Barefoot running, or minimalist running, is increasingly popular today. Minimalist shoes selling for $75-$125 are flying off the shelves. Sales of the most popular brand have increased 27,000 percent from 2006 to 2009, and the company projects they will quadruple in the next few years.  Best-selling books, famous runners, and running magazines are all promoting the benefits of barefoot or minimalist running.

New running shoes is not really a big deal. Before minimalist running shoes, shoe manufacturers promoted motion control shoes, shock absorbing shoes, and other styles, but what was hot a few years ago is ancient history now.

Shoe Shock!

Super high-tech shock absorbing shoes have not put a stop to running injuries.

Barefoot running, especially in an urban environment, is complicated due to the presence of glass, metal, and other hazardous obstacles in the path of the runner. Minimalist running shoes were developed to provide some protection from these hazards, while remaining extremely light. These shoes have limited cushioning on the bottom.

Devotees of minimalist running claim a more natural running style, a decreased risk of injury, and less energy is consumend in running. So, is there any truth to these claims?

Hope and Hype

Do minimalist shoes lead to fewer injuries? Read on.

As with many fads, the science of barefoot running  lags way behind the hype. Some efficiency is gained from barefoot or minimalist running. This is probably due to alterations in the foot strike pattern of minimally shod runners versus habitually shod runners. However, the benefit is only about 3%.

One study looked at the effect of the weight of the shoe versus the type of the shoe. The results showed that heavier shoes definitely cause the runner to use more energy during running, but shoe type did not make a difference. The researchers concluded  there was no definite energy advantage to minimalist shoes over normal shoes of similar weight.

Barefoot runners may also alter their footstrike pattern (more). Barefoot or minimalist runners tend to be forefoot strikers. Forefoot strikers have fewer injuries per mile than rearfoot strikers according to one study.

Energy Return

Minimalist running shoes lead to an energy savings of about 3% compared to similar "normal" shoes.

The most important claims are that minimalist running or barefoot running leads to fewer injuries. This could be a huge benefit, because runners have anywhere from 20% to 79% risk of injury. There is a great deal of hope, as well a boatload of hype, that minimalist or barefoot running might lead to a decrease in running injuries.

Research shows that forefoot running decreases injury, but runners can run this way an regular running shoes. There is no proof that the shoes themselves prevent injury. In addition, recently published research shows that runners who change from normal running shoes to minimalist running shoes may suffer injury shortly after switching. That is, in the first few months after switching to minimalist shoes, many runners experience injuries, including stress fractures of the metatarsals and plantar fascia rupture. The research suggests that an abrupt transition from normal shoes to minimal running shoes or barefoot running  can lead to an increased risk of injury.

Dr. DeGroot recommends that runners wishing to switch from normal running shoes to minimal running shoes or barefoot running plan a gradual transition over several months. In addition, running on a cushioned track for the first several months following the transition is recommended.