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Over the past few years, barefoot (or close to it) running has become extremely popular. New Balance, Nike, Saucony, and I'm sure more have come out with minimal shoes, not to mention the Vibram Five Fingers.

We hear enough about the benefits from ad campaigns - what are some potential downsides of running in minimalist shoes?

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I think that inherently there's nothing bad about minimal shoes, but as the saying goes: "if the shoe fits, wear it". The shoes aren't for everyone, so while it may be great for some, they can be harmful to others.

A shoe like the Nike Free was designed to be used together with regular running shoes, to mimic barefoot walking on a grass field, as an additional workout. Studies from the university of Cologne showed that the strength in certain muscles (especially the one used for bending the large toe) increased after training with the Nike Free.

But you can imagine what happens when somebody starts using them all the time, rather than complementary to normal running shoes. Instead of increasing strength, you're far more likely to overuse those muscles instead.

I agree with a lot of the arguments that are being made in the advantage of these shoes, but I would personally only recommend them to more seasoned runners and people without overweight or excessive pronation. The first group has the technique and the fitness to cope with additional stresses that might arise from wearing them. The other two points mainly exclude two high risk factors for getting injuries in the first place, so I wouldn't recommend them to experiment

Perhaps everyone could wear them, but then I would advise them to start wearing gradually and preferably as much as possible. The advantage of this is that you give your body the time to adapt and strengthen the muscles to deal with running without 'support'. The main advantage of this off course, would be that overall stronger muscles make you more resistant to injuries, so that's always a good thing.

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I was not always a minimalist/BF evangelist... I ran NCAA xc and track for Florida State for 5 years, so we were sponsored by Nike, so I had a large bias towards all Nike everything (who doesn't when you're getting free gear in exchange for working your tail off 4-6 hours a day in the weightroom, at morning practice, and at evening practice).

With that being said, the importance was on improving my running form. Now that my running form has greatly improved from the sorry lot that I was going into that program my freshman year, I was able to run in most anything.

Originally, I would have said that I could only run in stability shoes in college, because of my pronation issues, but during high school I did ballet 5 times a week and had really strong arches and actually ran in training shoes and minimalist wear a lot (although I only ran about 20 miles a week compared to collegiate 35-55 miles a week). Now that I've strengthened my arches by a lot of barefoot strides, barefoot cooldowns, running in my Invisible shoes for my double day easy runs, and walking around my house in Invisible Shoes, now I can run in the Nike structure triax, a brooks adrenalin, an Invisible Shoe http://www.invisibleshoe.com/, a Saucony Kinvara, a Nike Free for 14 miles without any issues... barefoot barefoot if I'm on a soccer field I could run forever or on dirt... I haven't tested my ability as to how well I do barefoot-barefoot on trail-trails of Boulder, Colorado or off-roading-- my Invisible Shoes are close enough to barefoot enough for that and provide just enough layer of protection while still offering true barefoot feel.

In conclusion, there's NO downside to minimalist shoes IF you are patient enough to improve your running form over time to not accrue injuries and instead use minimalism as a valuable source of feedback towards running form. You don't need minimalist footwear to improve running form, but it can help. And once you have great running form and strong arches, strong hip flexors, etc etc, you can run in practically anything or nothing and it shouldn't make a difference. So there's no downside to minimalism, simply a downside to impatient Americans who don't want to put in the time to improve their overall strength and running form and want a quick fix versus to see the overall problem-- that their arches and foot ligaments/tendons have atrophied and weakened over years of wearing overly cushioned running shoes that act as a cast. Which, it's not a problem to wear that, IF you've mastered your running form to run in ways that are healthy and don't invoke injury... but i you haven't, minimalism can help.

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Whilst there are surely other downsides, I have to say one of the biggest downsides I have found with my Vibrams is the smell...

They stink!

Using the washing machine did not solve anything. I would like to know how to fix this issue but that is another question for another time!

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I have been running in VFFs for three years and this is how I deal: After each run I spray Oust into my VFFs. I'm sure there are other options but you want a disinfecting spray with no or little fragrance because the fragrance just builds up after repeated use and creates another kind of stink. If the shoes begin to smell a little rip I wash them on the gentle cycle with detergent and a very small amount of bleach. My VFFs do not smell bad at all and they are three years old! –  Jim Clark Mar 3 '11 at 18:40
    
This should be a separate question but, I use denture cleaner tablets. I put them in overnight, and after they dry they are as good as new. –  aceinthehole Mar 9 '11 at 21:19
    
My VFF's have gotten mighty stinky a couple times and I found the following works: fill a sink or large bowl with hot water and some oxy clean. Soak the shoes in it for 30 minutes. Toss them in the wash. Sun dry. –  Yevgeniy Brikman Mar 9 '11 at 23:11
    
I would try running them through an extra rinse cycle with about 1/4 cup of white vinegar added to the water. The acidity is enough to kill many odor causing bacteria, but the water remains safe for the materials (I would be extremely hesistant to wash any active-wear with bleach or oxyclean for fear of damaging the materials or shortening the article's life) –  STW Jul 26 '11 at 17:17
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If you've been wearing shoes all your life you're in for a real sore time if you leave your shoes at home next time you run a marathon. You need to develop callouses on your feet in order to safely run barefoot. To avoid having to take time away from running, I would suggest working your way up to it. Take your shoes, but don't wear them for the first quarter/half/full mile as you get use to it. Eventually you'll be able to run all you want without.

Additionally, without shoes your feet will meet the pavement in different ways. Your soreness might not only come from the lack of hard skin protecting your feet, but from the wear on your bones and tendons from running differently.

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what are some potential downsides of running in minimalist shoes?

Bloody toes, sharp rocks, and cooked feet from molten blacktop are a few problems with minimalist shoes.

Wearing VFF KSOs running on a cinder path that I have run on many times before. I heard a sound and looked up into a tree. Next thing I knew I was cringing in pain as I kicked a man hole cover that protruded from the ground about a half inch. Pulled off the KSO and found my stubbed toe had a cracked toenail and blood gushing from where the nail dug in. Seeing my toe was fine other than the blood. Slipped back on the tight hitting shoe and ran another 4 miles back home. :) My KSOs ended up in the wash to get the blood out.

Large rocks with a tense foot equal a lot of pain. Thin rubber keeps the rock from slicing the foot, but it does not protect from the pressure from the impact. It is hard to learn to learn to not tense your feet when you land since a tense foot hurts, a loose foot takes a better impact from random objects.

Also running mid day in the summer means your feet are going to cook from the botttom. Running on white lines is a must in midsummer if you do not want your skin to be melt into the rubber of the shoe.

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I am heavy (190lb) and have very flat arches. I used to run high mileage with heavily padded shoes that were marketed as being appropriate for someone like me. A couple years ago I switched to VFFs and barefoot running. At first I did barefoot sprint workouts on grass twice in two weeks, then upgraded to two mile barefoot runs on pavement barefoot. The biggest issue was skin toughness and callus buildup, which led to increased comfort and heat tolerance. Within 6 weeks after startnig I ran a 10 mile road race, at a moderate pace. The muscles were sore during the run, but there was no pain the next day. I now run barefoot whenever possible, and run in VFFs when I am not familiar with the area. I recommend this to anyone; it is not true that you need arch support or a long transition time. I suspect it is very important to have the proper barefoot stride and this may be the source of the problems some folks are reporting.

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I'm a beginning runner, but enjoy it greatly, and wear orthopedics due to severely flat feet so it encourages me that there is a chance that I could benefit from barefoot (or nearly so) running. –  McArthey Sep 15 '11 at 3:06
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You have to ease into using them very carefully. I've given myself 2 stress fractures by transitioning to Vibrams too quickly.

Both times I tried to switch in the space of a month. I'm going to give it another go soon but I'll be transitioning very gradually over about 6 months I think.

In particular when you first start wearing them, run on grass only. Phase them into your road running routine very slowly.

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I would like to add my two cents here. I have been running in VFFs for three years and love them. However, learning to run with the proper form and developing the necessary foot strength took considerable effort and patience. You can read more about my experiences in my response to another question here.

I commented on another answer regarding odor control and suggested adding a small amount of bleach when washing. Now I would like to add another suggestion. Several months ago I purchased a few pairs of Injinji socks and started wearing my Vibrams with socks like I would any other shoe. Since then my Vibrams have not had any odor problem in excess of what I would expect from any other shoe, so I suggest buying some toe socks to go with your Fivefingers.

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I have been running in Vibram KTOs for about a year. I like them a lot but they aren't for everything. Running on concrete sidewalks is very jarring - I got some gnarly shin splints.

Asphalt is better, I feel like it isn't terrible for my joints, although that's just a feeling and not empirical. At any rate, it's moot for me because my Vibrams really started to shine when I started running trails.

I think the slightly uneven ground works your muscles differently and I like being able to feel the ground under my feet.

this is not running specific, but looking for drawbacks in general: once I helped someone move all day wearing my Vibrams and apparently my toe nails were a little long. That turned out to be extremely uncomfortable after four hours or so.

also... very rarely I will be wearing them and suddenly realize they're emitting a horrible smell. That is not ideal. Mine are easy to clean though - I toss them in the washer with a little detergent and then sun dry them. Works reliably.

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Seem my response to adamnuttall above regarding odor issues. Based on your description I would think that you form is not correct. I have been running for about 20 years and switched to VFFs about 3 years ago and never looked back. The hardest part was learning to run with proper form. You can Google "barefoot running form" for lots of advice on this. –  Jim Clark Mar 3 '11 at 18:44
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VFF are absolutely not for people with low to no arches. I wore them every day around the house for 3-4 months, then i finally decided to lightly run in them for 5 minutes on a soft track (at a college's track and field). Just those 5 minutes caused some serious tendonitis in my ankle. Took me months to recover.

My life lessons learned from this: it's all about proper form.

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I recently made the swap to Minimalist shoes adapting forefoot running. I had tried swapping my shoes for 4-6 hours at a time to start out with at work, since I walk all day long at work. That week was the worst because I had pushed myself too hard since I was so eager. My knees, shins, heels all screamed at me to knock it off. I took a step back into my normal trainers for more time than my minimalist shoes. I've gradually been building up to wearing minimalist shoes all day, but it has taken nearly two months to build enough strength in my feet to handle walking all day with no pain during the day. My shins still hurt terribly until last week when I was looking up postures for minimalist running and found something called "Chi running". They mentioned that a slight lean forward with head and spine lifted will relieve the strain on your shins. My calves were a little sore by the end of the day, but nothing unbearable. My conclusion of what was just going to be an experiment to see if my feet feel any better is this:

Minimalist footwear and good posture combined have made a huge difference in the way I feel at the end of the day. I walk at least 8 miles everyday and aside from a little achyness from using my muscles I am pain free. My feet used to feel like they had broken in half. My back used to ache from high heeled trainers. My knees throbbed in pain from heel striking all day. Just take your time getting your feet used to doing more work. They've been in a coffin most of your life. Your body will thank you for it. Just remember to be patient with yourself.

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I've been running in minimal shoes for the past year. It feels to me that they're better for your knees, but possibly transfer some of this strain to your calves and feet. I don't regret the transition, but twice I've needed to stop running for a few weeks when I hurt my calves, and my latest 10k has left my foot so sensitive that I haven't been able to run for days.

This recent article in the New York Times says something similar:

Those who believe in barefoot running often point out that humans ran and walked without shoes for millennia before footwear was invented. They argue that being unshod is normal for humans and should reverse past injuries related to modern running shoes and prevent future ones.

But anecdotal evidence, including from physicians who treat runners, indicates that some people who take up barefoot running develop entirely new aches and injuries.

It goes on to quote a study from 2011 which shows that a significant portion of barefoot runners develop bone marrow edema to dangerous levels.

It might be that this is the ultimate trade-off- leaving our knees in better shape but risking our feet. Right now, I'm still willing to take this deal, but if my feet don't recover I may yet reconsider.

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The one thing I experienced very quickly with minimalist footwear is the importance of landing lightly and to use small strides. My pace increased and I have had no more knee or shin problems. I often listen to runners with heavy padding and they seem to stomp more when running. So I'm pretty happy with the minimalist sneakers (New Balance Trails are my favorites) as I'm more conscious how I'm landing and have had no injures as a result.

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