I have been the running shoe buyer for the Running Spot stores for the past five years and I must admit that the latest footwear craze caught me and every other footwear buyer totally by surprise. Who would have thought that “less shoe” would have more mass appeal than “more shoe”? It’s like choosing a Yugo (yes, I am showing my age) over a Cadillac. Well, as strange it may sound, that is exactly what has happened in our industry over the past 18 months and all of us are trying to catch up as quickly as possible.
The concept of creating a minimal shoe actually was introduced with the Nike Free 6-7 years ago, but its developers purely positioned it as a supplemental piece to your training routine. Then, along came the Vibram FiveFingers and after a slow start, the entire concept mushroomed and has accelerated beyond everyone’s belief. Playing off the success of FiveFingers, Nike Free running shoes are selling at their highest rate in history, and others in the industry - Saucony, New Balance, Hoka and Merrell – are quickly developing products to cater to this new boom in the running shoe market.
So with these new products comes a few obvious questions that I will do my best to answer here in this article.
1. How is a minimal running shoe different from a traditional running shoe?
2. What is a minimal shoe designed to do?
3. How do I know if these shoes are right for me?
4. Is a minimal shoe really necessary?
First off, let’s compare a traditional running shoe with some of our minimal footwear. The main difference often found between the two has to do with the heel-to-forefoot ratio of their midsole heights. A traditional running shoe usually has an 11-12 mm variance in midsole heights. A very common example is a 12mm forefoot height vs. a 24mm heel height. Now, when we look at a shoe in the minimal category, a variance of less than 10mm is very common. Some models go as low as a 5mm forefoot vs. a 9mm heel height. Undoubtedly, because of its design, the typical minimal (Hoka shoes are the exception) shoe is going to offer less cushion in both the forefoot and the heel.
Let’s move on to our next point of what a minimal shoe is designed to do. Well, we have already established that a minimal shoe (FiveFinger, Nike Free, Saucony Kinvara) puts less shoe under our foot. The attempt here, as much as possible, is to simulate the feeling of running barefoot. The philosophy is that with less shoe to land on, the runner will revert back to a more natural way of running – which is to land much more mid-foot as opposed to the landing on our heel-first. Through gradual adaptation, this stride is shorter with less impact and can allow us to increase our stride turnover rate in the process. Further belief is that this more efficient running form should help to reduce some of those running related injuries that have plagued many of us over the years.
So, now that we know all about these shoes and what they are supposed to do, “how do we know if these shoes are right for us?” This is truly a tricky question for many of us at the Running Spot and for others in the industry as well. In a nutshell, here is our approach. First, there are many differences between a FiveFingers, Nike Free and Saucony Kinvara. One, the Vibram is more of a foot covering than a shoe. Two, the Nike and Saucony options – though very similar – do have some significant differences. As others begin to come into the market, there will be more and more options within this group. For many of our customers, any of these shoes would be radical departure from what they are used to running in. And, to expect someone to make a radical leap from a traditional shoe to a minimal shoe 100% of the time may be too much of an adjustment to make. I liken making this kind of adjustment to that of a beginning runner trying to train for a 10K or an experienced runner working up to a marathon. On both fronts, it is a gradual process that takes time to get our bodies used to the demands of running and allows us to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. And so it is with a new product like this. Our recommendation is to gradually work one of these products into your training routine as a supplemental piece along with your current shoe preference. By following this approach, you are allowing your feet, ankles and legs to slowly adapt to the differences that may present themselves via the use of minimal footwear.
In the end, the question “Is a minimal shoe really necessary?” comes up and many times the answer is no. That’s right,“no”. As I touched on before, the true benefit of wearing a minimal shoe is that it more or less forces you to alter your gait to a more natural, efficient way of running. So, if we can make a conscious effort to alter our gait, we can continue to use our current running shoes and create a more efficient gait at the same time. A simple drill we were shown at a New Balance seminar was to increase our turnover rate from 150 foot-strikes per minute to 180 per minute. The idea is that if we can reach 180, we will have shortened up our stride and will be landing more mid-foot with our feet under our center-of-gravity. One major benefit here is that our knees are flexed at impact as opposed to locked and straight during heel impact. As brought up at this seminar, your current footwear will more than allow you to make this transition by following some simple drills. So for many people, making a footwear change is not a necessity, but it will make for an easier transition.
Now that I tweaked your curiosity, stop by and see what it is all about! That’s all for now.