Friday, January 21, 2011

Minimalism and Shoes

I regularly have discussions with friends and fellow runners about the new line of minimalist running shoes that is making a big wave in the shoe manufacturing world. What was once considered a fad is now a solid niche and possibly even the preferred - or suggested - shoe to go with. I'm not going to take sides on the minimalist vs 'normal' running culture. I have my own thoughts on the issue, some of which I'll address here, but will refrain from trying to express what I think should be gospel on the issue. Most specifically I want to address the new line of minimalist shoes that are coming out this year.

I'm a mid-foot striker, I'll get that out of the way right now. I used to heel strike, but after reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall I, like many others, got caught up in the wonder of minimalist running, even barefoot running. I hit the streets barefoot in an inch of fresh snow and blasted out 2 miles without any problems. I changed my form to a mid-foot strike and sought out shoes with a low heel-toe drop and reduced midsole. I had encountered some severe Illiotibial Band Syndrone as a heel striker and was certain that it would cure my problem. While it helped in the short term it did not cure me. It wasn't until I learned how to run properly from the hips up and how to relax and strengthen my hips that I was able to finally cure the problem for good. I also changed up my shoes and found some I really loved (Inov-8 Roclite 295). However, it was during this whole process of change that I also came to a few truths that I'm sure would not be looked at promisingly by those committed to the minimalist movement. I'm not trying to ruffle any feathers, but here it goes.

2011 will be the year of the minimalist trail running shoe. Literally, every company out there who already produces a trail shoe will now have their own minimalist version. It is awesome. I'm excited about a lot of these. Unfortunately, I probably won't get to try many of them. Basically I'm just not cool enough for companies to want me to test out their products. That's fine. I run and race because it's fun; I don't need perks like being a tester, as fun as that would also be .

Traditional running shoes were pretty standard: stable upper, gnarlier sole, rock plate. Then New Balance came out with the MT100 and changed everything. They significantly reduced the midsole, whittled down the tread, and made the upper super light. They have now improved upon it with the MT101. However, even with these drastic reductions they kept the rock plate. Inov-8 really changed things up dropping a ton of weight, but still able to keep wicked-good tread. They claim to have a rock plate, of sorts, but I don't think I've ever really felt it.

This year will be about two things; reducing weight and minimizing the heel to toe drop. Let me address the heel-toe drop thing first. As a mid-foot striker I think this is pretty important, Ok, kind of important. I currently run in two different brand of shoes with a 10mm drop. Three companies this year will come out with 'zero drop' shoes. Altra, who actually owns the term 'zero drop' will come out with a whole line of shoes that will maintain the foots height off the ground from toe to heel. Pretty cool. I really look forward to trying these shoes. The other two are Merrell and Inov-8. It will be interesting to see how these shoes compare to each other. Here's my little hang-up though - if you are a proper mid-foot striker then is there really a difference between 10mm drop and zero drop? Your heel really isn't going to strike the ground anyway. I think the idea is fine, but I just don't think it is necessary. More like a nice to have. I know most minimalist proponents would argue with me, but I'm telling you, if you took 50 trail runners and put them in two shoes - one with a zero drop and one with a 8mm drop - and they didn't know which was which, I bet after running in each for 20 miles they couldn't tell the difference. I'm just saying.

The other issue is weight. I like that companies are trying to reduce weight in their shoes, but please, please, please, quit sacrificing what is most important, THE ROCK PLATE!! Seriously, as a friend of mine recently said, "the only real difference between a road shoe and a trail shoe is the rock plate". I couldn't agree more. Unless the outsole is a little stiffer I don't think I'm even going to consider a shoe that doesn't have some kind of plate. Maybe rock plateless shoes will work out there in No Cali or in some places in CO, but here in Utah where the trails are rock and root stricken, a shoe without a rock plate is a foot's death wish. I can personally attest to this after running a lot of trails in a shoe without a rock plate and coming out of it with foot problems. Again, if a company can produce a shoe that doesn't require one, fine, but I have yet to see it. I love my Inov-8s, I really do. They claim that the extra lugs on the 295 don't require a stiffer plate, but I kind of disagree. Sharp rocks get through. I've worn three pair and would gladly buy another one, but the fact remains that I feel rocks all the time. Adversely, the MT101 has a solid plate and minimal tread and I feel fewer rocks  in those than my Inov-8s.

I first began running trails in the Brooks Cascadia 4. I loved that shoe, except for one thing; I would get a blister under the bend in my big toe on longer runs (weird huh?). As I started into my minimalist phase I put them aside. However, in 2011 they will introduce the Cascadia 6 which is slightly lighter and only has an 8mm heel to toe drop. And guess what, they have a strong, visible rock plate. This could very well be one of my new shoes this year. If I can run in them without the little blister I might find a new home for my feet. Oh, and they come in red. Huzzah!!!!

Anyway, take it for what's its worth. I'm not a sponsored athlete. I'm not well known in the running community. I run because it is fun. I run thousands of miles on trails in every kind of condition and in any location. I've been through many shoes, I know how to run, and can attest to what will and won't work for the average to above average runner. If you think I'm wrong, cool, call me out. Then send me a pair of shoes and prove me wrong. I'd love to be wrong. But there you have it.


Enoch Davies said...

You have a lot of free time on your hands to compose that little write up. HA HA.

L3vi said...

Just about an idea of have a double blind test of making a few runners run in 8mm or zero drop shoes. If you ran only in 8mm shoes, you would definitely feel after the first few steps that it is lower drop. You would have 8mm extra stretch in the achilles, what can even lead to ijury. If I ran a few days in my 3mm drop Inov 195s, and then go for the Terra Plana ultras, I feel a huge difference, and it's only 3mm difference.

Anonymous said...

I am currently running in the Brooks Cascadia 6, and I am getting the little blister on my big toe and a blister on the inside of my heal when I run a longer distance. I am now looking for a different trail shoe.

I don't have this problem in my other running shoes.

jun said...

Anonymous, interesting you say that as many people I know have had problems with their Cascadia 6.
Oddly enough, since writing this post I've drastically changed my tune. In here I wrote that the difference between a 10mm drop and a zero drop was slight enough that it wouldn't matter to a real mid-foot striker. I fully retract that statement. I've been running Altra Instincts and running in a zero drop shoe is night and day difference between even that and a 4mm drop (like in the Hokas). Zero drop with a natural footbed is the only way to go. If you haven't tried Altra shoes, do it, you won't regret it.

Jacki said...

I have totally said to shoe store employees "I don't care about the heel, I don't use it"...forefoot striker. ;) But, I don't like a clunky heel. I have mizuno wave rider 15 that I like, but the heel is too clunky and when I get tired I can feel it touching the ground, which I don't like. Plus, it's making my knee a little sore on that side, too. it has a 12mm drop though, kinda big. I do love the cushion where I land though, and they fit by freakish high arches.