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.