Minimalist running shoes were designed with less cushioning and supportive features to engage the muscles of the foot and lower leg to be able to support the foot during running instead of relying on the passive control structures within a traditional running shoe. Traditional running shoes have many features like dual-density foam, cushioned heel, arch support, and heel counters with the goal of assisting the foot and reducing injury. Depending on the style of running shoe, traditional or minimalist, the shoe may cause some running mechanics changes.
Traditional running shoes usually have an elevated and cushioned heel that leads to a heel strike pattern where the heel is the first part of the foot to hit the ground and the foot is out in front of the body when running. This leads to large impact forces that are transferred through the shoe and up into the ankle, knee, and hips. This repeated style of running can lead to common injuries like knee pain, IT band syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, or achilles tendonitis.
Minimalist shoes are designed to mimic running barefoot while still offering protection to the bottom of the foot from cuts and scrapes. Running mechanics tend to change in minimalist footwear. Stride lengths will be shorter, the foot lands closer to being underneath the body, which decreases the forces transferred to the knee and hip. Without the cushioning on the shoe, runners tend to strike the ground closer to the ball of the foot where the achilles and muscles in the back of the calf absorb the impact forces. With shorter strides, runners will increase their cadence (steps per minute) to help maintain the same running pace. Common injuries seen with minimalist shoes are calf strains, achilles tendonitis, and metatarsal stress fractures.
An important consideration when transitioning from traditional to minimalist running shoes is that maintaining current training mileage will likely result in overuse injuries from doing too much too soon. The body can adapt to changes in running mechanics but the change needs to be slow and gradual to allow the body to adapt. Not everyone can or should run in barefoot/minimalist footwear but if running in traditional footwear has continued to produce problems despite working on strengthening, stretching, altering running mechanics, then minimalist running shoes may be worth a try.