Part One, by Jim Hixson, CSCS
It was exhilarating and vindicating to see the increase in the selection of lightweight, flat, thin, flexible shoes several years ago. But now the minimalist utopia is threatened by market forces. I looked at the 2014 survey Peter Larson had on Runblogger.com –two of the top 20 shoes were Hoka models: Clifton and Huaka. Although both had small heel-to-toe offsets, 2mm and 4mm, respectively, they were quite thick and stiff. Two other shoes were Altra models, the Oneand the Paradigm, which were “zero drop,” but also featured very thick midsoles. All four of these models would be described as “maximalist,” a new category that was created in the last two years, and one which supposedly combines the positive characteristics of traditional running shoes and minimal shoes.
What happened with runners that made “fat and flat” shoes so popular, and in the process, push aside minimalism like some beefy schoolyard bully? In the beginning, ultra runners flocked to Hokas, feeling that extra cushioning was needed to save their legs. Then injured runners gravitated to the plumpish shoes. Old aches and pains seemed to go away. There’s a recent article in the New York Times that gives a balanced appraisal of the current cushion-is-king state of affairs: maximalism is in, minimalism is out. (And barefoot remains an outlier.)
Let’s look more carefully at minimalism. It’s far from being dead. The footwear pendulum will probably swing away from “more” shoe in several years. Will the new marketing phenom be known as “middle-ism?”
When most runners originally tried minimal shoes for the first time, they were either unprepared or continued to run with poor technique and didn’t reap the benefits they thought were theirs. Some of these runners got injured because they transitioned too fast; they returned to traditional shoes with elevated heels, or switched to maximalist shoes, not realizing that a bigger shoe does not offset poor technique. Of course, those who made the successful transition to minimal shoes are quite happy, even ecstatic, and will remain faithful, but their allegiance has not prevented many running stores from either removing their entire minimal shoe collection or scaling it back significantly. Oddly enough, sales or minimal shoes online are still strong, both because runners are still interested in the concept, but also because, ironically, they’re often no longer available at the running stores where they were introduced.
Maximalist Shoes = Minimalism on Steroids
In the past decade, we have seen the minimal shoe movement start, thrive, stall, and decline. Although it began as a grass roots rebellion against the designs of shoes marketed by the big running shoe companies (Adidas , ASICS,, Brooks, Mizuno, New Balance, Nike, and Saucony), it soon promised to radically alter the industry. At one time the force of the “minimalist” movement seemed to be growing so rapidly that it could not be stopped, but now those who defend the concept of minimal shoes are on the defensive again as most runners still wear traditional running shoes; many running shoe stores don’t even carry shoes by the alternative brands (Altra, Lems, Skora, Xero Shoes, Merrell, Newton, Topo, Vibram FiveFingers, and Vivo Barefoot).
When the Nike Free was introduced in 2004, there were immediately critics. For these individuals or organizations it seemed odd to wear a shoe that had been designed to allow a runner to run “naturally”. Many running stores never even carried the Free, and a majority of those that did often failed to focus much attention on explaining its purpose, perhaps because it never fit into an existing category. Despite some initial excitement in the running community, the Free was soon marginalized and these shoes were eventually seen by many to be a fad. Even Nike had a mixed reaction to its own product, advocating runners to wear the Free and their traditional shoes in an odd rotation.
In 2009, Chris McDougal’s Born to Run was published, and for reasons that have not been sufficiently researched, suddenly some runners became receptive to the design of lower profile shoes and began to question their dependence upon traditional shoes. Since the only option offered by traditional companies at this time was the racing flat, new companies, such as Vibram FiveFingers and Vivo Barefoot, entered the market, and Merrell, who was not tied to the traditional style of running shoes, also introduced models. Combined with the Nike Free these shoes created the new category of “minimal shoes”. Later. Lems, Altra, and Skora devoted their entire catalog to minimal shoes.
BACK WHEN MINIMAL WAS RED HOT:
The big running companies did not react at first, choosing to either ignore the new threat or smugly relying upon their marketing departments and customer loyalty to prevent any defection. This proved to be a serious mistake, and within three years minimal shoes were being worn, at least part of the time, by probably 15% of all recreational runners, a percentage significantly higher than the total sales of some of the smaller shoe companies. Eventually the traditional companies reacted with a campaign that was relatively unified. Of course it’s common for an established institution, like the running shoe industry, to protect its influence and power, so this counterattack was not unusual, and even expected.
Although in 2011 Saucony lowered the elevation of the heels on all of its models to a maximum of 8mm, other companies tended to keep their traditional line intact, although they were often able to use new materials and designs to remove a couple of ounces from core models; more importantly they created their own “minimal shoes”, although most of them were not truly minimal. There was no mistaking a Brooks Flow or Saucony Mirage for a Vibram FiveFingers Bikila or, for that matter, a Nike Free 3.0. What these companies were able to do, however, was to redefine the term “minimal shoes”, so that it described their shoes, thus, making true minimal shoes seem like a dangerous choice, because they were too “extreme”.
The effort to defend traditional designs and discredit minimal shoes was also carried out in the media, in newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and podcasts, and also in scientific journals. Sometimes a representative of a shoe company took part in these “debates,” but the side of the traditionalists was often taken by well-meaning “experts”, who seemed to have no understanding of human evolution, limited knowledge of biomechanics, and apparently no experience with the activity of running in other sports.
The argument of the traditionalists was that running on hard surfaces was too difficult to do in our natural state, which they grudgingly admitted was barefoot. The assumption of both the shoe companies and the media, which did a poor job of understanding or explaining the issues in argument, was that modern running shoes, or “traditional” running shoes, met the demands of distance runners by protecting their feet and joints. Minimal shoes were seen as being “almost barefoot” and probably too dangerous for most individuals.
Depending upon the running surface, their criticism might have had some merit, but their implicit claim was extreme: the human foot was inadequate to the task of running because it was too weak. According to these companies, unless a running shoe was stiff and had a thick rubber midsole with an elevated heel to protect the foot from the shock of initial contact with the ground, a runner was likely to be injured. None of these claims were ever supported by any scientific research and, frankly, were somewhere on the spectrum between silly and ridiculous. In fact, there has been no decrease in the incidence or severity of running-related injuries in the last four decades, the same period when running shoe companies made improvements each year, and the world’s best distance runners were coming from cultures where shoes were often not worn until a runner has already become quite skilled.
Whenever the two sides were presented by the media as possible viable alternatives, the burden of proof was always on the defenders of minimal shoes. Unfortunately, the emphasis of both sides tended to focus on foot placement, with traditionalists supporting a heel-striking technique, and minimalists arguing for landing on the midfoot or forefoot at initial contact. There were two problems with this format.
First, the terms “heel strike”, “midfoot strike”, and “forefoot strike” were never specifically defined, and both participants and observers of the debate often had various images in their minds when they heard these words. Was the runner’s forward swinging leg completely extended when hitting heel first? Did a “midfoot strike” require the entire sole of the foot to contact the ground at the same time? Did a “forefoot” runner land on the toes? Where was the foot in the relation to the rest of the body when the foot came into initial contact with the ground?
Second, the primary purpose of minimal shoes was not to enable the foot to strike the ground in a certain way; it was to allow and encourage a runner to run with correct technique. The term “natural running” was often used as a substitute for “correct running technique”, since most advocates of minimal shoes considered “natural running” to be correct technique, but this implicit claim was rarely explained. In fact, some “minimalists” even admitted that a runner wearing traditional shoes and striking heel first might have little need to alter one’s technique, as long as one was uninjured. Yet, running technique is the variable most closely correlated with running-related injuries.
Another issue which affected the conversation was the inclusion of barefoot running. Usually it didn’t take more than a few seconds for the defenders of traditional shoes, often aided by someone from the media, to conflate wearing minimal shoes with barefoot running. Although there are many advantages to doing at least some barefoot running, it was easy to attack this practice as being outside the bounds of normal and safe behavior, in an effort to quickly and effectively dismiss wearing minimal shoes, which were often even referred to as “barefoot shoes.” Unfortunately this approach became easier as running injuries associated with wearing minimal shoes and barefoot running began to be reported. Although these injuries did occur there was rarely an attempt to explain or understand their origin, even though it was obvious to an observer with some understanding of biomechanics that people who become injured, no matter what the physical activity, are either physically unprepared or moving with incorrect technique.
Beginning in 2012, interest in minimal shoes began to plateau and eventually even declined, although most runners who had made the transition successfully would never have even considered running in traditional shoes again. For runners who had never attempted to switch from traditional shoes, as well as those who had unsuccessfully tried to make the transition to minimal shoes, traditional shoes were able to maintain or recapture their allegiance. Other runners decided that several of the features of minimal shoes were appealing, but perhaps they needed a little more cushioning; these individuals have embraced, as mentioned above, “maximalist” shoes, mistakenly believing they can combine the positive characteristics of traditional and minimal shoes.
So, how should supporters of minimal shoes defend their choice of footwear? What rationale would be sufficient to convince other runners to question their dependence upon traditional shoes? Can the minimalist movement be reinvigorated? Or is it too late? Those are all questions that will be addressed in Part Two. Stay tuned.
Jim Hixson, CSCS, a regular contributor to the Natural Running Center, has worked in running stores since 1998 and manages the Motion Center in St. Louis, one of the all-minimal shoes stores that has survived.