Barefoot running is all the rage among runners who sport "minimalist" footgear like Vibram Five Fingers, taking a cue from shoeless marathoners like Abebe Bikila and Zola Budd Pieterse in their belief that regular sneakers hinder natural movement and increase long-term injury risk.

While the trend has gained momentum in recent years, researchers from Brigham Young University slowed the enthusiasm in February with a study outlining the risk of barefoot running injuries from switching to minimalist shoes too hastily.

A new study conducted by Benno Nigg and Henrik Enders of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary further breaks down the health claims of minimalist running proponents, and finds no evidence that barefoot running increases or decreases risk of foot injuries.

The paper, published in the journal Footwear Science, suggests that barefoot running isn't better or worse than running in shoes — it's simply another style.

Barefoot Running Does Not Necessarily Change Foot Landing Style

Nigg and Enders started by investigating the effects of barefoot running on foot motion. Proponents of minimalist running often claim that running without shoes decreases the risk of injuries by promoting landings near the front of the feet, near the toes, instead of landing on the heel purportedly more likely with standard shoes.

Their research suggests that this claim is unfounded and that "it is not appropriate to associate barefoot running with toe landing and shod running with heel landing," because factors like surface, shoe type, running speed, and individual differences are too variable to consistently make the links.

No Evidence for Consistently Increased Muscle Strength or Performance

Contrary to barefoot training coaches' claims that minimalist running improves the overall strength of leg muscles, the researchers saw no significant difference between running barefoot or with running shoes in muscle activity.

They also didn't see much of an effect of shoes lighter in weight on running performance, which they measured as the amount of soft tissue vibrations in the body as each foot strikes the ground.

"The additional mass added to the foot by the shoe seems not to have a negative effect on performance until at a 'threshold mass' of about 200 to 250 g," they write.

They found that an individual's subjective "preferred movement pattern" — defined as the combination of a runner's preferred striking pattern (toe landing vs. heel landing) and chosen footwear condition (barefoot vs. shoes) — was the strongest indicator of their running performance.

Put simply, the more comfortable individuals were in their running style, the better they ran. There was no consistent change in soft tissue vibrations based on footwear condition or striking pattern.

No Decrease in Risk of Foot Injuries with Barefoot Running

The final claim they challenge is that barefoot running decreases the risk of foot injuries.

"We do not know of any publication that provides hard evidence that people running barefoot have fewer running-related injuries than people running in running shoes," they write.

The 1987 study based in Haiti that originally suggested a link between barefoot running and lower injury risk made faulty conclusions, they say. Researchers did not account for existing differences between barefoot and shoe-wearing populations, like access to health care, distance commonly traveled on foot, and hardness of surfaces on which they walked.

They also note that while existing articles describe different types of foot injuries caused by different landing styles, it's a qualitative difference, not a quantitative one.

"We suggest that, at this point in time, it is not known whether people running barefoot have more, equal, or fewer injuries than people running in conventional running shoes," they write.

Is Barefoot Running Right for You?

With all that considered, Nigg and Enders say that it's pointlessly reductive to ask "which is better" when considering the difference between barefoot running and wearing running shoes.

The most important factors in mitigating risk of foot injuries and raising running performance, they say, are individual preference between minimalist and shoe-clad running, and individual running style, whether it's with toe landing or heel landing.

That doesn't help at all if you want a simple answer.

All they are willing to concede is that "one should run in any way that feels comfortable, whether this is with shoes or barefoot - and probably one should not run in a situation that is not comfortable."

The bottom line: If it doesn't feel good on your feet, don't run with it.

Source: Benno Nigg, Hendrik Enders. Barefoot running - some critical considerations. Footwear Science, 2013.