Quicker than you can say, “backlash,” thick-soled running shoes have sped to prominence on store display shelves everywhere.
Reacting against the minimalist trend, makers of maximalist shoes offer a softer ride. But a couple of new studies suggest maximalist shoes might actually cause more injuries.
Only a few years ago, minimalist shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers were riding a surge in popularity. That movement hit its stride in 2009 with the publication of Christopher McDougall’s salute to barefoot running, Born to Run.
Barefoot advocates like McDougall argued that taking off your shoes changes the way you run. Without padded heels, you strike the ground with the front part of your foot first, then your heel. Your calf muscles absorb some of the shock, so less of it travels to your knees, hips and back.
Minimalist shoes were supposed to provide at least some of the benefits of running barefoot.
Researchers backed up these claims with some laboratory evidence. Among others, Irene Davis, director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard, showed that people running barefoot or in minimal shoes hit the ground with less sudden force, what they call “vertical impact loading.”
Other research has shown that people who run with slower vertical impact loading get injured less often.
Minimalist Vs. Maximalist Shoes
But running stores I’ve visited recently are closing out their supply of minimalist shoes. In their place they are stocking shoes like the Hoka One One.
While heels are not much thicker, the soles of these maximalist shoes put about 2.5 times more space between the ball of your foot and the ground than traditional running shoes.
Hoka’s marketing materials speak of “higher volume, softer density, and greater rebounding foam than standard running shoes.”
So why are maximalist shoes suddenly so popular?
Adding impetus to the pendulum swing of fashion, many people who tried minimalist shoes reported injuries. Calf and Achilles’ tendon problems are particularly common.
Maximalist Shoe Injuries Study
Davis and her colleagues decided to put maximalist shoes to the test. They measured vertical loading time in 14 experienced runners both with maximalist shoes and with traditional shoes – the kind most people used from the 1970s up to now.
Contrary to the claims by makers of maximalist shoes, the researchers found that the vertical average loading rate was about 50% faster with the maximalist shoes.
“Cushioning lulls you into thinking you can slam your foot down,” Davis told me when I interviewed her for Medscape Medical News about the study at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting last month.
Also at that meeting, University of Nevada researchers reported a similar finding: an “earlier impact peak” with maximalist shoes compared to traditional ones.
But the Nevada researchers also pointed out a lot of variation among the seven runners they tested. “It’s probably not one-size-fits-all,” session moderator Clare Milner of Drexel University told me.
If your knees, hips or back hurt from running, you might want to make the slow, careful transition to minimalist footwear. For me, it’s made the difference between running and not running.
But if you get calf or Achilles’ tendon pain, you just might want to give maximalist shoes a go.
It’s lucky we have options.
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