and landing on your heel; then try jumping and landing on your forefoot. Notice a difference?).
But here’s what most minimalist shoe companies fail to explain: the important thing is to have “good form”—to land on your forefoot and to land underneath the body. The shoes are not nearly as important. You don’t necessarily need a Vibram or Newton to do that for you. You don’t need a Brooks Pure Connect, Saucony Hatori, or Nike Free 3.0. The Harvard study failed to notice a correlation between minimalist shoes, high cushioned shoes, and injuries. The shoes didn’t matter. The runner’s form did.
As the Harvard study showed, ideally you should land on your forefoot. But you could also be like me. I’ve worn a traditional Asics nearly all my life and I rarely get injured, have raced well, and continue to love the sport. When I tried to switch to the Saucony Kinvara—a minimalist, but not aggressively minimalist shoe—my IT band flared up and I could barely run for days. Now I’m back to the Asics 2170.
What I’ve found working in a running store is that different shoes work for different people. I've seen successful runners in Vibrams and successful runners in the Brooks Beast, the antithesis of minimalism. But if you’re going to switch to minimalist shoes, you shouldn't be like me: a healthy, yet heel striking runner that doesn’t need a change. If you’re plagued by injuries and need a fresh start, minimalist shoes can be a gift from the heavens. But understand that the new shoes, without a requisite change in running form, can lead to months of physical therapy. And even with a switch, you may deal with a host of new joint, tendon, and muscle problems.
The key is to learn what’s right for you and to focus on taking slow steps into a very different, yet still very unproven type of shoe.