Right now there is a lot of interest in minimalist shoes and also barefoot running shoes. Most of the shoe companies now have a light, low support shoe aimed helping you to achieve a running technique that is more like running barefoot. The theory being that this is a more natural running style and should mean you are able to run faster with fewer injuries. So are these shoes and this theory right for you? And which shoe should you choose?
Together with Quinn McNorton we have reviewed a range of minimalist running shoes and given our point of view on each pair. Hopefully this will help you to make an informed decision about which shoe would be best for you, and whether or not barefoot running is something you should pursue.
Don’t worry were not completely winging this we are both pretty well qualified, I am a Podiatrist and am competing at the Age Group World Triathlon Champs in Auckland later this year. My friend Quinn is a physiotherapist and a well accomplished surf sport athlete and endurance triathlete.
When it comes to foot type I am a true over pronator, training in the very supportive Asics Keyano with heavily modified Formthotics™. It took me a good year of running drills and video analysis to improve my running form; sometimes I do still over stride which over a long distance again is not ideal.
Quinn has more of a neutral foot type, this means her foot doesn’t roll in or out too much. She is however a toey runner from years of soft sand running with surf sport and she tends to have a forward lean. It will be interesting to see how the minimalist shoes affect our running form and how our different foot types tolerate them.
Before I get onto the shoes though there are a few things you should consider before you take to the pavement barefoot;
- If you have a history of running related injuries or are currently injured visit your local physiotherapist or podiatrist first to get these sorted. A muscle balance assessment to identify key areas of lower limb weakness would also pay off as you can concentrate on strengthening these areas prior to starting to minimise risk of injury.
- Have a running technique assessment and re-training session – there are a few Podiatrists, Physiotherapists, Personal trainers and Running groups that offer this. Usually this involves teaching you how to hold the barefoot running form, BUT with your shoes on.
- Don’t expect to be running your usual 10km loop in bare feet overnight, it takes months of slowly building up your sessions barefoot to be able to achieve the same distance. Your body is used to having the support of solid running shoes, you need to train it slowly to not rely on these and build up strength. A good way to start is do the first 5 minutes barefoot and then put your shoes on, slowly upping the time barefoot as each week passes. Doing too much barefoot too soon could be detrimental resulting in injury.
- Consider progressing through a range of shoes. As mentioned above barefoot running form, one of the main benefits associated with barefoot running, can be achieved in you trusty supportive shoes. Once you have mastered this you could move to a slightly less supportive shoe, and then consider something like the Vibram FiveFinger and eventually bare feet if this is what you desire.
In this review we included the “true” minimalist running shoe, Vibram FiveFinger, the Nike Free, the Merrell Pace Glove and the Asics Neo 33. We tested all the shoes on and off road for the same distance and also tried Formthotics™ in the shoes they would fit in. We evaluated everything from looks to feel, our results were surprising.
We scored on a scale of 1-5, 5 being excellent. Overall Quinn chose the Nike Free as her preferred shoe and I chose the Vibram 5 finger.
First up is the Nike Free. It was one of the first minimalist running shoes on the market and has been around for a few years now in various models. It’s a very nice looking shoe, available in an array of “pop” colours and is as light as a feather – all very appealing. Getting the shoe on however was an interesting task. The tongue is fastened to the shoe so you have to wiggle your foot into the “one size fits all” hole.
Once the Nike Free was on and we were running they were great; it truly felt like you had nothing on your feet! Quinn loved them. She found them the best for off-road when fitted with Formthotics™, claiming “they made me feel powerful”. The Formthotics made her feel more stable due to their moulded shape providing better feedback from the sole of her foot. Quinn’s only negative feedback was that after a while she started to feel pressure and heat under the balls of her feet. This is a sure sign that the lack of feedback the Nike provided was letting her run on her forefoot rather than landing on her midfoot.
For me the thick cushioned sole unit was a let-down, it masked the proprioceptive feedback you want to experience when running barefoot. Not having this feedback also affected my form, allowing me to over stride. One of the benefits of having a good connection with the ground when running barefoot is that you are forced to take shorter steps. It’s uncomfortable to over stride due to increased shock on landing. I also found sticks and stones were stuck in the sole by the end of my off road adventure which was a pain once back on the road.
For Quinn this was her favourite off road shoe with Formthotics fitted, for me I found them too soft and unstable due to the thicker sole unit. I personally would not use these for running, possibly walking the dog for a short time, but they would be great for a surf athlete pre-race to warm up the intrinsic foot muscles without risk of being stabbed by shells.
Comfort Style Flexibility
Although the Nikes were a bit of an effort to get on, the Vibram FiveFinger took the cake. Not only did we have to squeeze our feet into the shoe again but we also had to ensure each toe piece matched the corresponding digit – a work out in itself! It quickly became apparent that for those of you with a longer second toe these are not the shoes for you as the toe pieces decrease in length with each digit. Once on these were surprisingly comfortable and felt supportive as they contoured well to the sole of the foot, providing good proprioceptive feedback. Running in them was great, both on and off road; the sole unit had great flexibility and wasn’t too thick, which meant adaptation to uneven terrain was effortless. Our only complaint is when landing on a sharp object you may as well be barefoot as the pain is not masked!
Comfort Style Flexibility
Merrell Pace Glove
The Merrell Pace Glove is another true minimalist shoe. Again these were nice and light weight and hugged the foot well, like a Glove you could say. Unlike the Vibram FiveFinger the Merrell Pace Glove sole unit was not as flexible; it was one solid rubber piece whereas the Vibram was lots of little pieces providing better flexibility. The Merrell felt more restrictive when running off road, but it provided more protection from nasty sticks and stones and felt good when running on road. This would also be a great shoe for rock climbing.
Asics Neo 33
Asics Neo 33 would definitely be classed as a transition shoe to minimalist running. They are light weight yet still torsionally rigid through the mid sole with a small amount of duo max for additional support. Don’t get me wrong, they are far from the robust nature of more well-known Asics running shoe models, but when compared to the other minimalist shoes they are still quite controlling. The Asics Neo 33 was the most Formthotics™ friendly, which further enhanced proprioception both on and off road. They provided enough rigidity to feel supported but were light enough to make us feel fast. The only negative was that the more cushioning again lead to more heel striking and over stride rather than mid foot striking.
This video of Quinn shows the change in running form between the a true minimalist shoe and a transition shoe (Link to running video of Quinn)
The technique and form gained from running barefoot is the true benefit behind this craze. It will shorten your stride and help you land on your mid foot, much closer to your centre. This should reduce injury and fatigue, and over time increase efficiency. Barefoot running takes time and we would recommend you see this as a long term project. Start with a good transition shoe such as the Asics Neo 33; get some Formthotics™ and some running technique advice from your podiatrist. Remember you are doing this to reduce injuries so be careful!
Rebecca Gifford Podiatrist and Quinn McNorton Physiotherapist