As with many things in life, it depends…
The short answer is good (for most people), but the long answer is a bit more complicated.
As anyone who has read Chris McDougal’s infamous book “Born to Run” can tell you, the (formerly) modern running shoe model – a thicker sole on the heel side for extra cushioning – was a design “experiment” by Phil Knight of Nike and other shoe manufacturers beginning back in the 1970’s & 80’s. The idea was to allow runners to extend the knee further out for a longer stride length, landing on the heel rather than the mid-foot.
But when we look at the true function of the human foot, many of the design and mechanical advantages are lost with this heel-strike style of running. Yes, you may get a slightly longer stride (hence, more distance covered), but that comes with a price: less shock absorption and thus higher potential risk of injury. It’s back to the old adage: short term gain for long term pain. Research on minimal shoes is showing this to generally be true; injury rates do seem to go down in runners who wear less cushioned shoes. This is basically due to the changes in absorption of Ground Reaction Forces (GRF) with different patterns of foot strike (fore foot, mid foot, or rear foot).
Ground Reaction Forces are the forces transmitted up through the leg and body when the foot hits the ground. Research clearly shows these are reduced with a mid- or forefoot strike when compared to a rear foot strike. In addition, runners using more of a rear foot strike are more prone to shin splints. In a heel-striking stride, the front of the lower leg must generate extra force to control the front of the foot from coming down too hard (known as “foot slap”). It is this phenomenon that many experts believe leads to the most common & severe injuries runners tend to experience.
In summary, for most runners, minimalist shoes may provide benefit in terms of better shock absorption and decreased risk of injury, but this is dependent on alteration of their running pattern from a rear foot strike to more of a mid- or forefoot strike. This does not happen automatically in a minimalist shoe — and it’s not impossible to change your strike pattern in a traditional running shoe. But studies show it is more likely to happen with minimalist or transition shoes with less cushioning on the heel.
The bottom line is – one needs to allow time for the body to adapt to this change in running pattern, and allow the muscles and tendons of the foot and lower extremity to accommodate the changes in absorption of the GRFs.
Most experts believe “transition” shoes – with less of a heel pad or heel raise than traditional running shoes – are an important first step before going to a full barefoot style shoe (with no heel cushioning at all). Furthermore, anyone that has had Achilles tendon issues, injuries, or other previous problems involving the foot or ankle may not be ideal candidates for minimalist shoes. If these issues are a concern for you, have a medically trained biomechanical expert evaluate your feet, ankles and movement patterns before changing shoes.
For more information and recommendations, check out this article about the different types of minimalist shoes.
Do you have experience transitioning to a minimal shoe? Share your experience below!