A local minimum for running energetics has been reported for a specific bending stiffness, implying that shoe stiffness assists in running propulsion. However, the determinant of the metabolic optimum remains unknown. Highly stiff shoes significantly increase the moment arm of the ground reaction force (GRF) and reduce the leverage effect of joint torque at ground push-off. Inspired by previous findings, we hypothesized that the restriction of the natural metatarsophalangeal (MTP) flexion caused by stiffened shoes and the corresponding joint torque changes may reduce the benefit of shoe bending stiffness to running energetics. We proposed the critical stiffness, k(cr), which is defined as the ratio of the MTP joint (MTPJ) torque to the maximal MTPJ flexion angle, as a possible threshold of the elastic benefit of shoe stiffness. 19 subjects participated in a running test while wearing insoles with five different bending stiffness levels. Joint angles, GRFs, and metabolic costs were measured and analyzed as functions of the shoe stiffness. No significant changes were found in the take-off velocity of the center of mass (CoM), but the horizontal ground push-offs were significantly reduced at different shoe stiffness levels, indicating that complementary changes in the lower-limb joint torques were introduced to maintain steady running. Slight increases in the ankle, knee, and hip joint angular impulses were observed at stiffness levels exceeding the critical stiffness, whereas the angular impulse at the MTPJ was significantly reduced. These results indicate that the shoe bending stiffness is beneficial to running energetics if it does not disturb the natural MTPJ flexion. (C) 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.