Over the course of the last few decades running shoes have become more and more advanced with a good amount of cushioning and other bells of whistles. The notion that you need these highly supportive shoes to run better and not get injured has been planted in to our minds. In the past few years this idea has been challenged and the resurgence of how we’re supposed to be running is beginning to really take hold. Barefoot Ted said it best: “Get the idea out of your head that we live in some alien world that our feet aren’t meant to experience, we’ve adapted to this world.” Well he said something like that but it’s true our feet are perfectly able of handling the harsh pavement with very little support.
The problem is we’ve lost that ability after years of growing up using highly supportive shoes, think of it as having your feet in a cast. They get weak and the muscles start to atrophy due to not being used at all. In the 60s-70s runners wore really thin soled shoes with unsupportive fabric and everyone ran with a forefoot/midfoot strike. It wasn’t till Nike began making thick heeled running shoes and everyone began getting weaker and weaker.
It’s not ancient knowledge that has been lost we’ve just gotten misled by shoe companies into thinking that we need more and more expensive shoes to run better. But the funny thing is this homemade looking running shoe above would be a completely viable minimalist running shoe today.
With best-selling books like McDougall’s Born to Run more and more people are getting into the minimalist way of running. The book chronicles the story of a tribe of super runners down in Mexico that only use thin homemade sandals are run more miles than most people ever dream of. This has lead to lots of media attention and lots of new interest. My opinion is that minimalist running IS for everyone as long as you have the patience to commit to building up slowly.
A few million years of R&D…
Minimalist runners aren’t crazy in fact they’re just doing what nature intended. Long before motion control shoes people ran around either barefoot or in very crude footwear in order to hunt their food. In what is known as a persistence hunt one lone hunter will outrun the animal he is pursuing for several hours until it dies from exhaustion. This is still practiced today by Kalahari bushman in Africa and they do it without $140 dollar Adidas HeelStrike 9000s.
Skeptics will argue well we live in the modern civilized world and we need protection from all the dirty syringes and broken glass littering the sidewalks of our city streets. Unless you’re living in the absolute worst depressed areas in the world this is simply not the case. Most minimalist shoes feature puncture proof soles which protect you from sharp objects and rocks while still mimicking a very barefoot feel. And some die hard minimalists even are able to run completely barefoot in almost any condition. This of course takes even more time to build up to. Needless to say our ancestors were fast, strong and probably didn’t suffer from runners knee and plantar fasciitis.
Instead we have opted for inflexible running shoes that offer up way too much support, cushioning and change our running stride and foot landing completely. Sadly people believe the more injured they get it’s because they need a even more technologically advanced shoe. The more highly scientific and supportive the more you get weakened by it thus resulting in more and more injuries. It’s a vicious cycle. Luckily major shoe companies have slowly started to come around and get into the minimalist arena. Companies like New Balance, Vibram, Inov-8 and Vivobarefoot all make wonderful modern minimalist shoes.
What makes a minimalist running shoe?
There are a few criteria for minimalist running shoes which makes them different from a traditional running shoe.
Less structure in the upper. The entire shoe should be as flexible as possible to move with the natural motion of your foot.
Thinner outsole. The thinner it is the more ground feel you will have resulting in better footlandings. This amazing if you suffer from supination and look for the right shoes.
Low differential. The rise between gap and forefoot should be as small as possible. 0mm is called “zero-drop” meaning your foot will be basically flat. Anything above 4mm difference is considered not very minimal but more of a transitional shoe.
Comfortable insole. Usually minimalist shoes are made with a more socklike seamless insole so you can wear them without socks to get an even more minimalist experience.
Wider profile. The shoe should allow your toes to fully splay out as they would if you were barefoot and not constrict their movement very much or at all.
And lastly why a minimalist running shoe is inherently better
This can be summed up in one simple idea: With minimal shoes you FEEL what you are doing to your body. For example when you jump off something from any height do you try and land on your heels first with a jarring motion? Chances are you land more softly on your forefoot to minimize the impact. This idea can be translated to running very easily, with a thinner sole and less support you’re able to focus on proper foot landing.
Traditional running shoes may as well be steel toed boots for that matter, you’re just plodding along not really knowing the damage you’re doing to your body. Some runners who run in regular running shoes do however have great form and don’t get injured as often as others this is because they were either born with a great gait or they have developed it overtime. Elite runners are also more conscious of their running form, trying to be efficient as possible which ultimately reduces their injuries. Most of us however aren’t elite runners.
Transitioning to minimal footwear if done right will result in few injuries, stronger feet and legs and possibly faster times.