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Do Minimalist Running Shoes Replicate Barefoot Running Biomechanics?

9 Oct 2014
Christian Barton
In my last blog piece I discussed the potential for transitioning to minimalist footwear to lead to injury. This is interesting when you consider that many marketing campaigns have claimed minimalist footwear may in fact prevent injury. Another common marketing claim is that use of minimalist footwear may facilitate a more natural running action, and in particular, replicate barefoot running. I won’t debate what constitutes a natural running action but let’s look at the claim related to minimalist footwear replicating barefoot running.

Despite the multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and the explosion of minimalist footwear, there is little research that has investigated whether minimalist footwear in fact produces a barefoot running style. When it comes to full minimalist footwear (e.g. Vibram Five Fingers), research does exist indicating that biomechanics closely replicates barefoot running in experienced barefoot runners.(1) However, this does not mean the same would occur in runners without barefoot or minimalist experience, and we need more research in relation to this.

The research investigating the effects of minimalist footwear in those not experienced in wearing this type of shoe or running barefoot is interesting. In a study of 22 highly trained runners, Bonacci(2)  reported very few differences in biomechanics (joint movement or forces) between traditional and partial minimalist footwear including Nike Free 3.0 and racing flats. However, barefoot running produced greater ankle plantar-flexion at foot strike (tendency towards forefoot strike), greater forces at the foot and ankle, and reduced forces at the knee joint compared to all footwear conditions, minimalist or otherwise. This shows barefoot running may be therapeutic for knee injuries but could lead to injuries at the foot and ankle such as Achilles tendinopathy or shin splints. However, wearing either Nike Free or racing flat shoes are unlikely to have the same effect.

In another study of 14 male runners inexperienced in wearing minimalist footwear, Willy(3) investigated the differences in biomechanics between running in Nike Pegasus (traditional neutral shoes) and Nike Free 3.0 footwear conditions. He also reported minimalist footwear did not change ankle angle toward a forefoot strike pattern seen frequently in barefoot runners. However, significantly greater impacts in the Nike Free 3.0 condition were reported, most likely due to the reduced support. Importantly, greater impacts are linked to anterior knee pain,(4) plantar fasciitis,(5) and stress fractures, and as such may lead to injury rather than prevent it.(6) 

Despite the research discussed here, I still recommend minimalist footwear for some runners as it can assist in making desired biomechanical changes (e.g. reducing over stride). However, it is clear that changing footwear does not ensure biomechanics will change. Most importantly, it is how we run, not what we run in which is most important. I spend a lot of my day teaching runners to improve their action to assist injury management, and footwear is just one of many considerations. My mantra is ‘form before footwear.’ Don’t rely on the shoe.

 

References:

  1. Squadrone R, Gallozzi C. Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009;49(1):6-13.
  2. Bonacci J, Saunders PU, Hicks A, Rantalainen T, Vicenzino BG, Spratford W. Running in a minimalist and lightweight shoe is not the same as running barefoot: a biomechanical study. Br J Sports Med. 2013;47(6):387-92.
  3. Willy RW, Davis IS. Kinematic and Kinetic Comparison of Running in Standard and Minimalist Shoes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013.
  4. Levinger P, Gilleard W. Tibia and rearfoot motion and ground reaction forces in subjects with patellofemoral pain syndrome during walking. Gait Posture. 2007;25(1):2-8.
  5. Pohl MB, Hamill J, Davis IS. Biomechanical and anatomic factors associated with a history of plantar fasciitis in female runners. Clin J Sport Med. 2009;19(5):372-6.
  6. Zadpoor AA, Nikooyan AA. The relationship between lower-extremity stress fractures and the ground reaction force: a systematic review. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2011;26(1):23-8.



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