Let’s talk for a minute about minimalist running.
Because we all want to run as naturally as possible.
The real deal of course, is running barefoot. That puts you in direct contact with the ground with absolute and constructive feedback from your running stride.
The most efficient way for a runner to move is with a midfoot stride, running “over” the ground by transferring your weight with a propulsive push of the foot using the arch and calf to move the body forward.
Yet there are plenty of world class runners who move along just fine using a heel strike.
So who’s right?
The politics of minimalism
It really depends on your ultimate notion of reality, and how you define minimalism.
Minimalist running is equivalent to Libertarianism in politics.
Get rid of the regulations and bureaucracy and you’ll have a more naturally functional society, right?
Note entirely. It’s not that simple. Really, it isn’t.
If the Democratic shoe fits, should you wear it?
We might admit that today’s highly technical running shoes are more like the Democratic and Republican parties.
Built upon layers of almost bureaucratic consensus that says more is almost always better when it comes to cushioning, motion control and tread function.
Trail shoes take that formula one step further, bolstering shoe construction in classic areas like the heel and arches. Trail shoes are like the Marxist party of running shoes. It’s all about control and padding.
The Minimalist Revolution
The Minimalist Running Revolution says bunk to all that.
And since its onset, the movement has worked hard to build its credibility by enlisting the advice of orthopedic and pediatric doctors who favor a less controlling form of footwear.
The minimalist movement has, in essence, become its own counterculture.
So, we ask: is it run by a pack of hippies, trying to shed their shoes in hopes of getting us all naked in the end? Hardly. The minimalism isn’t even like the Tea Party, created by a bunch of frustrated cranks needy for attention.
Minimalism is more than that, precisely because it is less. And less may be more in this case.
There’s truth in every movement
Minimalist running advocates really are on to something. But it might not be for everyone.
Our presumptions about the benefits of big fat running shoes really are wrong in some ways. For the last 40 years we’ve been engaged in a giant experiment to find the perfect podiatric solution to the human condition. There have been many big failures along the way. Shoes that promise too much or do too much. I know. I’ve worn such contraptions. I think particularly of an overbuilt shoe that cost $90 and I wore for 2 weeks before giving up on that wad of useless foam and shoelaces.
But we also have to acknowledge that, inmany ways, the shoe business has succeeded in its proposal to improve footwear. You can see it in the increased comfort and lightweight solutions in dress shoes, for example. All dress shoes used to be clunky and uncomfortable to the point that they were only suitable for stamping out dangerous insects.
Now we have Rockports and Eccos and a host of other brands of dress shoes that draw on the lessons we learned from creating more biomechanically efficient running shoes. We should all be thankful for that.
You really can thank Nike and adidas and Reebook and Asics and New Balance and Mizuno and all those other shoe companies for creating the trickle-down technology (it has proven to work in technology, but not in economics…) that has made the world of dress shoes better for everyone. Even women. With the notable exception of stiletto heels. But you don’t wear those to get away from anyone.
Cycling even gets in on the shoe game
The same trickle down effect has occurred in cycling as well, where incredibly light and efficient materials and designs have been transferred from the most expensive down to the cheapest forms of bikes, making the riding experience better for everyone. Even riding shoes and clipless pedals draw on biomechanical principles learned from the design of running shoes.
It is foolish therefore to throw away everything we’ve learned about comfort in performance athletic shoes in favor of running like a cave-type-person.
But it’s hard to deny: The minimalist movement is seductive in theory. Getting back to a more natural way of running is a hopeful effort to produce less injuries, better running experiences and long term health.
So let us analyze the premise. It seems logical that our feet and legs become ingratiated to super-padded running shoes to the point that we lose our natural strength and flexibility.
And it makes sense that human beings evolved for millions of years without big fat shoes to help them chase down meaty prey.
Even the Huarache Indians and Greek marathoners only ran in strappy sandals, right? That’s both functional and sexy, when you think about it. But we digress.
The real question here is this: Do we actually need running shoes or not?
The answer is simple: Yes, we do. But let’s also not forget how we evolved.
Running barefoot is good for you, now and then
At the end of many a long workout, our college team would toss aside our running shoes to do sprints on the grassy infield. Up and down the football field we’d run without shoesto relax our feet and yes, increase the flexibility and strength of our bare, naked feet.
Some of us also competed in races without shoes. That worked fine until you got stepped on by someone with spikes, or the acorns fell thick and fast from the oak trees on the upper campus. That slowed your ass down in a hurry. Most of us ditched the barefoot racing idea as a result. Blood and bruises did most of the talking in that category.
We would also never have supposed to run our 10-milers on gravel roads without shoes. My college roommate and I once even begged our fraternity brothers to let us wear shoes when they stripped us otherwise naked and dropped us 12 miles out of town with a case of beer and said, “Good luck, we’ll see you back at midnight. Ha hah. Have fun.”
We ran back to town in just over an hour’s time and infuriated them by locking our doors before they even got back from the bars.
But we didn’t do that barefoot. We might have been naked, but we were not crazy. The same trip barefoot in the dark might have taken 2 or 3 hours, mincing down the washboard and gravel surface, watching out for broken bottles. To hell with minimalism at that point. Being practical sorts, we also left the beer behind in the ditch to pick up later.
There’s a difference…
…Between losing your shoes on purpose to add strength and flexibility to your running program and forsaking use of regular shoes altogether. Using minimalist shoes and running barefoot have a solid place in any runner’s training program. Consider it weight training and stretching for your feet and legs.
The fact is you can transition to the amount of minimalist running that your body and training program will tolerate. But be cautioned: No amount of theoretical application and desire to get back to basics will help if your body exhibits profound biomechanical issues like flat feet or other functional flaws.
A world class example
World class middle distance runner Sebastian Coe had flat feet. I know this because I met him in person at the podiatrist in the United States he consulted to help him avoid injury. Coe engaged in one of the world’s most sophisticated and yet most training programs for distance running you can imagine.
His father was his coach and the Coes worked for weeks using simple training techniques like bounding, hopping on boxes and strength training. This built a complete athlete. Coe was 5’7″ and 132 lbs. Yet he could leg press 700 lbs.
That’s real strength. Sebastian Coe engaged in a well-rounded training program. Yet he kept getting injured because even his prodigious strength and muscular balance could not compensate for the genetic flaws in his feet.
Remember: In full stride Coe was a work of beauty. He ran 44 seconds for 400 meters and 3:47 in the mile. Not too shabby, right?
Yet the base distance training Coe needed to do for endurance could not be accomplished running on his toes as he did at full speed. Coe actually supinated (foot tilted to the outside) as he used his midfoot to propel himself across the ground at world record speeds.
To compensate for his biomechanical flaws, Seb Coe used orthotics. He didn’t trot around in bare feet to build endurance because he would have been crippled as a result. Coe used good, basic running shoes with corrective orthotics specifically designed to managed his basal pronation and allow his foot to progress through a neutral footplant while training
Minimalists might contend that Coe had it all wrong. It was the shoes and the orthotics that caused him the problems. But they would be wrong. His Olympic medals and world records are proof of that.
The right course, and the original item
The fact is, running shoe technology was developed in collaboration with orthopedic experts, podiatrist and running coaches who knew the intimate facts of running injuries. It took a decade or so to make the absolute connection between running shoe construction and injury prevention.
Among runners who were training and competing in the early 1970s, before the running boom occurred and even before Nike rolled in to change the face of footwear forever, running shoes were indeed somewhat minimalist.
Most modern day runners are unaware that the running flats of the early 1970s were simple canvas affairs with gum rubber souls and just the merest layer of heel. That was it. All you had on your feet to cover the ground was a canvas slipper with a gum rubber sole.
Track and cross country athletes wore these minimalist shoes to train on the cinder track, in cross country, on roads and fields and sandy beaches. It was minimalism at its best, and worst.
Because for some runners those minimalist shoes worked just fine. But others developed shin splints, plantar fascia problems, pulled hamstrings and calf muscles and myriad other injuries brought on by a combination of unrestricted pounding and lack of biomechanical control.
I know. I wore those shoes. And while blessed with generally good biomechanical makeup early in life, and a practiced, efficient running form that still earns compliments to this day, it was tough training in those minimalist shoes.
Don’t get me wrong. On many other days we ran and trained in track spikes, a quite minimalist form of shoe in their early derivations.
Yet the secret to our generally health approach to running was this: Very little of our actual cross country training or running for track was done out on the roads. We ran on grass, doing intervals most days, not long slow distance. Much of what we did was quality, up on our toes. In minimalist shoes.
The next generation: adidas Italia.
Then adidas came along with a model called the Italia. These were a slightly more built up running shoe than the black gum rubber souled shoes. But not by much. The white leather Italia had a basically flat sole, no lifted heel. The tread was a repeated texture of starlike patterns, but they were not much good in wet grass, where we often ran.
World class distance runners such as Marty Liquori have written that the Italia might have been the perfect running shoe. Just enough structure to provide protection, but not so much that it constricted your natural stride.
The next Next generation: adidas Country
Then came the adidas Country. Which, you guessed it, had a much more elevated heel to them. That was the real start of the arms race, because Nike and Bowerman then issued the Cortez and the Waffle Trainer. Each subsequent model incorporated more heel until the late 1970s, when the Nike LDV came out with its huge, fat heel and flared rear sole. That shoe was a freaking monster. Running in LDVs was like plopping a moon pod down on the surface.
For a long time after that, minimalism was dead.
Minimalism is like sex. A part of life. But not all of it.
Yet here we are in 2012, trying to get back to our roots, as it were, and run (or ride) in shoes that do enough to help us, and less to hurt us.
You’ve no doubt seen the toed-shoes that look like Hobbitwear. Nike alone has thrown plenty of models out there over the years that tried to strip down the modern day running shoe to its essence. Strap it on with what amounts to lycra flesh and get out there. Minimalism is like sex. A part of life. But not all of it.
Good sex is a real joy. It can make you happy, feeling fulfilled. You can even use sex to make babies if you want to. Imagine that!
But sex has its function, and so does minimalism in running shoes. It can make you happy and help you to the path of personal enlightenment. But you can’t promiscuously poke your way to a PR any more than you can train 100 mile weeks in minimalist shoes and expect to get by without hurting yourself eventually. Your vital parts are not necessarily prepared for such rigorous use, shall we say.
Get your mind out of the gutter, for God’s sake. I’m talking about your feet and legs here. What did you think I was suggesting? No one likes to be accused of minimalism down there anyway. Not the guys at least.
Conclusion: Minimalism has its place
Let’s just agree that minimalism is beautiful, in its natural sort of way.