Earlier today, I had a lengthy conversation with Jesse Scott as we climbed up to Devil’s Thumb outside Nederland, CO. We had three pairs of minimalist shoes we were testing out, so one of the topics centered around shoes.Specifically, we were discussing the various characteristics that make a great minimalist shoe. Jesse has long served as my sounding board for all issues related to minimalist shoes. We have similar needs (long-distance running on rugged trails), but much different personal preferences. He has his favorites, I have mine.
Over the years, our stance on what makes a great minimalist shoe has evolved. Both of us had a fairly rigid set of criteria that were “musts.” That point of view has softened based on our own experiences and observations of others.
One of the characteristics we talked about was toe spring, or the upward curvature of the end of the toe box of a shoe. In a traditional rigid-soled running shoe, the toe spring creates a “rocker” effect that helps facilitate a heel strike. The rigidity of the sole would keep the toes in a dorsiflexion position, which makes a natural running gait very difficult. Because of this, barefoot and minimalist shoe runners rightfully vilified toe spring.
In a minimalist shoe, toe spring is more or less unnecessary. Still, many minimalist shoes still have a toe spring. The major difference- minimalist shoes usually have a flexible sole, which allows the toes to flatten the up-curved toe during foot landing. In effect, the toe spring is eliminated and does not affect gait.
I noticed this quite some time ago. The amount of toe spring wasn’t nearly as important as other features like a minimal or zero-dropped heel or a wide toe box. I have also noticed toe spring does not seem to affect the gait of other minimalist shoe runners, even if they are especially weary of the feature. As a result, I stopped counting toe spring as a negative feature.
I have been getting a fair number of questions from people asking about the toe spring of some of the new minimalist shoes hitting the market. It seems some barefoot practitioners are still considering toe spring to be a negative feature that adversely affects shoe function. I wonder if these practitioners have ever tried a minimalist shoe with a toe spring. If they had, surely they would have come to a similar conclusion- the toe spring flattens out due to the flexibility of the sole.
In the past, I vilified toe spring. I like to keep an open mind, though. If I receive contradictory evidence, I rarely have a problem modifying my point of view. As a teacher, I feel it is my responsibility to always present the best possible information I can. Sometimes that means admitting I was wrong.
In the case of toe spring and minimalist shoes, I think I was wrong. The flexibility of the sole of the shoe negates the potential negative effects of any degree of toe spring. Could toe spring just a red herring?
This essay originally appeared on Barefoot Running University.