What is the Difference Between Minimalist and Normal Running Shoes?

Generally speaking, there are two major types of running shoes: thick cushioned running shoes and minimalist running shoes, which feel as if you are actually running barefoot. Volumes of data show that both types of running shoes produce significantly different outcomes in terms of  running form, impact generation and injury. You’d expect that thick cushioned running shoes would be safer and more comfortable than barefoot-inspired running shoes, but loads of research shows the exact opposite.

Are Minimalist Running Shoes Better?
Minimalist shoes (above right) mimic the feel of being barefoot by having a thin, flat (heelless) sole that lets you feel the ground more clearly, making it easier for you to connect properly on your forefoot when running vs thick cushioned running shoes (above left). In thick cushioned running shoes, your mechanics may run the risk of being pushed out of a neutral, safe range by a lack of sensory involvement (ground-feel). Also, the design of most cushioned running shoes counters the natural shape of the human foot as these shoes are often too narrow and inflexible to keep the feet properly engaged at a basic physical level.  This is when foot strength tends to fade if you continuously rely on these shoes, and if you don’t spend more time either barefoot or in minimalist shoes, which quickly strengthen the feet by making the foot’s muscles work independently.

The reason minimalist running shoes have become a major interest is because unlike cushioned running shoes, barefoot running shoes were proven to do a better job at preventing chronic leg injuries by effectively reducing instantaneous loading and vertical impact forces, which are two impact variables primarily responsible for most running injuries.

  • Case in point, recently confirmed results in current studies (references below article) from a 2014 study in the journal Footwear Science, discovered that runners in heelless shoes (minimalist shoes) had a higher plantar-flexion angle (less of a heel strike and more of a forefoot strike) at landing which led to a reduction in the impact force parameters associated with most chronic injuries.
  • The researchers also found that minimalist running shoes greatly reduced the vertical impact peak and the instantaneous loading rate compared to traditional running shoes.

Moreover, minimalist running shoes reduced peak ankle dorsiflexion (prevented a heavy heel strike) than the cushioned heeled running shoes, whereby reducing heel strike at landing in running has proved to be important in preventing shin splints.

What is the Difference Between Minimalist and Normal Running Shoes?
Runners who wear cushioned heeled running shoes strike the ground with greater force and closer to the heel than runners in minimalist running shoes who tend to strike on their forefoot, farther away from the heel.

  • The zero-drop (completely flat; heelless) design of a minimalist running shoe plays a vital part in preventing the mechanics that cause shin splints by specifically increasing plantar-flexion moments at the ankle upon touchdown.
Heel Strike vs Forefoot Strike Running
Running shoes with a smaller heel, like minimalist running shoes (above left), leverages a forefoot strike thats easily maintained via allowing greater ankle plantarflexion at landing. Conversely, running shoes with thick, cushioned heels (above right) were found to facilitate a higher ankle dorsiflexion angle which sets the foot up for a hard-hitting heel strike.

The big take home message from the study is minimalist running shoes are actually more clinically meaningful on account of their capacity to engage the mechanical re-alignment, that is discouraging heel strike and instead encourages a flatter foot placement on the forefoot, giving you a more maximal level of impact protection as compared to a thick heeled running shoe, which has the unintended effect of producing more impact by making it easier to land harder on your heels.
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  • A flatter foot placement seen in a forefoot strike landing lowers vertical impact peaks and instantaneous loading.
  • Essentially, the foot is better able to strike the ground on the balls of the foot in flatter running shoes, like minimalist running shoes.

This is why its critical to wear minimalist running shoes when trying to run with proper, low-impact form because the heelless aspect of these shoes allow better control over the movement and range of motion of your foot at landing.

Last but not least, the firm belief that thickly cushioned running shoes is essential to prevent injurious impacts is repeatedly knocked down in the literature.  And, from an evolutionary perspective, human did not evolve to run in overly cushioned running shoes with an overly raised cushioned heel, rather we ran barefoot and in thinner footwear injury-free because these running conditions kept us from running on our heels. Early humans had a running style led by sensory input, and that running style was a forefoot strike.

Nonetheless, heeled running shoes interfere with our innate ability to interact safely with the ground during running and should be thought of as a liability rather than a training aid. In that light, here are more evidence-backed reason minimalist running shoes are safer and more helpful in more ways than cushioned running shoes.

If you enjoyed my post, you’ll love my YouTube channel, here, where I also talk about the evidence-back reasons forefoot running is better than heel strike running.

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References:

Daoud et al. Foot strike and injury rates in endurance runners: A retrospective study. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2012; 44:1325–1334.

Gruber., A.H., Warne, J.P., Hamill, J. Isolated effects of footwear structure and cushioning on running mechanics in habitual midfoot/forefoot runners. Sports Biomech, 2022; 22(3):422-441.

Hartveld, A. Heelless sports shoe with force transmission. UK IP Office, 2007; patent no GB 2 437 698 A.

Sinclair et al. Investigation into the kinetics and kinematics during running in the heelless shoe. Footwear Sci, 2014; 6(3):139-145.

Williams, D.S., McClay, I.S., and Manal, K.T. Lower extremity mechanics in runners with a converted forefoot strike pattern. J Appl Biomech, 2000; 16: 210–218.

Xiaotian et al., Effect of minimalist shoes on foot muscle morphology: systematic evaluation and Meta-analysis. Chin J Tiss Eng Res, 2024; 28(4): 646-50.

Xu, J., Saliba S.A & Jaffri, A.H. The effects of minimalist shoes on plantar intrinsic foot muscles size and strength: a systemic review, 2023. Int J Sports Meds., 2023; 44(05): 320-28.

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Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!