Warning: Opinion only (albeit hopefully based on science and experience : )
Having examined much of the research on barefoot running, minimalist shoe running, foot strike patterns, and the relationship of these variables to injury risk and performance, I’ve come to two (2) conclusions: 1) Running is risky (over 50% of all runners will experience injury at some point in his/her career) and 2) Injury risk varies depending on foot strike running style. All runners, regardless of foot strike pattern, are at risk of injury because running is a tremendous musculoskeletal stress. Fortunately, the musculoskeletal system is quite adept at adapting to stress; if the runner properly “doses” the stresses to the body, the body will happily and effectively adapt. But if the runner over-doses these stresses, the body will react negatively (i.e., injuries), regardless of the foot strike landing style, shoe wear (or lack thereof), experience, etc.
In terms of injury risk, it appears that barefoot runners (and runners who land with a midfoot or forefoot strike) have lower risk of injury at the knee and hip, but perhaps an elevated risk of injury at the foot and Achilles tendon. There remains insufficient evidence to verify this – I make this observation strictly based on biomechanical studies of landing forces. Heel strike runners (most of us) place greater stresses on the knee and hip, compared with midfoot/forefoot strikers. So, while each style “reduces” risk of injury, each style also comes with elevated risk of injury. The key remains: Dosage! But, there is a slowly growing body of evidence to suggest that forefoot/midfoot strike landing might, I repeat might, be perhaps a bit more safe than heel strike landing. With that said, how might one transition to a forefoot/midfoot strike runner? The key is likely foot wear.
There are dozens of “minimalist” running shoes on the market. However, based on a few observational studies, even running in a minimalist shoe does not guarantee a foreward striking running style. Heel striking continues to be observed in runners even when wearing minimalist shoes. I suspect part of the dilemma is the fact that even the most minimal of minimalist “running shoes” remain too similar to their standard running shoe cousins: in general appearance (laces, heel counter, uppers, outer sole, etc.). Anecdotally, running friends have told me they need to really “concentrate” on their running form, in order to land more forward on the foot, even when wearing their “minimalist” shoes. I have experienced similar when testing multiple different minimalist shoes. That is, until I tried on a pair of what I would call “Socks with a sole” (Sockwa G3).
What is more minimal than a sock? Given that a sock provides absolutely no support to the foot, and essentially no protection to the bottom of the foot, a sock is truly minimal. The Sockwa is basically one slight upgrade over a sock in that it adds a protective sole to the bottom of the sock. When I ran in the G3, I was actually forced to land with a foreward strike pattern – identical to how I run when barefoot. I am not a barefoot runner, but of course I do run barefoot (to get the mail, to run home from the beach, etc.). The Sockwa G3 is as close to running barefoot as I have experienced – and no comparison at all to the “minimalist” running shoes on the market. This is not to disparage minimalist running shoes but only to point out that a sock is about as close to barefoot running as a shoe can become.
I have successfully completed several runs now in the G3 and have had no difficulty at all maintaining a forward striking running style. It happens naturally, without much thought. This is quite different than my experiences with my “minimalist” shoes in which I have to consciously work on my stride to maintain a forward strike running style. Again, this is my own personal experience. But I have found in a short time that the G3 is a better foot cover for running in terms of promoting a barefoot type running technique.
So, if your running goal includes transitioning to a foreward foot strike running style (like barefoot running) because you hope to change your risk of injury, I certainly recommend giving the G3 a try. And as with all new stress, don’t over-dose. Gradually add new running stresses – listening to your body as it reacts to these stressors. If you are an experienced runner, but new to foreward strike landing, or new to a minimalist shoe, begin with shorter runs to give your Achilles tendon and your foot bones (the tarsals and metatarsals in particular) a chance to adapt to this new running form. If you are new runner, ditto J I cannot recommend a specific level of dosage – this is person dependent – but your body should be able to provide you with important feedback – so listen carefully to what it is telling you.