In 2010, journalist Christopher McDougall published Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Through this book and a subsequent TED Talk, McDougall popularized the idea that humans evolved to run barefoot, and we shouldn’t try to technologically “improve” upon the running equipment nature gave us. According to McDougall, running shoes may be slowing us down and causing injury by interfering with our natural gait.

Are We “Born to Run”?

McDougall takes his inspiration from a reclusive tribe of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara. Living in a remote region of Mexico called the Copper Canyons, the Tarahumara have maintained their traditional way of life with relatively little impact from modern technology. One aspect of that traditional way of life is running marathons. As McDougall said at TED, “deep into old age—70 to 80 years old—these guys aren’t running marathons; they’re running mega-marathons. They’re not doing 26 miles; they’re doing 100, 150 miles at a time, and apparently without injury, without problems.”

Vibram Five Fingers "shoe glove" for runners

McDougall thinks the Tarahumara have tapped into a capacity from deep in humanity’s evolutionary past. Before we had edged weapons, humans were “endurance hunters.” We weren’t the fastest creatures on the savannah, but thanks to our sweat glands, we could go long distances while other creatures tired quickly. We caught and killed animals by chasing them until they lay down from exhaustion and gave up the ghost.

So why are the Tarahumara such great runners? What if it isn’t that the Tarahumara—a culture that still lives like our ancient ancestors—have somehow invented something new? What if, instead, they’ve simply preserved an ancient capacity that the rest of us modern, technological humans have lost? What if we all have the capacity to run ultra-marathons at 80, and we’ve just messed it up by wearing fancy cushioned running shoes? The Tarahumara run naked, either barefoot or with only thin leather sandals on their feet. What if we tried that?

Rock and Roll Makes for Good Music, but Bad Running Shoes

Okay, so you’re probably not ready to strip off your shoes and clothes and go running down the scalding hot asphalt street heedless of broken beer bottles, rusty nails, and discarded syringes. That’s why running shoe manufacturers have sought to engineer a compromise between barefoot running and protecting the foot.

In order to design an effective “minimalist” running shoe, shoe manufacturers have carefully studied how barefoot running works. Traditional running shoes encourage a front-to-back rocking motion, with the runner’s weight landing first on the heel of the foot, and then transitioning to the front.

Altra zero-drop trail running shoe

Running shoes also increase the amount of pronation, the side-to-side rolling motion of the foot. If you get this side-to-side rolling motion wrong, you may be more likely to injure yourself. Underpronators put too much pressure on the outside of the foot, and overpronators put too much pressure on the inside. Neutral pronation even distributes the weight across the whole foot.

A certain amount of pronation is natural, but the foot seems to pronate a lot more in running shoes than when running barefoot. According to a 1991 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise,  “Excessive pronation is accepted as a good indicator for various running injuries. The least amount of pronation takes place when running barefoot.” The study’s authors suggest that “In order to reduce the risk of injury, running shoes should be improved “with respect to torsion and . . . pronation.”

Reinventing the Running Shoe to Promote Natural Gait

Some shoe brands, like ASICS and Saucony, have responded to this research by redesigning the traditional running shoe to help correct undesirable pronation. They’ve designed shoes for overpronators, like the ASICS men’s GEL-Kayano 27 running shoe, for underpronators, like the Saucony men’s Echelon 7 running shoe, and for neutral pronators, like the ASICS women’s GEL-Cumulus 22 running shoe. These are great corrective options if you know your pronation type. However, to find out your pronation type, you really need to go to a podiatrist, sports doctor, or specialty running store. It’s not something you can easily diagnose at home.

Other shoe brands have moved toward “minimalist” running shoes in order to simulate barefoot running. One of the better-known brands taking this approach is an 80-year-old Italian company called Vibram. In 2004, Vibram launched its Five Fingers product line. Billed as a “shoe glove” or a “glove for your foot,” Five Fingers combines a thin, flexible rubber sole with a fabric upper that conforms to your foot shape and individually separates your toes. More recently Vibram has also launched its Furoshiki product line, which is a similar concept but without the individually separated toes.

Vibram Five Fingers minimalist running shoe

One brand that falls somewhere halfway between these two approaches is Altra. Altra introduced three innovations. Firstly, it put a “rock plate” in the midsole of its running shoes to provide stability when there are rocks underfoot. Secondly, Altra enlarged the “toe box” of its running shoes in order to allow more room for toes to “splay” naturally within the shoe. And third, Altra eliminated the heel-to-toe drop found in traditional running shoes. Most running shoes place the heel 5-12 mm higher than the forefoot. Altra, however, uses a “zero-drop” design, placing the heel and forefoot at the same height. The idea of a “zero-drop” shoe is to encourage runners to strike the ground with their forefoot rather than their heel.

Taking a similar tack to Altra, the Belleville Boot Company has even applied the principles of minimalist footwear design to US military combat boots. The Belleville men's Mini-Mil is the first-ever minimalist boot approved for US Army and Air Force use. With a 2 mm heel-to-toe drop, the Mini-Mil is a "low-drop" design. An extra-wide toe box allows the toes to splay, and a thin sole lets you feel the terrain underfoot. This may not sound like it would sell, but you'd be surprised. Soldiers rave about the Mini-Mil's incredibly light weight, at just 16 ounces per boot. On a long training march or run, a lighter boot can help a lot!

Be Careful, and Take Some Time to Transition

At the end of the day, there is no magic running shoe that will automatically prevent injury. Injury prevention is about technique, and the purpose of minimalist running shoes is to encourage good technique. The transition to good technique, however, will probably still take some time and attention. Years of bad habits don’t go away just because you put on a different shoe. If you adopt a minimalistic running shoe, make sure you’re using it correctly, and striking the ground with your forefoot rather than your heel.

It’s also important not to go too hard, too fast. Forefoot-strike running uses different muscles than heel-strike running does. You likely won’t be able to go the same distance at the same speed while you transition from one to the other. In fact, transitioning too fast can actually lead to injury. You need to take the time to build the new muscles you’re using before you push them too hard. Make sure to properly stretch or even foam roll your muscles, as well. It may take up to three months to safely complete the transition.