With a surge of minimalist running shoes flooding the market over the past few years, many runners flirt with a less-is-more mantra by trying footwear created to mimic the foot’s natural state. Though barefoot-style sneaks gained rapid popularity, is the science behind the design reliable? We’ve got the answer you need to know. . .
Proponents of barefoot running claim the running industry created false consumer belief in the idea that to run comfortably and injury-free, runners should seek the best heel cushioning possible. In fact, minimalists believe that it is the dense, think cushioning on the heel that causes a runner to become a heel-striker. In the absence of padded heels, proponents of barefoot running believe a runner is naturally more inclined to land on the forefoot. And while many argue that heel-striking is the root of all evil in running, saying heel-strikers are more likely to experience injury than forefoot runners, there simply isn’t enough research to prove these claims. In fact, the most recent research suggests a more neutral outcome.
According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, both forefoot and heel-striking runners experience the same running economy. Neither is more likely to incur injury or a loss of running efficiency. The test group in the study was equally comprised of heel- and forefoot-strikers. Participants wore neutral running shoes, starting with their natural stride (so, heel-strikers ran as heel-strikers and forefoot runners ran as forefoot runners). After going through a series of varied speeds, the group was told to switch running style – heel-strikers focused on landing on the balls of their feet and forefoot runners concentrated on landing on their heels. Again, participants ran at varied speeds as scientists recorded data. The results? Heel-strikers actually ran more economically, requiring less oxygen and burned energy at a lower rate, meaning heel-striking runners may not hit-the-wall as early as forefoot runners.
Though this study may only be the tip of the iceberg, one thing is clear: don’t judge a foot by its cover. There is no one-size-fits-all for running shoes. Often a runner must commit to trying different styles before finding the perfect fit. Some will love the barefoot, minimalist feel, while others want to run on comfy clouds. Either way, it’s important to find what works for you and your running instead of chasing the next big thing.