The world of running shoes has undergone a major revolution over the past decade. As a result, the running shoe market provides an overwhelming range of options, with barefoot shoes at one end of the spectrum and the relatively new maximalist shoe at the other. With so many options in the ever-growing shoe market, the right shoe choice is not always clear cut. But if your shoes aren’t giving you any problems you are probably better sticking with what you have. If you run different distances, speeds and terrains it is recommended that you have at least two pairs of shoes. More supportive shoes for longer runs where you will become fatigued and your running form will drop off; more minimalist shoes for faster runs; an all-terrain shoe with some grip and support for runs covering trail, road and gravel; and an aggressive-soled, minimalist shoe for trails with mud, water and rocks.
At the extreme end of the minimalist shoe spectrum are barefoot shoes. Designed to replicate barefoot running, barefoot shoes are flat, that is low pitched, but have no padding in the midsole. The theory behind running barefoot, is that it gives a better feel for the ground so runners can more actively absorb the impact shock. The “shoe” element is essentially just to protect the foot from sharp objects. Vibram’s Five Fingers pictured below are an example of barefoot shoes.
Most, if not all, runners would benefit from barefoot running as part of their training. Wearing barefoot shoes allows for increased proprioceptive input, which helps with force attenuation and foot strike angle, and they help runners modify the amount of impact they apply to the ground. They are not advised for runners who have marked peripheral sensory loss of the sole because the limited enclosure of the foot requires sensation for thermal and mechanical protection.
Greater impact forces, combined with a forefoot strike pattern in barefoot shoes can put the metatarsal bones at risk of injury. A forefoot strike pattern will typically put more stretch and eccentric load on the plantar fascia and calf-Achilles complex during loading, which can lead to Achilles and plantar tendinopathies. Barefoot shoes don’t keep your feet dry in wet weather and runners can more easily break their toes.
Minimalist running shoes are generally lighter in weight than traditional shoes, have a minimal amount of padding in the midsole and are generally flat, that is low pitched. Minimalist shoes suit runners who already have good running mechanics, but they can also help runners who want to improve poor technique such as over striding because they provide some shock absorption. Runners who are overweight should be advised against changing to minimalist shoes as they take away the extra shock absorption of traditional shoes is potentially leading these runners down a path of problems. Minimalist shoes have a light, flexible and uninterrupted sole, and a varied amount of heel rise and differential leading to improved proprioception. This type of shoe is generally good for trail running. Transitioning to a minimalist shoe takes time – sometimes months. There is a relatively high incidence of injuries in the gastrocnemius/soleus/ Achilles tendon complex and metatarsal heads of runners making this transition. It’s all about preparation, technique and patience. During the transition period, runners should alternate between their traditional and minimalist shoes, starting with short runs in their new shoes. It is easy to overdo it. There is always the risk that the lighter shoe feels awesome and you head out for a long run on the first day and you can’t walk for the next two weeks.
Runners in minimalist shoes are susceptible to the same injuries as barefoot shoes but with a reduced risk. It is difficult for runners to improve their form in a minimalist shoe, as they don’t have the added advantage of improved proprioception that accompanies barefoot shoes, but they also don’t have the protective cushioning of a traditional shoe.
Traditional shoes are conventional running shoes that have been on the market since the 1970s. They have a degree of pitch to them – the back of the shoe is higher than the front – and some padding, that is, the shoe is thicker in the midsole.
Who should wear them? Habitual heel strikers should wear these shoes.. People who are physically unfit and are looking to run or walk to improve their health and have poor core, hip and foot stability will benefit from the extra support of these shoes when they first start ou. Road ultramarathon runners may want to have a pair as the added support is valuable when fatigue sets in. Runners with chronic but managed Achilles tendinopathy who have used traditional shoes for many years to stay in these shoes to avoid the risk of a flare-up
Runners with a tendency to heavily heel strike and over stride should avoid traditional shoes, work toward changing their running form with barefoot running drills and then use a more minimalist shoe. If using traditional shoes, they should be replaced regularly to prevent the risk of tibial stress. As a general rule, they have a maximum running mileage of around 1,000km to 1,500kms.
Maximalist shoes are a recent addition to the mainstream market. These have a low pitch like the minimalist and barefoot shoes but a larger amount of low density padding. The concept takes some of the benefits of minimalist and traditional shoes, and packages them together: Like minimalist shoes they have a very low or zero pitch, promoting good running mechanics, but instead of having minimal cushioning, they have a lot.
Who should wear them? These shoes are good options for those that are doing big training miles. They can also help runners who have been suffering ongoing foot problems, such as plantar tendinopathy or metatarsal head stress fractures.
The downside of the mid-sole padding is that the shoes break down a lot quicker than traditional running shoes – at about 500km. Also they put ankles at high risk of injury because of the height of the sole.