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

Posted on 09 July 2012

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…

 

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

  1. MarkC says:

    Jim,

    thank you for this. great piece with common sense, experience, and science weaved in. you are proving that real runners can understand and learn this. enjoyed visiting your store this winter.

    Mark

  2. Josh Anderson, PT, DPT says:

    Jim,

    This was an excellent article and I am very intrigued to hear more about your experience. I especially enjoyed your commentary on (that last 1/3 or so of the article) on movement patterns.

    If you are looking for more specifics on a paradigm shift in the healthcare and fitness fields, that coincide with movement patterns, I would advise you read some of the work by Gray Cook. He has a book entitled Movment: Functional Momvement Systems, where is elaborates much more on the idea you propose; that we born and learn certain movement patterns (as infant) and for many reasons we can loose those patterns of movement. He has developed, with a team of other healthcare/fitness professionals, a system for assessing and evaluating this particular thing and how to change those movement patterns in order to regain more “normal movement”!

    Look forward to hearing more from you in the future and healthy running to you as well!

    Josh

  3. Brian Martin says:

    Hi Jim, Good stuff, very amused by the response: “but don’t you think shoe companies have improved human biomechanics?” Interested in how you see the lower drop cushioned shoe category playing out in retail? Seems a more approachable way to dip into minimalism for many runners.

    • Jim Hixson says:

      There are some industry “insiders” who claim that the interest in minimal shoes has peaked, but I don’t think they have ever entered a running store. Saucony brings out a zero drop shoe in December, Brooks has one for January, and Mizuno has two for the same month. Mizuno’s contribution is important because they had not publicly embraced minimalism in any form. From a functional point of view it should be much more difficult to sell “traditional” shoes than minimal shoes. They are very non-functional.

  4. Mike Baker says:

    Great post. I laughed hard at the circular logic being used to justify modern day shoe companies. Unfortunately for every person that is lucky enough to hear your voice, there are dozens who only buy from the internet and never get to hear you.

  5. Bob Dizes says:

    Jim, enjoyed the article, I can just feel the fustration of your conversation. Thanks for sharing, looking forward to future articles. Bob

    • Jim Hixson says:

      There is some frustration, but much more excitement. My favorite fairy tale character is the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. I admit that at one time I accepted the industry’s claim, at least in part, but that was almost a decade ago. When I found out I was wrong I was excited because the process that led to that point was a journey of discovery. What we say about natural running might not be earth shattering, but it actually is important and should help many runners run with less discomfort and fewer injuries.

  6. Jim Hixson says:

    I’ve seen some of Gray Cook’s videos and I’ve followed his philosophy for probably a decade. His contrast between functional/complex lifting exercises and simple exercises is a good start for exploring the lack of fluidity in running form. I believe a major source of this problem begins at the ground level, with shoes that treat the foot as a single segment that needs to be braced and guided. I watched Gray Cook do a very fluid Turkish Get Up on You Tube, perfect form. I can imagine how that same series of movements would look if he had a shoulder or back brace.

  7. Jim Hixson says:

    The internet can be a dangerous place for anybody without previous knowledge of a subject, but so can many running stores. There are different categories of salespeople who fail to inform customers about the positive effects of minimal shoes: (1) those who reject outright any benefits of switching from traditional shoes; (2) those who see some merit, but only for a handful of runners, and just to use occasionally; and (3) those who are convinced that minimal shoes are a valid option, but are afraid of losing a customer because they will have to argue with the customer. The first example is a long-term project, although I have seen turns of 180 degrees. The second person needs to be supported when advocating minimal shoes, and perhaps even asked questions about the benefits. Through modeling with one’s own customers the third sales person can become more confident. I’m sure that 30 years ago there was difficulty in convincing running stores to carry shoes with big heels. At least we have science on our side.

  8. JB says:

    Thank you for offering sanity in the insane running world. I am so tired of so-called experts who offer up suggestions and consultations on what is wrong and the correct way of doing things when they aren’t even runners.

  9. Rick Wolfson says:

    Thank you for providing this information. The photo of the red and white Adidas Vienna brought back memories – that was my first pair of running shoes back in 1973! I forgot how “minimal” those shoes were. I have been running in the Nike Motos for the last couple of years and at age 53, I want to be cautious about the transition to something on the minimal side. I have been wondering if a shoe that has some cushion to protect the foot from road and trail hazards with zero drop that promotes forefoot landing is a the best of both worlds. When I was 18, I ran a marathon in Tiger Marathon racing shoes and I ended up missing my freshman year of college track with what my podiatrist called a bruised metatarsal but it could have been a stress fracture for all I know.

  10. Bob Clarke says:

    Good article. I ran in high school and college (1960s and 70s) in mostly flat shoes. Then decades passed, and I got flabby. After easing into running with new shoes a few years ago, I could not get rid of the lower leg pain. Various professionals suggested various solutions, but none worked. Then about six months ago, I tried FiveFingers. After easing into using them, all leg and knee pain vanished. I still ran with a mid-foot strike, but the FiveFingers did not have enough cushion for concrete and asphalt, and the balls of my feet began to hurt a little. I switched to a flat shoe by Altra, and things feel better.

    • Jim Hixson says:

      The Altra Adam is very close to the VFF Bikila and Seeya, as is the Merrell Road Glove. The New Balance Minimus MR00 has a little more cushioning, as does the Merrell Bare Access, but they’re also quite good. In December Saucony releases the Virrata. The next month Brooks will have the Pure Drift and Mizuno will have two shoes, the Evo Levitas and Evo Cursoris. There are more and more choices. Perhaps Adidas will back and twenty first century version of the Vienna!

  11. Malcolm says:

    Adidas already has minimal running shoes. The adipure Motion, Gazelle and Adapt. Why do think that minimal shoes account for such a small percent of the running shoe market? Also, why is it that whenever I see someone running in Five Fingers they are running slow and almost always heal striking? Seems to be a very big correlation between speed and foot strike placement. Slower more heal strike.

  12. Malcolm Christopher says:

    Why was my comment deleted? Do you not see a strong correlation between speed and foot strike?

    • BillK says:

      your comment wasn’t deleted. it’s right here.

      all comments are screened for content, and that includes deleting those that contain words or content that can be deemed objectionable.– bill katovsky, editor

  13. Art says:

    After pondering the various shoes on the market, admittedly not very many of
    the minimal running type shoes in particular, would it not make sense to just switch to
    regular basketball shoes, or general gym type shoes???


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