What Next for Running Shoes and Minimalism?

Screen shot 2014-01-09 at 4.30.06 AMby Bill Katovsky.

Depending on how frequently runners read magazines like Outside or Competitor, or check Runner’s World’s blog, they can be excused for thinking that minimalism is gone, departed, yesterday’s news. The sporting goods and fitness media abhor a news vacuum; they constantly seek out the latest trend, often on the heels of announcing that the previous one is moribund.

With that said, the minimalism news cycle seems to have been set on fast forward. In the space of several years, we have gone from formerly hot-selling Vibram FiveFingers and barefoot/barefoot-style running shoes, to the alarming development that they might have been the leading cause of serious foot and ankle injuries everywhere.

Evidence for this dramatic change was seemingly anecdotal, or based on the occasional footwear study published in a sports medicine journal.  These studies seldom involved more than a small number of runners, who were usually unused to running in minimalist shoes. Nor did being tested on a treadmill replicate the challenge of running outdoors.

Meanwhile, as new footwear players such as Newton and Altra began establishing a more substantial foothold in the running shoe market –by sensibly marketing and promoting important aspects such as natural running and proper form– the bigger brands took notice and flooded the market with an ample assortment of competing designs and configurations based on the holy trinity of heel, sole, and toebox. It wasn’t a zero sum game, but zero drop.

A lot of noise, on both the media and retail side, was being directed to this new phenomenon. But often lost in the sound and fury was one basic truth: it takes time for a runner to safely and prudently make the transition from a behemoth, heel-striking shoe like the ASICS Gel Kayano to a sleek, barracuda-like Skora or Vivo Barefoot.  And how much time? It all depended on the runner and his or her biomechanics, experience, and adaptation regimen. For some, the period can be six months; for others it can stretch to two years.

Screen shot 2014-01-09 at 4.31.22 AM

But the take-it-slow-transition-to-minimalism cycle did not sync all that well with many runners, who impatiently made a speedy rush to minimalism, or to the marketing goals of shoe companies that depend on keeping their retail pipeline fresh with new product each and every year. Moreover, a majority of big box and running stores, who lacked the passion and enthusiasm of Natural Running Center partner stores to embrace “less shoe,” failed to carry the new minimalist brands and models.

Then along came the outlier Hoka, with its thick slab of cushiony sole, that was not only radical in its design, but became a popular hit among ultra runners. The clown shoe soon sparked many other copycats. In fact, one might call 2014 the year of “fat and flat,” with even Altra coming out with its own version. Sporting a  thick, Hoka-like tread mated to zero drop, think minimalism on steroids.

Will fat and flat be around in two, three years? What are the long-tern biomechanical consequences of swapping out proprioception for added cushioning and support? Will Hokamania be replaced by something else?

To make sense of Running Shoes 2014, we naturally turned to Natural Running Center’s Shoe Editor Nick Pang, who is also the founder of Minimalist Running Shoes, which is a must-read website for all runners who care about footwear. Nick knows shoes. In fact, he has tested, reviewed, measured, photographed, and analyzed over 200 shoes in the past four years

Click here to read the personal essay by Nick who has expertly investigated the ever-changing footwear landscape– and what it means to all runners who want to stay healthy and run pain-free. Runners never had it so good with all these shoe choices. But that in itself doesn’t mean that runners will get injured less. Maybe there is no such thing as the perfect shoe.

3 Responses to “What Next for Running Shoes and Minimalism?”

  1. patrick says:

    Hello Natural Running Center,

    I’ve been following the running shoe cycles since the 70s. I so wanted the NB 320 when Runner’s world rated them number one (at least that is what I remember). Anyway, I knew the shoe marketers were moving past minimalism as soon as vibrams moved from the wall to the floor. That is to say, from their full-price status displayed on the shoe wall to discount status stacked in boxes on the floor. One retailer mentioned to me that one problem they noticed with the 5-fingers was that they didn’t wear out fast enough. I won’t go into my rant about planned obsolescence since for now my comments (questions?) are about something else.

    I buy minimalist shoes because it is too cold to go barefoot in the winter here in northern Ohio. However, if I could, I would always run barefoot. My intention is not to be an eccentric. I’m not spiritual in the least. I feel no “natural” connection with the earth when I run barefoot. I run barefoot because no matter how minimal the shoe, it changes the way I run and I start to feel pain. No doubt even with minimal shoes my running form has become more healthy because of my transition to barefoot running. However, since I’ve run more or less consistently since the day Frank Shorter won the ’72 Olympic marathon, I feel like I will never be able to eliminate fully the less healthy habits developed while running in shoes for decades. I started on the road to minimal and then barefoot running about 10 years ago. If it were possible to simply relearn to run while eliminating the feedback that only comes through barefoot running, you would think I would have learned it by now. My conclusion is not the conclusion of a fanatic. It is simply a matter of trial and error. If my experience is anything other than that of a statistical outlier, than nobody should be surprised that the “faddish” nature of marketing and the pressures to convince people to always discard and move on to new products to buy, would lead to our present situation: “Oh I tried minimalism, didn’t work, my calves got sore.”

    One last comment: other than the Cleveland Running Company, near where I live, I have yet to walk into a running store where the sales staff wasn’t explaining the need for support, pronation control, blah blah blah. I always keep my mouth shut. I have still yet to see a single other person running barefoot on the trails or on the streets. sometimes I wonder if there ever was a barefoot running craze. I really don’t care other than to feel sorry for people who discard with out really trying or simply dismiss something that looks odd a method that I believe can make running so much more enjoyable and healthy. Maybe it isn’t for everyone, but I suspect it could be good for many people.

    What a pity.

    Best wishes to everyone.


  2. Susan says:

    Hear hear.
    I wonder that too. I am surprised how often I am told NOT to run barefoot on pavement, or wear my Vivos or Vibrams on roadways or more than 3 times per week. Really?
    I fell for the trap once and tried a pair of Altras. Nope, too much shoe for me. I LOVE barefoot running and true minimalist footwear. I’ve seen them being taken off the wall too. If they disappear, I’m slipping on my moccasins.

  3. $berta Nesta says:

    Hi, been on vivo-trail something for almost 1 year, after a 4 month total stop due to acute pain in one foot (bunions ouch), visit to specialist surgeon (who suggested surgery and looked at me like I was an alien when I told him I’d run some 40 miles per week if my feet wouldn’t hurt)… and then thought to go natural (forget surgery I don’t like knives!), still live near the swiss alps so ice is no fun snow is slippery and wet and cold: vivo-trail is ok! and guess what yes I indeed dit get sore calves for about 2 weeks, and I am definitely overweight (About 15 kg acoording to medical stuff) but never ever got any pain anywhere except for muscle soreness for a day after a longer run. I run longer distances every month and although I struggle with loosing weight my health and energy do get better. Thanks to minimal running shoes! But I keep seeing people around me buying thick coushioned running-jogging shoes getting injuries and nobody tells them that maybe less support can make muscles tendons and ligaments stronger, balance better etc

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