An early adopter of minimalism, Jim Hixson was the former general manager of an independent running retail store in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to currently being a running retail store consultant, Jim will be writing a regular column for the Natural Running Center called “Voice From the Running Shoe Store Floor.” Here’s the opening salvo. — NRC

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“Voice From the Running Store  Shoe Floor”: Why Minimalism Matters with Runners

by Jim Hixson

In 1998, after an earlier career in education, I started working at The Running Center of St. Louis, a store that had been established in 1983.  I was a lifetime athlete and had run many miles as training for other sports, but had never thought too much about the design of running shoes.  Although I had always bought shoes at independent running stores I had never been given any advice on what shoes were best for my feet, nor had anybody talked to me about running form.  The brief instruction I received on my first day selling shoes was very similar to the advice I had often read in Runner’s World:  a foot with a high arch needed a “neutral” or “cushioned” shoe; a runner with a foot that had a medium arch required a “stability” shoe; and somebody with a flatter foot should be placed in a “motion control” shoe.

Nothing was said to me about racing flats or spikes.

I wish I had paid more attention to the transformation of running shoes that had begun in the mid-1970s, but I had always had complete trust in shoe companies and their designs.  If I had been more observant, I would have noticed that shoes had changed a great deal since 1972, when I bought my first pair of Adidas running shoes, the Adidas Vienna.  This was about the same time that the Onitsuka Tiger Corsair and Nike Cortez appeared.  All of these models were almost flat, very flexible and lightweight.  Look at the photo of the Adidas Vienna which is on the top; it shows how different my first shoes were from the current Brooks Glycerin, which is shown below.

A couple years ago our Brooks sales representative came to the store to show us the “new” old shoes for the next season.  He started with the aforementioned Brooks Glycerin, that company’s most cushioned neutral shoe and always one of the more popular models in running stores.  He began his sales pitch by saying:  “We have this great new lateral crash pad to absorb shock from the initial landing on the heel”.

I replied:  “That just causes people to strike first on their heels”.

He had his answer ready:  “But people do hit on their heels first”.

“Yes,” I responded, “because you have this great new lateral crash pad”.

He gathered his thoughts, perhaps becoming a bit desperate, before asking, “But don’t you think shoe companies have improved human biomechanics?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer this claim masquerading as a query.  I thought about Daniel Lieberman’s videos of Kenyans who had never worn shoes running in slow motion and certainly not landing heel first.  The image of children in this country running with wild abandon, their fluid movements contrasting sharply with those of adults (sometimes their parents!), who were wearing protective cushioned and stable shoes, also came to mind.  The odd part of his presentation was that he was purposely ignoring his own running style.  As a former very good middle distance runner his wear pattern on his own Brooks Glycerin shoes still showed no heel wear.  I decided on a simple trap.

“OK”, I said, “But in every other sport, for example, tennis, soccer, volleyball, and basketball, the shoes are completely flat, yet the running in those sports is not qualitatively different than that of running as a sport in itself”.

“But in running,” he replied, “most runners land on the heel first”.

This was proving to be a bit more frustrating than it should have been.  “You don’t land on your heels”.

He was ready for that observation.  “Slower runners do land on their heels”.

A different tactic was needed.  “OK, for the sake of argument I’ll agree that runners need cushioning, although I don’t think that they do.  Why doesn’t Brooks (substitute almost any other brand in the place of this company) make shoes that are cushioned but also flat, with no drop from heel to toe?”

“I never thought of that,” he admitted.

A small opening in the corporate armor had appeared.

This brief exchange brings up the three basic claims made either implicitly or explicitly by traditional running shoe companies:

1. Running is inherently dangerous and runners need to be protected;

2. Humans need extra cushioning running on hard surfaces;

3. Footwear was developed that encourages proper biomechanics or corrects faulty movements.

To fully address these three assumptions is far beyond this scope of this first column, though I will circle back to these points time and time again in the future. It is sufficient to say, working in an independent running store has put me right in the middle of a paradigm shift.  Information about the connection between running shoes and running form that first appeared many years ago in articles by “outliers”, was then corroborated recently in scientific studies, and within the last couple years has reached a broader cross-section of the running community. Was Chris McDougall’s Born to Run a primary catalyst here? The consensus says yes. Is minimalism here to stay? Based upon my experience, it definitely is.

Specialty running stores are where the rubber hits the road and questions need to be answered honestly and accurately about the purposes and effects of running shoes.  Many runners are very interested in the topics of natural running and minimal shoes, yet there remains disagreement over what these terms even mean.  Other runners seem to have little interest, since they do not believe that form or footwear affects them.  In fact, form and shoes affect everyone who moves their feet while running, walking, jumping or even standing.

For example, each animal has certain patterns of movement and they’re consistent within a species.  I’ve never seen a robin fly and think to myself, “I’ve never seen a robin fly that way”.  (Actually, as an aside, my wife and I were once in a canoe on a Missouri river and saw a turkey vulture flip over and fly completely upside down for a few seconds.  We don’t think we were supposed to witness that!).  So, I’m convinced that there are also correct patterns of movement for humans and that the concept of proper form is not just theoretical.  Of course, there will be slight differences in the specific movement patterns from individual to individual, due to anatomical differences such as limb length, place of muscle attachment, center of gravity, and body weight, but there is a correct way to walk, run, jump horizontally, jump vertically, and so on.  Although these movement patterns initially require little or no instruction, they can be disturbed if an injury occurs or if the natural range of motion is restricted by an artificial “brace” like the built-up running shoe  Unnatural movement patterns force the body to move inefficiently, causing both excess work and undue stress on muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones.  As an athlete, improper movement patterns also lead to diminished performance and often leading to injury and shortened careers.

I know there are people, most with perfectly good intentions, who believe that there are different ways of running “correctly”, each way unique to the individual, and that running form cannot really be taught or changed.  There is an idea that running form is natural to the individual, but not the species, and any attempt to change an individual’s form is equal to forcing an unnatural change that will be detrimental to health and performance.  Unfortunately traditional running footwear always alters a runner’s form.

In future columns of Voice from the Running Store Floor, I will refer to my interactions with customers and other runners to explore in greater detail why minimalism matters. Until next time, healthy running…