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Traditional Versus Minimalist Running Shoes

Traditional Versus Minimalist Running Shoes

For beginning runners and long-time athletes alike, it's extremely important to find the right running shoe. The right shoe will prevent injury and allow the runner to have as comfortable of a workout as possible. Recently, minimalist running shoes have become more popular, and the comparison between these and more traditional running sneakers has been a topic of ongoing debate. Although studies are being done to compare injury rates and the effects of each type of shoe on the general biomechanics of running, neither shoe has been proven superior than the other. Coupled with the fact that almost all shoe manufacturers now offer different varieties of men's and women's minimalist running shoes, making a choice can feel even more complicated. Thinking about trying a pair of minimalist sneakers? Learning the features of this type of shoe can aid in the decision-making process.

Although material and design will vary between models, the following characteristics are common with minimalist shoes:

Low heel-to-toe drop

The main difference between minimalist running shoes and more traditional running shoes is the position of the heel in relation to the forefoot; also called the offset or "drop". With a traditional running sneaker, this differential is between 12 and 16mm. With minimalist shoes, there is little to no change (between 0 and 4mm) between the heel and the forefoot (sometimes called "zero drop"). More moderate minimalist shoes generally have between a 4 and 10mm drop. This is achieved by altering the amount of cushioning from the shoe midsole, bringing the foot closer to the ground.

Minimalist Running Shoe Drop

Decreased stability

The stability of a shoe decreases with the removal of cushioning, making a minimalist shoe more flexible. In contrast, more traditional running shoes control movement through added cushioning and a more rigid design that stabilizes the foot. These shoes are typically categorized by foot shape and movement. For example, some runners tend to roll the foot inward, also referred to as pronation, or outward, also referred to as supination with each step, causing pain and injury. Different types of shoes have been created in attempts to compensate for these weaknesses. When shopping for a traditional running shoe, one will find a variety of options that designate the type of control the shoe has on the foot. The most common models of women's and men's running shoes are classified as "neutral" and "stability". Minimalist shoes, in contrast, do not aim to regulate the motion of the foot. In fact, the aim is the opposite; they essentially allow the foot to move more freely.

Lightweight design

Typically weighing less than 9 ounces, minimalist shoes are lighter than a standard running shoe. They are often compared to racing flats or spikes, which are optimal for faster running. These shoes also offer a wider toe box. By allowing the toes to splay out, stability increases without compromising natural movement of the foot.

Encourage "natural" running

It's important to remember that each type of shoe can alter a runner's mechanics and posture in different ways. Proponents for minimalism argue that these lighter shoes exhibit less control over the runner's mechanics and mimic barefoot running, encouraging more natural movement. Because humans have been running barefoot for thousands of years, the belief is that more stable, rubber-soled shoes are unnecessary and cause a negative change in running form. By encouraging a more biomechanically sound forefoot landing, less force is transferred from the ground to the bones and muscles of the legs and hips. Advocates also believe that more traditional running shoes encourage heel striking, putting more stress on the body with each step. Alternately, proponents for more traditional running shoes believe that increased stability and added cushioning prevent injury.

Making the switch

Due to the decrease in cushioning and potential change in running mechanics, switching between traditional and minimalist shoes too quickly can cause injury. When transitioning into a minimalist shoe, it's important to build up strength in core and leg muscles; specifically in the foot and ankle. Shoes with a 4 to 8mm heel drop can also help ease the transition. They offer a bit more cushioning but are still lightweight and still encourage natural movement. As with all shoes, it's also important to break them in gradually, beginning with walking or short runs.

The main variables to consider when deciding on men's or women's running shoes are:

  • Comfort
  • Personal stride
  • Form
  • Strength
  • Personal Goals
  • Running Surface
  • Injury History

Running in the wrong shoe can cause injury and unnecessary stress. By considering individual running style and goals, a consumer can find the right option that promotes healthy running and helps achieve personal goals. Science has not yet proven that one type of shoe is superior than the other and there is no general solution that works for every runner. By visiting a doctor or specialist, a runner can better determine personal mechanics and discuss which shoe would work best. Experimenting with different models of shoes can help narrow down options even further. While knowing the differences between available options will help with informed decision making, the most important factor to consider is overall comfort.

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