Minimalist Footwear During Exercise: Is It Right for You?

To Go Minimalist or Not - That Is the Question

Minimalist Footwear
Laura Williams

About six months ago my husband went for a run, and came home with foot pain. As a former athlete, he was no stranger to injury, so he set to work on rest and rehab - he reined in his running workouts and stuck to walking, he iced and massaged his foot at night and bought a new pair of shoes, just in case they were the problem.

Four months later, he was still experiencing fairly substantial pain.

It was then he noticed something funny - his foot only hurt while wearing shoes.

Walking barefoot felt great.

So he bought a pair of minimalist shoes to wear to work and a second pair of minimalist shoes to wear during workouts. The pain gradually diminished.

We've since learned he has a foot condition known as a plantar fibroma, the remedy for which is, essentially, wearing minimalist footwear or going barefoot.

His experience got me thinking: I've always been a fan of living barefoot - in fact, I don't wear shoes unless I absolutely have to - so should I be going barefoot during my workouts, too? Should you?

The Rise of the Minimalist Footwear Trend

Minimalist footwear began trending shortly after the bestselling book, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, hit the shelves in 2009. McDougall asserted that humans are built to "run free," and that padded, technical running shoes built up with EVA foam actually interfere with natural running form, leading to potential injury.

Granted, the scientific evidence supporting this claim is still shaky (there's a lot of evidence, but it's fairly inconclusive), but the book created a movement toward minimalism - of going back to the basics - and shoe manufacturers followed suit.

Understanding Minimalist Footwear

There's a lot of confusing information out there about minimalist footwear.

To cut through the junk, I turned to Sean Scales, the SVP of Merchandising at ShoeBuy who heads up buying and trendspotting for athletic and outdoor shoes. to get clear-cut answers.

What Is Minimalist Footwear?

According to Scales, "Minimalist footwear is named so because there's a minimal amount of midsole between the ground and the bottom of your foot. The measurement of the thickness of the midsole is called the stack height. It's measured at the heel and the forefoot, with minimalist shoes having little to no difference between the heel and forefoot heights (called 'drop')."

That said, some confusion arises when companies start throwing around the phrase "zero drop" in conjunction with minimalism. Zero drop refers to a shoe without a difference between heel and forefoot height. While some shoes can claim a zero or small drop, that doesn't mean they're without other "maximalist" features, such as EVA foam cushioning along the length of the shoe. In a study published in May 2015 in PLOS ONE, these zero drop shoes with maximalist features were referred to as "cushioned minimalist" shoes.

This is in comparison to "uncushioned minimalist" shoes - shoes with little to no padding at all between the foot and the ground.

To give you an idea of the difference, Newton shoes would be categorized as "cushioned minimalist" shoes, while Vibram FiveFingers would fall into the "uncushioned minimalist" category.

What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Switching to a Minimalist Shoe?

In my husband's case, switching to an uncushioned minimalist shoe more or less solved his foot problems, but he had a legitimate condition to justify the change. For the average individual, not affected by a specific condition, Scales says that one of the biggest benefits of minimalist shoes is that, "They offer a greater touch - you're closer to the ground and you may feel more stable. Many studies suggest that using minimalist footwear can help strengthen your feet which can improve your balance."

That said, they're not appropriate for everyone. "Because the shoes offer little to no protection or stability, those with chronic or diagnosed foot issues should see a podiatrist before getting a pair."

Is There a "Right Way" to Transition to a Minimalist Shoe?

To provide anecdotal research for this article, I decided to transition my workouts (all of my workouts - walking, running, jumping rope, strength training and plyometrics) to minimalist footwear. Against my better judgement, I did so immediately and completely.

I wouldn't recommend it. While I had no problem walking, strength training or jumping rope while wearing minimalist shoes, running and plyometrics were a whole different beast. The workouts themselves were fine - different, for sure, but not uncomfortable. What was a complete disaster was the delayed onset muscle soreness I experienced in my feet, calves, and ankles. I felt like I could barely walk I was so sore!

According to Scales, I did everything wrong, "Take it slow, even if you're just wearing them as an everyday shoe. Transitioning depends on many factors: Your starting point, how strong your feet currently are, your activity level, your weight and even the terrain you train on."

In other words, try wearing them for the first 10 minutes of your workout, then switch to your regular shoes. Next time out, wear them a little longer before you switch. Within a few weeks (aim for four to six weeks), you'll build the strength and stamina to wear your minimalist shoes for a full workout.

Are There Times or Activities Where Minimalist Shoes Are Inappropriate?

Minimalist shoes are usually associated with running, but as a former basketball player who grew up wearing some of the biggest, bulkiest shoes around, I was curious whether certain sports or activities would actually be inappropriate for minimalist shoes. According to Scales, no. "Considering there are people who run ultramarathons and participate at high levels in CrossFit competitions while wearing minimalist shoes, the answer is 'no,' provided you've eased your way into wearing the shoes and have an understanding of how they'll feel and your body will react."

Research agrees... at least to the extent that six years of research can agree. For instance, a study published in 2015 in Research in Sports and Medicine: An International Journal, found that switching to minimalist shoes during depth jumping - the act of jumping from a raised surface to the ground (which happens to be highly correlated with knee injuries) actually might help reduce knee pain, as it limits patellofemoral pressure and knee abduction movement - both associated with knee injuries. Likewise, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2015 found that lateral cutting movements (common in sports like basketball, volleyball, and soccer) performed barefoot placed no greater stress on the ACL than when performed wearing athletic shoes.

Can Minimalist Shoes Lead to Increased Injuries?

It's important to note that minimalist shoes aren't for everyone, and while they're often associated with a reduction in knee pain and injury, they're sometimes correlated with an increased risk for foot pain and injury.

Essentially, you could be trading one problem for another.

The takeaway, then, is to find a shoe you personally like - that offers the support and "ground feel" you most appreciate. For instance, my husband doesn't plan to switch back to a traditional shoe at any point in the future. He now owns minimalist shoes for work, play and exercise. Likewise, I'm enjoying my transition to complete minimalism - I really like feeling "connected to the earth" during exercise. That said, I'm also a fan of killer heels and clunky boots, neither of which I plan to give up.

Giving Them a Try

If you're interested in trying minimalist shoes for exercise, consider finding a pair on sale and working them into your routine. The first pair I purchased I got a killer deal on - just $39 for Nike Free Cross Bionics, normally a $100 shoe. I loved them, bought another pair. As long as you gradually ease your way into barefoot training, there's no reason you can't incorporate minimalist shoes into every workout.

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