Q. What is the basic difference between minimalist and traditional running shoes?
A. A lot, and it’s not simply a matter of philosophical differences. Minimalist shoes fit the anatomy of the foot, allow the foot to move through its natural range of motion without restriction, and enable the sole of the foot to receive as much sensory information as possible while protecting the foot from dangerous objects and extreme weather. Nobody can seriously defend traditional shoes that have a heel, stiff midsole, narrow toebox, and thick cushioning.
Q. Whoa there, isn’t it difficult to make a sweeping generalization that everybody should be wearing minimalist shoes?
A. Is it difficult to recommend a healthy diet for everyone? Should everyone attempt to exercise regularly? Steven Robbins, MD, a pioneering footwear researcher in Montreal, has stated that the three most important variables that affect our overall health are diet, exercise, and footwear. The first two variables are fairly self-evident, but most people do not realize the effect that footwear has on their biomechanics, posture, and sensory experience.
Q. What do you think of the “minimalist” offerings made by the major shoe companies?
A. First, realize that the large shoe companies have never had any desire to embrace the concept of minimalist shoes, since these shoes did not match the rest of their line. Second, even if these companies had decided to be swayed by the argument in favor of minimalist shoes, there remained the core problem of continuing to explain the merits of the traditional cushioned, stability, and motion control shoes which they what undoubtedly keep in their catalog. Third, they realized that they were losing a percentage of their sales to non-traditional running shoe companies: Merrell, Newton, Vibram FiveFingers, Vivo Barefoot, Altra, Inov8, etc. Although these companies are not as big as Nike, Brooks, and ASICS, they were still taking sales away from the larger brands; and it looked as if this trend would continue, since minimalist shoes and natural running were hot topics.
Q: Then, for the average runner you’re saying that what is a truly minimalist shoe often is not?
A: By redefining the term, the big companies have been able to marginalize the truly minimalist shoes produced by the companies that I mentioned earlier. By simply claiming that some of their new shoes are minimalist, that company gains entry in to the category while, simultaneously shoes that are truly in the category are partially sidelined or not sold in large running shoe stores, because they are declared to be too different from what is acceptable. For example, a Brooks Flow is not a minimalist shoe, and neither is a Saucony Kinvara, yet those are probably the two most popular shoes in the category.
Q. If minimalist shoes are superior to traditional shoes, then why is it relatively common for runners wearing minimalist shoes to either have a difficult transitioning to them or suffer injuries?
A. Many runners continue to run with their old form, even in minimalist shoes. Their old shoes had so much cushioning that their own biomechanical mistakes were often disguised, and as a result, they developed muscle memories that continued to influence their running, even after they had switched shoes. I’ve seen runners in VFFs running heel first, but I can almost guarantee that they are certain their form has improved since switching shoes. These runners are painful to watch.
Q: That seems like a blanket generalization that assumes runners lack the ability to improve their form.
A: Other runners do change their form but their new form is still not totally correct. They might have been heel strikers and now they’re running forefoot/midfoot first, but they’re still overstriding and hitting the ground with their heel still too high. With this combination of form flaws it is common to see injuries to the Achilles tendon and calf muscles, as well as to the metatarsals in the foot, the areas which are overemphasized when running forefoot/midfoot incorrectly. Then, there’s those that do change to a correct form of running, but they rush the transition that it takes to running in “less shoe,” thereby overtaxing their lower body’s limited strength and flexibility as well as not fully possessing the sensory responsiveness necessary to reduce the chance of injury.
Q: And the most ideal scenario is what?
A: Runners who go through a proper transition to less shoe, adopt proper form, and pay attention to the increased intensity of the sensory signals now available to their feet. I should add that critics of minimalist shoes try to put everyone in the first three groups, but many runners can be in this fourth group over time.
A. To some degree, yes. They’ve often underestimated the degree and difficulty of the transition. Many were convinced that runners who changed their foot strike would automatically correct other gait flaws, such as overstriding, insufficient hip extension and flexion, and poor upper body mechanics. But many runners are not accustomed to concentrating on their form, possibly because they often insist that everyone’s “unique” style is theoretically correct for that individual.
Q. Are sales of minimalist shoes going down? Is the trend over?
A. No. Sales have steadily increased in stores that actively educate consumers about the function and purpose of minimalist shoes, and online purchases of minimalist running shoes have increased significantly each of the last five years, because many runners are forced to buy these models on the web when they are not available locally. Merrell, Vivo Barefoot, Vibram FiveFingers, Altra, and Inov8 continue to expand their choice of models. And last year a new company like Topo Athletic was able to raise the sufficient funding necessary to enter the market. Even sales of minimalist casual shoes are impressive, considering the few suppliers that can satisfy this growing demand.
Q: What about barefoot running?
A: Many of us tried to include support of barefoot running as part of the debate about minimalist shoes, but that simply enabled critics of minimalist shoes to attack barefoot running, which was an easier target. Barefoot running is the default running form for humans, but barefoot running is not an easy topic to explain or understand. In certain situations there are legitimate reasons to wear minimalist shoes instead of being barefoot, just as there are good reasons to wear work gloves in certain situations. (For example, would you wear heavy gloves if you were at the computer or trying to text someone on your cell phone?) Wearing minimalist shoes and running barefoot do not provide the same experience. Minimalist shoes can be an important piece of protection from the elements, and often allow us to run places and in conditions that would otherwise be inaccessible of dangerous. The next time the wind chill drops the temperature 5° below zero, I’ll try to remember that we were not born with shoes, and then I will wear a pair of minimalist shoes.
Jim Hixson, who is a regular contributor to the Natural Running Center, has been a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist since 2002. He’s currently the general manager at Feet for Life Motion Center in St Louis. MO.