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The Future of Minimalist Running Shoes and the Value of Variety

Posted on December 18 2012

Merrell Vapor GloveThis morning I opened my email to find an alert that the newest edition of SGB Weekly magazine had come out and that it would be featuring a few articles by Thomas Ryan on trends in the running market as gleaned from interviews and discussions at The Running Event.

The Running Event is the major annual trade show for the specialty running market, and is attended by brands showing off their newest product offerings, and retailers trying to figure out what’s going to be hot in the coming year. Based on the articles, the future of minimalism was a hot topic at the show, and I thought I’d add some of my own commentary on things that were written in the magazine.

Asics’ Simon Bartold on Minimalism and Running Injuries

The first article in the issue was an interview with Simon Bartold, an international research consultant for Asics. Simon and I have had our disagreements in the past, but I also think we tend to agree on many issues regarding the etiology and management of running injuries. His interview is interesting, and there are things I agree with, and things I don’t.

The first question asked of Bartold was “ HOW DO YOU THINK THE WHOLE BAREFOOT/MINIMALIST TREND IS EVOLVING?” His response:

“I actually think it’s dead. I think the big vibe around minimalism and barefoot as it existed 18 months ago has run its course.  We’re starting to see a lot of retailers say, ‘We really can’t sell it. Inventories are stacked up. And we can’t find anything to justify it scientifically.’ So it’s going to go back to where it was – what we called racing flats 10 years ago.

WHAT MINIMALIST PRODUCT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?  Mostly the zero-drop footwear and the whole talk of it as a main running shoe for the bulk of people. That’s the story we’ve been told. We’ve been told that if you go to a zero-drop running shoe then your gait will change and you’ll be running naturally like a caveman. But I think the concept has a fatal flaw and I believe people have seen through it. It’s taken 3 or 4 years but I think that concept is dead in the water.”

I both agree and disagree with what Simon says here. Sales at the barefoot-style end of the minimalist spectrum have indeed died down (particularly toe shoes like Vibram Fivefingers, though even those retain a very passionate niche following), and as with any hot trend things settle into place after an initial burst of popularity (and one must be careful not to equate minimalism with extreme barefoot-style and toe shoes). If he’s talking only about the idea that zero drop or barefoot-style is best for all people being dead, I agree with him, but I think only a small (albeit vocal) minority of people ever espoused that belief.

The reality is that minimalism and zero drop are far from dead – one need only look at the number of zero drop offerings coming out in early 2013 from top 7 brands like Mizuno (Be, Levitas, Cursoris), Brooks (PureDrift), and Saucony (Virrata) to see that zero drop is alive and well (not to mention that New Balance has a large suite of minimal offerings, Nike has the Free line, and adidas just released their own “adipure” natural running line a few months ago – of the big 7, seems that Asics is the only one not joining the minimal party, though they are testing the waters with the Gel-Lyte). Even small and niche companies are getting into the market with minimal spectrum offerings – Altra has developed a strong following and has a suite of new zero drop shoes coming in the next year, and Merrell continues to add zero drop models to their stable of offerings (would they be doing that if their sales had totally tanked?).

Minimalism is not dying, it’s evolving. We are learning through self experimentation – for example, I still like to run in a barefoot-style shoe from time to time, but I prefer a bit of cushion for most of my runs, many of which are in zero drop shoes. We are seeing the pendulum swing back a bit away from extreme minimalism, but more low and zero drop cushioned offerings are on the way. Minimalism may be dead for Asics, but then they never set foot in that market to begin with – it’s hard to evolve a product that you never made a go at.

Regarding Bartold’s comment about minimalism going back to the racing flats of 10 years ago, this is a tired argument that I hear too often and that I disagree with completely. Most so-called minimal shoes out there today are very different than racing flats. Flats tend to be stiff, tight fitting, and sacrifice durability for weight (and, ironically, they are almost never flat) – these are aspects that are specifically designed to support running fast, and Asics makes some very good flats based on what I have heard from other runners. In contrast, minimalist spectrum shoes come in a wide variety of weights (compare the almost 10oz Altra Instinct to the sub 5oz New Balance MT00), have variable amounts of cushioning (Saucony Kinvara vs. Inov-8 Bare-X 180), tend to be very flexible, and typically have a wide forefoot. Let’s please drop the “minimalist shoes are just re-marketed racing flats” line of argument.

I also disagree with Simon’s contention that we can’t find anything to justify minimalism scientifically, especially since he himself talks about different needs for different people (and I agree with him completely on this!). We have learned a lot in the past few years about how different footwear can alter forces applied to our bodies, how form training can be used clinically to treat injuries, and how footwear can influence our form. A barefoot-style shoe will alter force application just as a motion control shoe or custom orthotic will, it’s just a matter of understanding how forces are altered so that appropriate decisions can be made for each individual. None of these options are necessarily inherently bad, they’re just different, and one runner might benefit from a barefoot-style shoe whereas another might benefit from a more structured style of footwear.

I don’t want to come off sounding as if I disagree with everything that Bartold says, because I don’t. In fact I strongly agree with what he says here:

“The biggest problem with us as runners in the western world is we tend to run in the same manner, which means the same loading at each step, and the human body is very bad at adapting to that. This whole concept that you should mix the terrain you run on – some hills, some sand, some grass – and especially the look of the shoe to a less structured one at least a couple runs a week is completely logical from an injury prevention standpoint. Running in the same pair of shoes during the week is not varying the input signal enough. If you’re running on a different terrain or using a lightweight, lower drop, more flexible shoe like the GEL-Lyte for shorter, faster runs during the week, you’re not hitting the same repetitive load all the time. You’re not radically changing the experience, but enough to mix up the input signal in a positive manner.”

I’m an advocate for variation. Vary your shoes, vary your workouts, vary your terrain. Mix up force application and I think you will be better off from an injury prevention standpoint. This might mean a minimal shoe on some days, and a Hoka One One on others. There’s nothing wrong with using shoes that vary widely in their properties if it works for you, no need to be dogmatic about one style or another (and this is why I find it confusing that Bartold speaks so strongly against zero drop and barefoot-style shoes in one response and then openly supports variation in another).

I also agree with this:

“If you want to be active, there are risks involved and you probably will get an injury from time to time. And getting in better shape and doing simple exercises to strengthen your hamstrings and butt muscles will likely pay off better than changing your strike pattern. From a footwear standpoint, it’s very hard for us to build anything that we can say will definitely change injury rates because injury is caused by different things and footwear is a tiny piece of the jigsaw.”

I agree that too much emphasis has been placed on foot strike modification – yes, it can make a difference, but it can also cause problems, and one must be careful in making a change. There are also other things that can be done that might better protect you from injury than playing with your foot strike (strengthening, optimizing stride length, varying footwear and training, etc.). I might argue that footwear is more than a “tiny piece” of the jigsaw puzzle based on my own personal experience with a lot of shoes, but I’ll leave it at that.

Brand Views on Minimalism and the 2013 Shoe Market

The second article is titled “Running Market Retains its Mojo” and focuses more widely on trends in the running retail market. Once again I’ll focus mainly on the discussion of minimalism here, which the article introduces as follows:

“In the aisles the talk was still largely about the evolution of the minimalist trend. Marked by the slowdown with Vibram’s FiveFinger franchise, the market appears to be shifting for 2013 away from targeting purely minimal looks to offering a more generous amount of cushioning and structured options in a lightweight package. Heel-toe drops may fall in the zero to 8mm range, but stack heights (outsole to footbed) are coming closer to the 15 to 25mm range.

Nonetheless, lightweight still rules the day with motion-control shoes certainly not making a comeback. Many of the learnings of minimalism, including lean construction, flexibility as well as theories around natural motion and natural transition through the midfoot, continue to work their way into next year’s models.”

This passage really highlights to me the major positive outcome of the minimalist movement. It’s not so much that we now view ultraminimal shoes with no cushion as a viable option for some (but not all, and probably not even most) runners (don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing), it’s moreso that the trend has pushed the market in a new direction away from the old neutral-stability-motion control paradigm where almost every shoe was 10-12mm drop, looked pretty much the same, and weighed over 10oz.

We are now in a market filled with much more variety, and this is a great thing, but with variety comes complexity in choosing the right shoe, and this is where knowledgeable retailers are critical – science may or may not ever be able to tell us which shoe is ideal for you, and help from a retailer experienced with a variety of shoes is critical.

The article goes on to interview reps from various brands who share their thoughts on minimalism. Here’s a selection:

Ryan reports that Scott Tucker of Pearl Izumi feels barefoot and “super-low-to-the-ground, no-midsole” options are “dying away.” Ryan quotes Tucker:

“What we have been calling minimalism is evolving into something else which doesn’t have a name but which brands like Pearl Izumi are addressing,” said Tucker. ”It’s taking those elements that became popular in minimalism evolving them and making sense of it.”

In other words, we don’t know what to call it, but Pearl Izumi are on it! (I might offer that the term “transitional” shoe has been in use for awhile for this niche) Not exactly a winning marketing message, and I’m not sure what elements they are planning to make sense of since the major tenets of minimalism are pretty straightforward (less drop, less cushion, wider forefoot, greater flexibility, more work done by the runner’s body, etc.).

Next we have Dave Jewell of Zoot, who Ryan reports as believing the following with regard to form:

…although the running industry was due for a “reset” since shoes were becoming over-built over the years, he laments that much of the natural discussion is around the midfoot strike.

“I have an active son so I live and breath cross country,” said Jewell. “I go to practices and the coaches talk about running form – staying relaxed, running proud and not slumping your shoulders. These coaches who have been doing this well before these new shoes arrived never talked about midfoot strike. Running has nothing to do with where your foot lands.”

Running has nothing to do with where your foot lands? Nothing???

Now, I’ll grant that foot strike modification has been overemphasized, but there is plenty of science describing how foot strike can alter force application (Bartold even discusses it in his interview) and foot strike modification can be used as a therapeutic tool for some injuries. Just because his son’s cross country coach doesn’t talk about midfoot strike doesn’t mean that foot strike is not important. In fact, the cross country coach at my college (and he’s been coaching a long, long time as well) just sent one of his runners to me a few weeks ago to talk about his foot strike since he has been chronically injured (tibial stress fractures). Heck, prominent runners have talked about foot strike for over 100 years – Arthur Newton, Bill Bowerman, Joe Henderson, Tom Osler, Jim Fixx, Gordon Pirie, Ryan Hall and many others have all had some strong feelings on the topic (and they don’t all agree). As you might guess, I’m not a fan of black and white thinking along the lines of “Running has nothing to do with where you foot lands.” It can matter quite a lot for some people (such as the runners with anterior compartment syndrome in this study).

Let’s move along to what I thought were the best two responses from shoe manufacturers in the article. First is adidas:

“It’s an exciting time,” said Pete Stolpe, marketing specialist, running, Adidas America. “Because never in the history of the industry has there been more companies with more footwear. The individual runner can truly have a choice and a voice of what they want to put on their foot. If you’re a high arched runner, if you’re a forefoot runner, whatever your running gait is, whatever your distance preference is, there’s never been a time in the industry‘s history where you have more companies where each runner can absolutely choose what they want on their foot. The bottom line benefit is runners win because they have more choices than ever before and they have more of a voice. That’s fantastic for the health of the sport and makes it more inclusive as it’s ever been because there’s something for everybody.”

And then Brooks, who demonstrate here why they are now the leading brand in specialty running – this is as fine a statement of how things should be done as I have seen from any brand thus far:

Brooks Footwear Product Line Manager Carson Caprara said the research will seek
to “clear up” much of the ongoing conflicting information in the marketplace but particularly focus on the individual. For instance, the research will seek to explain why someone with chronic running injuries in the past may have suddenly become injury-free when switching to a minimal shoe. Perhaps even more puzzlingly, it will try to understand why someone else when viewed on a treadmill with the exact same gait alignment gets injured when wearing a minimal shoe.

“I think it may entail shifting the paradigm a little bit in how we look at runners and injuries and how we build shoes and that hopefully long term will resonate and make sense for retailers and runners across the spectrum,” said Caprara. “It will have an element of choice, but also bring a little bit of the science back into the equation about optimal running for each individual. And it’s going to focus less on there being one standardized baseline that everyone has to be aligned in this one way to what is your best alignment as an individual and looking at your optimal motion and your optimal alignment and figuring out how to keep you in that alignment as you run. And that’s very different because now it’s, ‘Let’s put a bunch of people on a treadmill and try to align them on the same plane.’ But for some people, that plane may not work.”

“It’s just a matter of not having one point of view but offering choices for runners and I really think that’s resonating,” said Caprara. “We’re not telling runners you have to run minimal or run core. Run them both. We’re going to build them both for your type of foot and you can make the choice on what you prefer.”

The future is not about minimalism, it’s about choice. With the variety that now exists in the running shoe market we can each individually hone in on our needs and preferences. Some of us will wind up being be minimalists, some of us will be maximalists, and neither is necessarily right or wrong. I mostly write about minimalism here on Runblogger because it’s my personal preference and I review shoes that I like to run in. That being said, I have no problem recommending a more traditional style shoe when asked if it’s appropriate and fits within the preferences of a runner looking for advice. Whether we land on our forefot, midfoot, or heel, we can likely find a shoe that will work pretty well with our chosen or unconscious (for those who could care less about form work) running style. We can also find a shoe that will accommodate the varying widths of our feet and meet our aesthetic requirements. We live in an exciting time as runners when it comes to our footwear options, and the shake-up that minimalism caused is a big part of that.

The challenge going forward is not so much adding more variety to the market (don’t get me wrong, innovation should continue), but rather to figure out how best to match a runner to a shoe among the variety that exists. As the Brooks rep points out, the methods we have been using (trying to control pronation so that we all look the same) have not stood up to scientific testing over the past few years. We need to move on, and we need scientists and retailers to work together to develop new and better protocols – neither in isolation will be able to answer this question in a general way for most people. Scientists need to continue to investigate better practices for matching runners to shoes, and retailers need to help scientists understand the footwear business and what methods will be most successful in a retail setting (e.g., it can’t require a million dollar piece of machinery or a Ph.D. in biomechanics to implement it).

The shoe industry has changed, of that there is no doubt. I ran my first mile in a pair of the original Nike Free 3.0’s back in 2009, and now the Nike Free is the best selling running shoe on the market (even if most who wear it don’t run in it). Times change, as do preferences, but I’m confident that we are moving forward in a positive way, and that the events of the past few years have changed the shoe industry for the better. I’m excited to see what the future will bring!

I highly recommend that you read the articles in SGB Weekly yourself: http://sportsonesourcecloud.com/sgbweekly/SGBW_1251hi.pdf

As always, thoughts are always welcome, leave a comment below!

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