Minimalist running shoes have been a hot topic of debate among runners for a long time now. Proponents swear by them while detractors call them a fad that will fizzle out eventually. How much cushioning in your running shoes is enough? How much is too much? The truth is there is not one single right answer to that question. There are pros and cons to every type of running shoe. What is essential is to find the shoe that best fits your foot shape and running style.
There is a lot of conflicting information regarding minimalist running shoes. One problem is that people have been using the term “minimalist running shoes” to refer to different types of shoes. So before we move forward, let us ensure everyone is on the same page about what is considered a minimalist running shoe.
Minimalist running shoes are intended to mimic barefoot running or walking conditions. The basic idea is that it is healthiest when we run the way our bodies have naturally evolved to run. That means keeping our feet as closely in touch with the ground as possible when we run. Minimalist running shoes enable that by providing substantially less cushioning in the midsole and the heel areas when compared to traditional running shoes.
Based on the above definition, the Laval University scientists have created a measurement called the “Minimalist Index” that quantifies how “minimal” a shoe is.
To calculate the Minimalist Index of a shoe, you evaluate it based on five criteria and assign a score between 0 to 5 on each of those criteria. The five criteria are:
- Weight: The more lightweight a shoe, the more minimalist it is. 5 points for weighing less than 125g. As a shoe’s weight goes up, this score goes down. 0 point for weighing more than 325g.
- Stack Height: Stack height measures the thickness of a shoe’s sole in the heel area. The lower the stack height, the more minimalist. 5 points for 8mm or less. 0 point for 31mm or more.
- Heel-to-Toe Drop: A shoe’s heel-to-toe drop is the difference between its heel height and its forefoot height. The less drop the more minimalist. 5 points for a drop of less than 1mm. 0 point for a drop of more than 13mm.
- Flexibility: The more flexible, the more minimalist. 2 ½ points if the shoe can be folded upon itself with its toe touching its heel. Another 2 ½ points if the shoe can be curled side to side.
- Stability or motion control features: Stability features such as medial posts or dual-density midsole configurations are useful for correcting pronation. But they also inhibit natural foot movement and add weight to a shoe. Therefore the fewer stability features, the more minimalist is a shoe. Points are deducted for every stability feature offered by a shoe.
Add up the scores for these five criteria, and you have a score ranging from 0 to 25. Multiply that by 4, and you get a score ranging from 0 to 100. That is the Minimalist Index score.
A higher Minimalist Index score means a higher degree of minimalism. A Minimalist Index score of 100 means a shoe is completely minimalist. Conversely, a Minimalist Index score of 0 means a shoe is completely not minimalist.
So back to our original question – what is considered a minimalist running shoes? Is there a Minimalist Index score threshold at which we can say something like, a shoe with a score above 70 is a minimalist shoe while a shoe 70 or below is not? Alas, it turns out there isn’t. The creators of the Minimalist Index sees the index as more of a continuous spectrum that can offer guidance about the extent of minimalism of a shoe.
The scientists proceeded to describe one potential use case of the Minimalist Index – to help guide a person to transition from traditional cushioned running shoes to minimalist running shoes:
“it could be reasonably hypothesized that transitioning from shoes rated 10 percent to others rated 30 percent within one month is more likely to be safer than switching to shoes rated 80 percent within the same timeframe.”
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Minimalist Running Shoes vs Traditional Cushioned Shoes
The differences between minimalist running shoes and traditional cushioned shoes can be seen in two main areas:
- Cushioning: Traditional shoes tend to have a substantial amount of padding in the midsole as well as the heel area. When you run, you are repeatedly pounding your feet against the ground. This padding serves to protect your feet by cushioning them from the impacts of that pounding. Minimalist running shoes, on the other hand, have minimal padding and cushioning. That enables you to get a heightened feel for the ground and to run as if you were barefoot. On the other hand, you will be running without much protection for your feet.
- Heel-to-Toe Drop: Traditional running shoes come with a substantial heel-to-toe drop. Usually 10-12mm or more. On the other hand, minimalist running shoes have a much smaller heel-to-toe drop. Some minimalist running shoes even have a zero heel-to-toe drop. They are known as “zero-drop” shoes.
It is worth noting that the overall amount of cushioning and the heel-to-toe drop in a shoe are independent of each other. You can have a shoe with very thick cushioning (a “maximalist” shoe) but a very low heel-to-toe drop. Likewise, you can also have a shoe with very little cushioning but a substantial heel-to-toe drop.
Minimalist Running Shoes vs Barefoot Running Shoes
Some runners might feel that minimalist running shoes are not minimal enough. They might be looking for something even closer to the barefoot running sensation. For those runners, there are barefoot running shoes.
Barefoot running shoes refer to shoes that offer the closest simulation of barefoot running. They are a more extreme version of minimalist running shoes. Barefoot running shoes differ from minimalist running shoes in a few fundamental ways.
Barefoot running shoes:
- They come either in the shape of a glove where each of your toes is being sheathed in an individual toe pocket, or in the shape of a traditional shoe where all your toes are housed inside a toe box.
- They have a zero heel to toe drop.
- They have an extremely thin sole: 3 to 10mm of stack height.
- They offer no arch support, no stability feature, and no cushioning.
- Great for people who want to take the barefoot running ideal to its extreme.
Tip: Fitting criterion for barefoot running shoes is different from that of other shoes. With barefoot running shoes, you do not want space in the toe area. You want your barefoot running shoes to fit tightly like a glove.
Minimalist running shoes:
- They come in the shape of a traditional shoe where all your toes are housed inside a toe box.
- They have a slight heel to toe drop. Usually less than 8mm.
- They have a thin sole that is generally thicker than that of barefoot running shoes. Stack height should be less than 30mm.
- They offer little-to-no arch support or cushioning, but more cushioning than barefoot running shoes.
- Great for people who want to ease themselves into barefoot running while still maintaining a certain amount of midsole padding and cushioning.
Tip: If you are unsure about what shoes to get, go to a store and ask a specialist there to assess your feet and advise you on how different shoe types and brands would suit you. Your feet swell throughout the day, so go to the store in the evening to make sure you are trying on shoes when your feet are at their largest.
Pros & Cons of Barefoot Running Shoes and Minimalist Running Shoes
Barefoot and minimalist running shoes offer a lot of benefits. But at the same time, like everything else, they are not without disadvantages. Whether you should adopt them depends on your situation and preference. To help you reach an informed decision, we will explain the pros and cons of barefoot running shoes and minimalist running shoes.
- They encourage a low impact gait: The low heel-to-toe drop of barefoot shoes and minimalist shoes encourages you to land on forefoot or midfoot instead of the heel when you run. That is a gait you want because it minimizes the impact on your body caused by running.
- They help activate and strengthen intrinsic muscles, tendons, and ligaments: Without the cushioning and support of conventional running shoes, running in minimalist running shoes can activate and strengthen the intrinsic muscles, tendons, and ligaments of your feet.
- They enhance your feel for the ground: With their nonexistent cushioning, minimalist shoes encourage “proprioception” – the ability to sense and be connected to the ground underneath your feet when you run.
- They are more lightweight: Minimalist shoes typically weigh less than traditional shoes by several ounces. This lighter weight becomes an advantage in long-distance running.
- They lead to increased stress and strain on your body: Without the cushioning of conventional running shoes to act as a shock absorber, minimalist shoes put extra stress on the muscles, ligaments, and bones in your feet, ankles, legs, hips, and back. The midfoot gait encouraged by minimalist shoes can also add extra strain to your Achilles tendons. All these additional stress and strain can lead to Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, and stress fractures.
- They lead to increased load on your plantar fascia: Without a stiff sole to support your plantar fascia, running in minimalist shoes can overload your plantar fascia and lead to plantar fasciitis.
- They lead to an increased likelihood of blisters: Minimalist shoes provide minimal cushioning, which means you will be more likely to get blisters on your feet.
- Transitioning to them can take a long time: Due to the additional risks of injuries, adopting minimalist running shoes requires a gradual transition that can take weeks or months. Sticking to this transition plan takes patience and discipline.
Transition into Minimalist Running Shoes
It is fair to say that most people are not used to run in barefoot running shoes or minimalist running shoes, which are constructed very differently from traditional running shoes. Traditional running shoes are designed to cushion the impact of your strides and to stabilize your movement. Barefoot running shoes or minimalist running shoes offer none of that. Your foot muscles and tendons are not used to the “less is more” designs of these new types of shoes. Not yet. Therefore it is important for you to ease yourself into minimalist running shoes. How? Just follow these simple steps:
- Gradually acclimate your feet to minimalist shoes
- Stretch. Stretch your foot and calf muscles gently every day.
- Climb the Minimalist Index. If you normally wear a stability shoe, first try switching to a neutral shoe. After you have got used to that switch to a minimalist running shoe with a relatively low Minimalist Index score. Then finally you can switch to a barefoot running shoe with a high Minimalist Index score.
- Short duration before long. At first, wear minimalist running shoes for just one hour at a time. As your feet get used to the new shoes, you can wear them for two hours at a time, then three hours at a time, and so on.
- Walk before run. First, try out your minimalist shoes by just walking or doing chores in them. Once you have got used to that, you can start doing warm-ups in them. And once you have got used to that, you can start doing regular runs in minimalist shoes.
- Slowly increase the frequency of wear. To start, wear minimalist running shoes once a week in one of your runs. For other runs for the rest of the week, you can wear your regular running shoes. Then you can gradually increase that frequency to twice a week, then three times a week, and so on.
- Practice running mechanics
- When you run, make sure you land on your midfoot instead of your heel. It is okay to allow your heel to hit the ground, but only after your midfoot has hit the ground first.
- Make sure you run with short strides and at a quick tempo. Ideally, you should sustain a tempo of at least 180 strides per minute. A pace that quickly makes it very natural for you to land on the ground midfoot first instead of heel first.
- Land on the ground in a gently and quietly. Relax your foot muscles on impact. The sole of your shoe should not be slapping against the ground when your foot land.
- Slowly increase running distance
- Wear your minimalist shoes for short runs first before increasing the distance of your runs slowly.
- Do not increase your weekly mileage in minimalist shoes by more than 10 percent each week.
- Be cautious
- Minimalist shoes can put extra stress on your Achilles tendons, so be cautious. Listen to your body. If you feel any pain, stop immediately.
Brands that are known for their Minimalist Running Shoes
- Merrell: While mainly known for its sturdy hiking boots, Merrell has also released a number of minimalist running shoes that are well received by users.
- New Balance: This company has spent a lot of resources on the R&D of minimalist shoes. And it shows. Their range of minimalist shoes is very impressive.
- Brooks: Brooks has always been renowned for its running shoes. Its minimalist running shoes are no different – they are highly regarded by serious runners.
- Altra: Altra is a specialist firm focusing exclusively on minimalist running shoes for men. They are known for their Foot Shape and Zero Drop technologies.
- Vibram FiveFingers: Vibram FiveFingers shoes are barefoot running shoes that come with 5 toe sleeves. They are as close to barefoot running as you will ever get without actually going barefoot.
- Saucony: Another firm known for its running shoes. They have started offering minimalist running shoes, and those shoes have been well received by runners.