Reflections, observations and insights about the hottest trend to hit running since, well, running shoes.
The minimalist running movement isn’t dead, but the pendulum has certainly swung back the other direction. The once white-hot trend has cooled considerably, but it benefitted us all — no matter if you’re a barefoot zealot or a FiveFingers diehard or have always been content wearing a trusty pair of ASICS Kayanos or Nike Pegasus as your primary shoe of choice.
Here are 12 things everyone should know about the minimalist running shoe trend.
Minimalism Isn’t Dead, But Runners Do Love Cushioning
It’s not the headline-popping trend it was a few years ago, but minimalism is alive and well. There are some great minimalist shoes available at stores now and more on the way. Within the trend itself, the “barely there” sharp end of the spectrum is giving way to modern minimalist shoes with a tad more cushioning and protection. For example: see any shoe made by Altra. Or, for instance, the new FiveFingers Bikila EVO ($120, vibramfivefingers.com) is a 5-ounce road running shoe with the brand’s iconic articulated toes, built with a zero-drop (flat) profile, an 8.5mm thick outsole and 2mm of soft EVA cushioning insole.
“As the knowledge of and interest in minimalist footwear grows, Vibram sees an opportunity to expand its offerings,” says Vibram president and CEO Mike Gionfriddo. “This line offers more of a mainstream appeal and addresses a greater breadth of activities and ages.”
In other words, more cush. Even the updated barefoot-style Xero Shoes model called “The Cloud” ($49.95, xeroshoes.com) has an additional 3mm of EVA foam of top of the original 3mm rubber outsole. Meanwhile, Nike made waves recently with the release of its new Free Flyknit+ ($160, nikerunning.com), an already cushy and flexible Free 5.0 with a next-generation sock-like upper.
Minimalism Was Necessary And Long Overdue
Before the modern minimalist trend emerged in the early 2000s (most point to the launch of Nike’s Free line in 2004 as the trend’s inception), running shoe design was heading in the wrong direction. Guided by the 1990s ethos of “technology you can see” and “bigger, better, more,” many shoes were overbuilt, too heavy, too flashy and not functionally effective. In many ways, a lot of shoes were being designed to look good on a shoe wall and feel good inside the confines of a running store, but they weren’t really great for running.
Gluttony was the order of the day (think of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when oversized, gas-guzzling SUVs were a hot trend, and you get the idea) and it made its way into running gear. Unrestrained and often unwieldy design philosophies and sales mantras were suddenly driving the bus, but the science of the day suggested that a running shoe should control a runner’s stride and not the other way around. As such, motion control and hearty stability shoes ruled the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as other “technological breakthroughs” like futuristic columns of springs.
Minimalism Changed How We Think About Running Shoes
Thanks in part to the minimalist trend, running shoes have gotten a lot lighter across the board in recent years. A few years ago, everyday trainers typically tipped the scales in the 10- to 13-ounce range (for a men’s size 9). But new manufacturing techniques, new materials and the “less is more” ethos gained from the minimalist revolution has resulted in many everyday trainers weighing in between 6.5 and 10 ounces
Plastic support shanks and thick sewn-on upper overlays have been replaced by naturally flexing shoes with seamless airy mesh uppers “welded” together with lightweight TPU support bands. Plus, most shoes are lower to the ground and have less of a slope from heel to toe. While there are still some heavy, overbuilt shoes with flashy features that offer little or no performance value, most contemporary running shoes are built with running performance and natural foot motion as two of the primary design criteria.
Minimalism Begat Maximalism
All hot trends run their course — think leisure suits, Beanie Babies or “tramp stamp” lower-back tattoos — but quite often they spur other ideas that become new trends. Look no further than the maximalism trend that is upon us now. Although category pioneer and leader Hoka didn’t originally develop the maximum cushioning concept to be the antithesis of minimalism, that’s the way the trend will take off in 2014.
Several brands — including Brooks, Skechers, Altra, New Balance, Vasque, Pearl Izumi and Hoka — will be releasing shoes with crazy thick midsoles next year and several others are working on it. It’s not just about the amount of foam, it’s how resilient and responsive the foam is. The bottom line is that several brands are specifically pitching these “high cushion” shoes to runners who got burned by minimalism or never wanted to go down that road in the first place. Don’t expect your running friends to utter “oooohs” and “aaaaahs” during long runs and hard track workouts, but this new generation of shoes definitely puts a premium on comfort like never before.
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Minimalism Helped Runners Think About Their Running Mechanics
Perhaps the best thing minimalism did was allow runners to examine their own running form. While it also opened a spirited but sometimes dastardly debate about what “proper running form” should be, it at least allowed runners to realize there are some basic tenets of good running form that can help lead to great efficiency and better running economy (In other words, less energy expenditure for any given pace or distance, no matter what type of shoes you’re wearing).
Running in shoes with less of a heel-toe slope has helped many runners develop more efficient form. Whether or not most runners should make form and strength drills a part of their regular routine or if they should aspire to run in zero-drop shoes is debatable, but at least the notion that good mechanics equals improved running economy is something most runners started to ponder. And for the most part, the movement toward lighter, less structured shoes has helped send the category of motion-control shoes to its grave. At least for now.
Minimalism Hasn’t Reduced The Frequency Of Injuries
Some proponents of minimalism will suggest that running in minimalist footwear can make you a stronger runner and a runner less likely to get injured. Is that really true? Maybe, maybe not. As with many things, it depends on a lot of factors, including how diligent you pursue it. While many runners have personal tales about their own transformation, there hasn’t been a single study to suggest either claim is true. There’s plenty allegorical evidence and many who can attest to improved running through occasional or frequent use of minimalist shoes. However, it’s quite possible that there are as many runners who have gotten hurt from running in minimalist footwear as who have gotten noticeably stronger, faster or more fit.
Why have runners gotten hurt wearing minimalist shoes? Is it solely because those runners were running in “barely there” shoes or because they didn’t develop the proper strength, flexibility and mechanics for their body to maintain the necessary form to run in footwear with little padding and protection? The bottom line is that most surveys — from the past 25 years up to the present day — suggest that 40 to 60 percent of runners are injured every year. It might or might not be because of the shoes. It might be as much about a runner’s strength, fitness, mechanics, training or individual physique.
Minimalism Changed The Running Industry — Sort Of
Shoe brands have come and gone throughout the past 30 years (Does anyone remember running shoes from LA Gear, Pony, Kangaroos, Converse or Etonic?). While major brands have remained mostly constant, they were also forced to adapt.
Some, like Nike, adapted quickly and successfully; others, like Brooks, Saucony and New Balance, took their time to innovate and develop messaging and purpose behind their new concepts. Others not so much. Perhaps most importantly, the trend spurred innovation from all directions, which in turn allowed new brands, such as Newton, Vivo Barefoot, Skechers, Altra, Scott, Ecco, Under Armour, Vibram and Hoka, among others, to gain shelf space on the shoe walls of running stores around the world.
Certainly there has been a shift, but longtime shoe industry veterans might argue that it’s just history repeating itself. Brands will continue to come and go with the ebb and flow of future trends, and chances are not all of those modern upstarts will be around in 10 years. One thing we know is that minimally designed shoes certainly didn’t lead to more minimal prices.
Minimalism Spurred New Science — And Pseudo-Science
Running gait science is making huge strides (pun intended), but it is still in its infancy. For the past several years, it has seemed like there has been a new study every month about running form. Some have suggested barefoot running was the best way to run. But a few studies contradicted that notion. Some studies said running with a forefoot gait is optimal. Others suggest humans are predominantly heel-strikers and that’s OK, except for when we change the surface on which we’re running.
Many recent studies claim it’s all about running with a high cadence. Still other “findings” confirmed what common sense has told us for years, notably that you can train yourself to run better by being aware of form cues and strengthening your body with drills will help reduce form breakdowns when fatigue sets in.
The minimalism movement (especially within the barefoot realm) has also produced dozens of zealots and gurus who offered their own insights to running form and the style of footwear. So what should we believe with so much chatter bombarding us? Like religion, running-gait science offers up a lot of questions with few definitive answers. To each their own.
But experienced runners know that the way to maximize your running economy (in other words, to expend the least amount of energy for any distance or pace) comes through a combination of training, repetitive form and strength drills and the appropriate shoes specific to a particular type of running and an individual’s running style, foot shape, current physical makeup and even past injury history. (Personally, I like flatter, lower-to-the-ground shoes when I run fast and more cushioned shoes when I run long, but that’s an apples-to-oranges discussion, which illustrates the point that there is no definitive answer.) For some people, though, it comes down to which neon color they like best, and that’s probably fine, too.
Minimalism Was A Fad And A Sales Pitch
Yes and no. It’s all about supply and demand and ridiculous hype. No matter what your goals are, you need running shoes — possibly twice a year — to run a new PR, to start yet another fitness program or to just finish your one and only marathon. Running shoes are a commodity backed by a good amount of marketing and advertising dollars. Running shops are in business to sell running gear and when the demand is high for a certain type of product, shop owners are smart to sell as many as possible, whether it’s minimalist shoes, compression socks or running weights of the early 1980s. No online likes to admit it, but most people buy running shoes on the aesthetics (colors, patterns, etc.), step-in feel (cushiness, seamless interior, etc.) and less about how the shoe performs. And frankly, running stores stock their stores with those notions in mind.
A few years ago, the demand for some of the hot brands of minimalist shoes was so high that shops couldn’t restock ’em fast enough. As soon as a new order came in, they immediately went out the door to customers eager to try to the new trend. But the dark secret that no one was talking about was that a lot of people were getting hurt because they weren’t prepared to run in those shoes. How those store owners have dealt with disgruntled or injured customers is their own business. But the problem was exacerbated by stories in the New York Times proclaiming barefoot running as the next greatest thing, the mainstream success of “Born to Run” and the wide range of information readily available in cyberspace. With a short number of clicks, you can find a video of a water skiing squirrel and the New York Times turning about face with another view about running in barefoot-style shoes.
Minimalism Isn’t A New Concept
It’s funny and almost ironic that minimalism was looked at as a brand-new concept in recent years. Minimalist running shoes have been around since before the start of the running boom in the 1970s.
Australian Derek Clayton ran the first sub-2:10 marathon in history wearing a pair of “barely there” Onitsuka Tiger (the Japanese brand now known as ASICS) Marap shoes, a model that would rival just about any shoe of today for its minimalist construction. But back then, all running shoes were minimalist models — although not called as such then — with only a very thin layer of foam and an equally thin layer of rubber between a runner’s foot and the ground.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that Nike, New Balance and other brands started to increase the amount of foam and heel-toe slope in running shoes. Shoes got progressively bigger and more enhanced, but lightweight, low-to-the-ground racing flats have been around forever. One needs to look no further than one of the original books about mainstream running — “The Complete Book of Running,” written by Jim Fixx in 1977 — to remember that minimalism ruled the day when the jogging fad took hold in the 1970s. (Look at the cover of running books in the 1980s and 1990s and you’ll see runners in well-cushioned shoes.)
Minimalism Isn’t The Answer For Many People
Here’s the deal: Most people aren’t as fit or dynamically strong from their abs to the tips of their toes as they could be. Heck, I’m certainly not. But in order to run in minimalist shoes regularly, you’re much better off if you’re a lean, mean running machine with the foot, leg and core strength to maintain good form for the duration of your run — whether that’s a 2-mile loop around your neighborhood or your next half-marathon or even a long trail run.
That’s not to say that minimalism isn’t the answer for a lot of runners, either on a full-time basis or as a part-time training tool. Not all runners were created equal, so everyone’s experience in minimalist shoes is different. For some, it takes extra time and commitment before the true benefits can be realized. We can all benefit from doing more form drills and dynamic strength exercises like the pedestal routine, but how many of us actually do those things on a regular basis? The truth is most recreational runners go out and run and don’t want to think about it too much. Most aren’t training to get faster or event training at all. Most are just out running and really love cushioned shoes because they feel good. And that’s great if that’s what running is for you. The challenge arose when many of those same runners thought they needed to be in sparsely cushioned minimal shoes and suddenly made a wholesale switch to shoes with less than 10mm of rubber and foam between their feet and the concrete.
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Minimalism Isn’t Going Away
Judging by the number of new low-profile shoes hitting the market in 2014, minimalism is here to stay. Skora’s low-to-the-ground FIT ($95; skorarunning.com), Saucony’s slightly updated Virrata 2 lightweight trainer ($90; saucony.com) and Altra’s new Reptition stability shoe ($125, altrazerodrop.com) are good examples of next-generation zero-drop minimalism shoes. At the very least, there is a modest following of runners who have become die-hard minimalist runners in the last few years. But more than that, there is a considerable chunk of runners who have benefitted from experimenting with key elements that came out of the minimalist revolution — namely, shoes that are lower to the ground or have a lower heel-toe drop. Sure, there are those who never went down that road and some who went down that road and turned back, but overall, we’ve all benefitted. Even if cooled, the trend has served its purpose and will have a lasting influence.