Friday, January 20, 2012

Ideas on Minimalist Shoes

After working for over a year in a running shoe store, I think I've gained a solid stance on how I feel about minimalism and the shoes that have been created for this purpose.

First and foremost, I am a firm believer that whatever works for you, works for you... It's that simple. If you have had success with your shoe of choice, whether it's the Brooks Beast or the Mizuno Wave Universe, then that's great and I hope it continues to do so. That being said, I have had quite a bit of experience with answering questions about minimalist shoes (and maximalist shoes for that matter) and think I can offer a bit of insight to people looking to find the right shoe.

I think the minimalism fad popped up so quickly because people were fed up with buying shoes that were heavy and really didn't seem to offer any help in the way of injury prevention or even to reduce muscle fatigue. The only difference a lot of people noticed was that they were wearing a brick on their foot. The idea of wearing something light on their foot was exciting because it offered a faster, more free feeling. Combined with a well-known book adding "legitimacy" to the movement, the idea kind of blew out of proportion. People swung from one extreme to the other without even considering the middle ground as a possibility.

Another element that led to a large upswing in marketing of minimalist shoes was the mainstream specialty running brands and running shoe stores starting to make and sell these shoes. A lot of people thought this was due to the running shoe brands finally admitting that they were selling people expensive, injury causing running shoes, and conforming to the simple and "right" way to make shoes. On the contrary, I would like to think it is because corporations and running store owners alike are smart and wanted to make money off of a current fad like any other fashion brand would do (and its exactly the reason you see all minimalist shoes come in like 40 different color waves for one shoe).

But its not really the hype or the misinformation that bothers me most about the minimalist movement. It's the most important feature in the shoe's construction that throws me off...

STABILITY- I agree with Geoff Roes' blog post about needing more cushioning for longer distances, but I also think the body can adapt over time to get used to higher impact... if that's what you want to do for some reason. On the other hand, if a shoe is inherently unstable for a person's mechanical movement, it can be quite dangerous (kinda like running in a pair of Shape-Ups).

For some reason, stability has become a 4-letter word. Stability can be achieved in more ways than just adding a dense posting to the medial side of a shoe. More often than not just increasing the width of a shoe increases the stability. Think of it in terms of a snow shoe vs. an ice skate. A snow shoe is much more stable since it has such a wide base. But the fact that most minimalist shoes are designed in the shape of a foot....

....really bothers me. They are so heavily drafted under the arch of the foot that they offer absolutely no support to the foot or ankle (i.e. ice skate effect). This not only allows the collapse of the arch and ankle, but in most cases it actually exaggerates it, almost like the shoe is purposefully designed to throw you off balance. I have seen a large number of people with neutral mechanics running in these shoes and they almost always overpronate. Don't get me wrong, I have this problem with a lot of regular running shoes too, but I have only seen two or three "minimalist" shoes that has a decently wide base for the foot to land.

The marketing concept of a more "natural" foot strike has bothers me as well. The idea that changing your preferred foot strike is the "natural" thing to do is completely absurd. A lot of research on the topic of gait analysis has shown that any change in your gait will cause you to be less efficient. People who forefoot strike and try to change their gait to a heel strike will become less efficient and vice versa. And the concept that any one prescribed method of running will work for everyone in the world is complete BS. A natural foot strike should be one that feels natural to you. Whether its heel, forefoot or midfoot, it should feel comfortable and unforced.

With regards to all the reports of people being injured from overbuilt shoes..... Chances are, there are a few things at work here. The most common thing I've seen in the running store is a person in a shoe that is completely wrong for them (they bought it because it was $25 at BIG5 or at Nordstrom because it looked cool, something like that). They are also increasing their mileage for a race like a marathon. The combination of wearing the wrong shoe and increasing their mileage by 300% leads to their body responding in a negative way. Simple as that.

My advice for people who are having problems with their current pair of shoes or training:

-Bring your current pair of running shoes into a running specialty store. More often than not, any one of the employees here will be able to help you find the right shoe. Whether its having you run on a treadmill or down a hallway and back, they will be able to see which shoe looks best as you're running in it. Keep in mind that you want something to match your foot shape without having to wrench down the laces. If you have a narrow foot, see if they have any narrow versions in stock. For men this will be a B width, women will have a 2A width. Wide widths are usually available too, 2E or 4E for men, D or 2E for women. Make sure the shoe feels comfortable as your running in it. No amount of support will benefit you if you can't wear the shoe. Lastly, make sure the store has a good return policy so you can try the shoes out for a bit. It's often a prerequisite to be a runner if you work in a running shoe store so chances are they'd be able to offer advice on training.

-If you're training for something or just getting started, a lot of people have aches and pains associated with entry into a sport. It's really easy to blame the shoe, but more often than not its just the body saying you're loading too much too soon. Keep a mileage log and make sure you're not bumping up your mileage too quickly. If you do 10 miles the first week, then bump to 15 and feel horrible, keep in mind you've just increased your mileage by 50%. It's nice to keep things in perspective.

In the end, I think anything that gets you out the door and running is awesome. If thats a new pair of shoes that you've never tried before, GREAT! Just keep in mind that if you're going to try something drastically different, do so cautiously. If you find something that works for you, stick with it. If not, figure out what isn't working. Trial and error will help you find your way into the right shoes.

I always feel like I haven't explained my stance well enough, so if you have any questions please don't hesitate to comment.


  1. Great post! I've had a lot of issues finding the a shoe that works for me especially when running I just stick to trails now :) After trying a few different ones I think I found what works for me and that is definitely the key!

    1. This is an endlessly complex issue, and one I don't think we're anywhere close to sorted out. As cliche as it is to say, people are different, and works for you may not work for me. That said, I think that the "minimalist" thing has shown us, somewhat clearly, that the current shoe fitting paradigm isn't working for a lot of people. And while I agree that most people can't do a ton of mileage in barefoot simulators, I believe there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates - rather clearly - that many current running shoe features do nothing helpful. I have never seen evidence that a medial post does anything, for instance, or a significantly elevated heel. This could go on forever. The main benefit, I think, is that there are more options all across the spectrum now, so people are more apt to find a shoe that lets them achieve their goals. Ultimately, happy, healthy training is what matters.

  2. Alex, if you'd like to post a few articles on how running shoe features don't work, I'd be willing to give them a read. Thanks for your comment!

    1. Sure.

      All of this is not to say, again, that I think running shoes are bad, or that they cannot serve a purpose. Rather, I think it's good that we're evaluating what that purpose is, and how to best achieve it.

      Unrelated, but have you seen this:
      I know you've said that sub-4 is doable; this could certainly provide some incentive. It is a tougher course than expected though, and difficult to put a really fast time on. I'll be thrilled if I break 4:30.

  3. Alex,

    These were some interesting articles. I think that they require a bit more study, but for the most part there was solid research done. I guess my main argument to most of them would be the use of categorization (stability, neutral cushioning, and motion control). I'm a big believer in the customization of footwear to the buyer. Simply throwing a generic shoe at someone to use during these tests is lacking in scientific depth as well as knowledge of footwear itself. Then again, customizing footwear to each individual in these tests would be expensive and expansive.

    I agree that its a good thing when shoe companies find ways to provide the same stability in shoes while finding lighter weight options. However, I still think that the way minimalist shoes are marketed and distributed is a bit misleading and dangerous to the average consumer.

    As for the wyco race, I would love to be a part of it this year. I really do think sub-4 hours is doable. However, I will have to postpone until 2013 due to scheduling conflicts. Best of luck to you though! Make sure you wear something with a lot of tread :)

    1. That more research is needed is clear. But it is being done, which is a good thing. I think we're moving in the right direction. I've comfortably run fast(ish) half marathons in trail gloves and hattori on pavement - but I'm aware that most won't want to do that, and that more shoe is helpful for truly long races.

      I think the main problem, as you said, is generic prescription. It's not that running shoes don't work, per se; rather, they don't work the same for everyone. And many people are running in something that's doing more harm than good, I think. A good shoe fitting would go a long way. Unfortunately, that goes well beyond looking at static arch height.

      And on Wyco, perhaps I'll see you then. (But only until you pull away, probably a mile in.) Thanks for the reasoned discussion.

  4. "First and foremost, I am a firm believer that whatever works for you, works for you"


    "A lot of research on the topic of gait analysis has shown that any change in your gait will cause you to be less efficient."

    Unfortunately all that I have seen have been rather short term. Maybe a year or two down the road their economics would have improved?

    "People who forefoot strike and try to change their gait to a heel strike will become less efficient and vice versa."

    Agreed. People simply become most economic at what they habitually do. Some are just more efficient at running inefficiently.

    I feel the Merrell shoe you have pictured above is a good example of what you are referring to with narrow shoes. I returned mine do to this very reason.

  5. "Unfortunately all that I have seen have been rather short term. Maybe a year or two down the road their economics would have improved?"

    Excellent question! My opinion is you should run how you run without a conscious manipulation of your gait. Doing so will cause you to be less efficient. This is definitely a "short" term effect though. The body is highly adaptable and will eventually change and adapt to run in this new manner. But the idea that you need a shoe to change your gait is ridiculous. You can run on your forefoot with or without shoes. Furthermore, I have read a study (and seen quite extensively with my own eyes) that people who have worn shoes and switch to barefoot running still strike their heel... some of them very heavily.

    Most of what I see in the running store where I work is a lot of over-striding and overtraining. The two together are bound to cause problems. I usually just tell people to slow down, run on a softer surface and "land more softly"... telling them generically to land softly allows them to find their own best way to land with less impact. So, they can still maintain their own personal "natural" stride, just at a slower pace.

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