Defining Minimalism and Running Shoes: Bringing the Hype Back to Earth

Posted on 10 September 2012

Blaise Dubois is a physiotherapist and founder of the Running Clinic  from Quebec City, Montreal, whose multi-day course on the prevention of running injuries has attracted the interest and attention of health professionals, coaches and running enthusiasts around the world. Blaise also tells it like it is, as readers of his bilingual blog–French and English– blog know quite well. He’s unafraid of questioning the status quo, and in the area of running footwear, that’s a large, unfinished task.

This need is especially true in the several-year-old $500 million footwear category called minimalism. Yet the term “minimalism” has been egregiously co-opted by marketing footwear pooh-bahs, which has contributed to a welter of confusion among runners as to what actually constitutes a minimalist running shoe. In order to bring some sanity to the madness, Blaise has recently come out with a “minimalist shoe formula” on his site, “so that you can rate your running shoes on a scale from 1 to 100 (100 being ‘extremely minimalist’ (bare feet) and 1 ‘extremely maximalist’). “

He explains why there’s a need to quantify matters:

“What is the relationship between the FiveFingers, Brooks’ Pure Connect, the Nike Free 4.0 and the Adizero Hagio from Adidas? All are considered “minimalist” running shoes. However, their drop ranges from 0 to 12 mm, their thickness is between 3 and 23 mm while their respective weight and flexibility vary considerably. In my own opinion, the best definition for minimalism bears a qualitative connotation: ‘The least amount of shoes you can safely wear now.” Given its qualitative nature, we are bound to define tighter parameters in order to quantify the minimalist definition for running shoes.”

The criteria that he selected for his formula are: comfort (subjective), stack (total thickness at the heel), drop (forefoot and rearfoot differential), flexibility (longitudinal and torsional), weight, and price.

Will the Running Clinic’s minimalist shoe formula gain traction among runners? Will it be widely used by running stores and the industry? What are its positive features? Are there any inherent limitations? To help answer these questions, here’s a preliminary evaluation from several of my Natural Running Center colleagues. — Bill Katovsky

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Dr. Mark Cucuzzella:

As always Blaise, you do landmark work in trying to get objective values to things. This is important for standardization and science (if one were to study shoes). I have used the “least shoe you can get into safely” since our Two Rivers Treads store opening in 2010, and we categorize shoes with based on our opinion of where they should be on the wall (transition, minimalist, barefoot style). Trying on shoe is the key and if this helps steer a runner to the right start place that is good.

Nick Pang:

After working on a rating system on and off with many other runners on my own site and the NRC,  it’s refreshing to see a new approach. But my first impression is that The Running Clinic algorithm has too much weighting on the stack height (heel) and comfort (which is subjective as noted). Anything that is ‘subjective’ should be weighted less in my opinion.

Stack height (heel) is not a major factor for midfoot and forefoot strikers. This should only come into play if it changes your running gait. Stack height on the midfoot and forefoot area might be more precise but here, we’re also subjective as some runners like firm outsole and some like cushioning. So height is not necessarily correct.

In any case, I took your formula through two shoes that are on the top of my list as the best minimal shoes to date: Adidas Adipure Gazelle and Skechers GObionic. Your scores for these two are 75% and 82% respectively.

Another factor is running terrain. Thinking more, a road shoe versus a trail shoe needs some way of distinguishing as minimalism does not always mean less protection? Is a minimal trail shoe with a rock plate rated the same as a traditional trail shoe with higher stack height but no rock plate? Firmness of the sole is another thing that we can (one day) integrate to the formula. But at that point it become very complicated for consumers, retailers, health professionals, and coaches.

Yes, having the definition/classification coming from a non-footwear manufacturer is best but only if they all agree to use it.

Jim Hixson:

The variable that seems to have the most effect on running form is the drop, with flexibility being the second most important.  I’ve seen many runners who run midfoot when barefoot, but switch back to a heelstrike once they put back on traditional running shoes.  There are even some runners who run heel first when barefoot, but they have all come out of traditional shoes.  On the other hand, there are some people who will run with a midfoot landing when in a traditional shoe.  In my experience none of the runners in this group switch to a heelstrike when running barefoot.

All traditional shoes are relatively inflexible, some more than others, and this characteristic does not allow the foot to work naturally as the first absorber of shock nor can it function as a responsive and adaptable base. Weight influences form less, economy more.  The stack is important because a thicker shoe will be less stable and reduce afferent feedback.

If you look at someone who is barefoot standing next to someone wearing a traditional shoe, it’s remarkable how unnatural and bulky the shoes look.  Even lighter weight traditional shoes tend to overwhelm and control the  movement of the foot.  There are certainly problems associated with running barefoot, but they’re not related to biomechanical issues.  Because of terrain, the surfaces on which you run and  climate, a minimal shoe, such as the Merrell Road Glove, New Balance Minimus Road 00, Terra Plana Evo, or the (new) Newton MV2 should be sufficient and preferable for almost all runners.

To me the underlying goal of minimal footwear should be to allow the body to move with the least restriction from the most neutral/natural body position.  So, a shoe with a heel drop automatically puts the body in an unnatural position and a stiff shoe, or any shoe that doesn’t allow the total range of motion needed to run without shoes, would not be a minimal shoe.  There would be gradations for heel drop and stiffness/flexibility.  A 12mm drop is worse than an 8mm, but the goal would always be 0mm.  A shoe as stiff as the Beast is worse than the Adrenaline, but neither allow the range of movement necessary to move in a biomechanically natural way.  Transition shoes are just that, transitions on the way to a preferable outcome.

Pete Larson:

I think many of these factors inter-relate. For example, drop will have different effects in a soft vs. firm shoe, and in people with different foot strikes. For me, drop, stack height, cushion firmness, flexibility, fit, and weight are all important, but it’s the specific combination that matters in a given shoe. I’m not a huge fan of trying to quantify shoes with a single number; instead, just get the shoe companies to provide all of the info on stack height, drop, durometer in a consistent manner and I’d be happy. So much of it is subjective and based on the individual.

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5 Responses to “Defining Minimalism and Running Shoes: Bringing the Hype Back to Earth”

  1. WHY A NUMBER?

    I think that putting a number on different shoes can help us on certain points:
    1. To inform the consumer that shoes are different from one to another and that it’s not only about having a minimalist tag that they really will be.
    2. Controlling the message from the companies that promote minimalist shoes that aren’t really OR companies that promote shoes with all minimalist criteria but that are displayed the other way just by philosophy principle.
    3. To have a standardized landmark so we can compare shoes between them and not only criteria between them.
    4. To have a standardized scale to quantify shoes in scientific studies.

    The formula is for scientifics. For runners there are 6 brown cells to fill out. If you’re missing some information about your shoe, an average value is automatically integrated to the formula. The answer is in the red cell at the top right. It can’t hardly be more simple than that!

    CRITERIA

    Why the stack before the drop?
    I think that the drop, the flexibility and the weight are the most used factors by the traditional shoe companies to sell their new minimalist range that are not really. And they succeed to make us believe that these parameters were the most important. However, they don’t talk about stack which is a determining factor to me. Note that all factors are linked (the less height we have at the heel, the less chance we have to get a high drop). Plus, the answer to all of these parameters is highly individual and varies from a subject to an other, even though general trends are taking shape. In my clinical experience having evaluated hundreds of runners, inducted biomechanical changes are first caused by heel protection (amount of protection that allows a heel strike), and this, way over the drop factor! Also, stack (with its firmness) has influence on stability, proprioception, amount of pronation, etc… that makes it the most important factor along with the fit!

    Why comfort?
    We all agree to say that comfort is the most important thing in the purchase of a running shoe (maximalist or minimalist). I am not talking about the perception of envelopment and softness that fills all empty spaces, such as an orthotic, but about fitting. Fitting is all about respecting the length, the width and the shape of the foot.
    The minimalism trend brought an essential characteristic in the fitting that seems to spread to other types of shoe now: the anatomic last of the forefoot. The specific shape of the front of the shoe allows the foot to move more naturally, to benefit from toes expansion when brought under charge and especially to avoid specific and irritating pressure or deforming points caused by a too narrow toe box. Comfort is therefore one of the most essential criteria for us and certainly one to integrate in the evaluation of “how minimalist” (the closest from barefoot) is our shoe.
    Note that because the rate includes comfort, it is at first a personal rate. For comparison manner, our website only rated 10/10 over comfort. Also, note that there is a measure margin of error of +/-5%

    Why the price?
    Price represents only 10% of the final score, the least important criteria, and the classic variable is from 3% to 5%. I integrated the price in the formula for one simple reason: how does a running shoe with least can cost so much? If we think minimalism which define itself as the least as possible, this should also reflect on the price… doesn’t it? And if a shoe brand from “giant stores” cost half of the price of a well known brand, I have no problem considering it more minimalist… at least over the price. Minimalist shoes have always been way less expensive than traditional/maximalist shoes up to the day the shoe companies took over and then it wasn’t a marginal market anymore… yes, minimalist shoes are nowadays sold at maximalist prices.

    Remember one thing. This formula is a rating of “how much minimalist are your shoes”… not “How better the shoes are for you”!

    I’m working and think on that formula since one years. Like every theory it’s a work in progress. Maybe the formula will progress with new publications… My goal was to give a more objective rate to running shoes, and the TRC rating do it! Hope the retailers will use it…

    Blaise

    • MarkC says:

      Here is comment Ian Adamson gave permission to share

      Thanks for sending, interesting discussion. I’m one of Bliase’s super specialists so I receive his missives. One thing that isn’t taken into account is shoes with moderate stack height, high flexibility and very firm midsole (Newton technology.) This is not possible with standard (EVA foam shoes) because of the material properties.

      Clearly (as Pete points out) there is interplay between all factors and people have their preferences (right or wrong.) You can see this with the Hoka 1. People love this shoe because it is super soft and they can’t feel the stuff under their feet. Kind of like loving doughnuts. Taste great with short and long term consequences.

      Newton technology bypasses the intrinsic limitations of foam by using a resilient trampoline membrane to the general rules do not apply. Unlike foam, the technology provides extremely firm support under the foot in mid-stance since the runner is supported on hard rubber with a durometer double that of foam. The membrane provides exceptional cushioning, better to the softest foams (Luna etc.) but with much higher rebound and feel for the ground.

      Once can achieve similar things with metal or exotic composite springs in shoes.

      Ian

  2. As more and more ‘minimalist’ shoes come to the market, it’s great to have input from these thinking and critical minds.

  3. While I appreciate the desire to quantify minimalism (something I’ve been pushing for since 2009), and while I understand that huaraches are not “shoes” per se, I sure wish the ratings would include sandals which, I believe, are the gold standard of minimalist footwear (actually the gold standard is barefoot, but you get my point).

    More, I think that in addition to analyzing the footwear itself, a complete evaluation would include seeing how the footwear affects gait. Dr. Bill Sands (formerly of the USOC) does this regularly: Using slow-motion video he examines runners when they simply switch shoes. The differences are often stark and easy to see. For example, a surprising number of runners who forefoot strike when barefoot will heel strike in VFFs… and not even know they’re doing it.

  4. We completed the evaluation of the TRC rating for most shoes sold on the market. Our website’s TRC rates have all been adjuted to a 10/10 on comfort since this criteria is the most important but subjective. You can then have fun comparing your current shoes with others or use the TRC rate for the choice of your next minimalist shoe. By experience, you will need 1 to 2 months per 10% of change if you move to more minimalist shoes. http://www.therunningclinic.ca/en/runners-information/recommended-shoes.php

    With this project we hope we’ve been helpful to those who wished a standardization of the word “minimalist” by defining this qualifier as accurate and simple as possible.


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