Nike’s minimalist running shoes increase injury risk

The debate continues to rage unabated; does wearing footwear that mimics barefoot running reduce injury risk and improve gait compared to traditional trainers? Ever since Christopher McDougall extolled the virtues of barefoot running in his 2009 book Born to Run, sports wear companies have tried to capitalise on the trend.

Nike Vs. Vibram Five Fingers -

Sales of minimalist footwear have shot through the roof in recent years. One of the most accurate sources comes from the US sports research firm, Sports One Source. They recorded a 30% increase in sales from 2011 to 2012, with record peak of $400 million sold in 2012.

Since that record year, sales have dropped by as much as 30% leaving some to argue that minimalist footwear was just a fad that has seen its day. Whether that is the case or not means little to the biggest sports wear companies who continue to invest huge sums in minimalist footwear.

Nike has been one of the most enthusiastic companies to launch into the minimalist footwear market, with it's Nike Free models. On the other hand, Vibram Five Fingers were an early adopter of near barefoot shoes that sell just as well for their stylish, funky looks.

A new report from Australia...

Now a new report in the prestigious British Journal of Sports Medicine has waded into the debate pitting the Nike minimalist shoe against the near barefoot Vibram Five Fingers. The report by Dr Michael Ryan from the Centre of Musculoskeletal Research in Queensland, Australia could have companies rethinking some their hottest footwear designs.

Barefoot running has proved enormously tempting to many runners because of the widespread claims that ditching conventional trainers can dramatically reduce your risk of injury. The theory goes that barefoot running reduces impact forces and loading on the knee joint. Its believed that unshod running leads to a positive change in running gait with a higher cadence recorded and reduced knee and hip flexion.

But can minimalist shoes replicate these benefits? The manufacturers take away the elevated heel and deep cushioning from conventional trainers to make the running experience more natural but with a degree of protection. On the other hand, near barefoot shoes have zero cushioning. In many cases a thin layer of rubber is all that protects your foot from the ground underneath.

Minimalist Vs. Near Barefoot...

Dr Mcdougall and his team tested both types of shoe. Fighting for minimalist shoes was the Nike Free V3.0 whilst the Vibram Five Fingers competed for the near barefoot movement. With some recent reports suggesting that barefoot running can cause unnecessary pain and serious stress fractures in the foot would these two shoes raise any concerns?

The study conducted in Vancouver, Canada pitted three groups of recreational runners against each other. The first group wore conventional running shoes with the second group wearing Nike Free trainers and the third group in the Vibram Five Fingers. The participants embarked on a 12 week training programme, increasing from 160 minutes running in the first week and going up to 215 minutes by week 10.

In an attempt to avoid injury the runners slowly built up the time that they wore the trainers This follows on from reports that runners who take to wearing minimalist shoes too quickly are more likely to develop stress fractures and plantar fascia injury.

The results are in...

And the results? Wearing minimalist and near barefoot shoes will increase your likelihood of injury. In this latest study the injury rate was a massive 160% for runners who wore Vibram Five Fingers compared to conventional running shoe wearers. However, even more worrying was the Nike Free trainers where the rate of injury shot up to a staggering 310%.

Both the Vibram and Nike wearers felt more pain than conventional shoe wearers with pain felt most in:

  • The foot and ankle
  • Shin and calf
  • Knee, hip and lower back

The researchers unsurprisingly concluded that "...wearing minimalist shoes places and unfamiliar runner at an over greater risk of experiencing an injury that stops running or experiencing running related pain...".

The future...

Interestingly, despite Nike marketing the Free V3.0 shoe as a 'minimalist' shoe, the researchers did not find any evidence that the shoe changed running biomechanics as would be expected with barefoot running. They suspect that the Nike shoe reduces shock absorbency and stability compared to conventional shoes. However, the shoe maintains enough padding to prevent the runner from feeling the ground they are running on; as a result their gait does't change in the manner it should.

With this report published in such an influential journal lets hope that Nike take heed and go back to the drawing board on this shoe. For any runner contemplating the switch to minimalist footwear there is a growing body of opinion that says, take it slow and build up your mileage over a long period of time. It's not time to throw out your conventional running shoes just yet.

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  • Andrew
    I have been running in minimalist (~4mm drop) shoes for over 2 years with no major issues at all. It instantly took away my (previously ongoing) knee pain, and after a slow intro, never had any plantar fascia etc issues at all. I've run approx 3200km in this type of shoes and my only injuries have been from pulled muscles (mainly due to my inflexibility) I just purchased my 4th pair of minimalist shoes last week, and won't be going back to the conventional shoes any time soon!
    • admin
      Andrew, great to hear that you have had such a positive experience. I've got to stay that I haven't gone to minimalist shoes just yet but I'm very tempted to try it. Thanks for your comment! Chris,
  • chris
    i think the key is consciously adjusting your form, as well as easing into the transition to reduce injury. 160 minutes in the first week seems high. for an average runner thats something like 25-30k a week. the first time i went out completely barefoot i ran maybe 2k and then went home and recovered for over 2 weeks as my achilles tendon was super sore and my calves were on fire. now i do half marathons in 0mm drop shoes with no issues and almost never get injured. i do agree about nike frees not being minimalist shoes. if anything they are lightweight trainers but marketing is everything and minimalism sells.