Whatever Happened to Minimalist Running?

Then... (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re a runner, you’ve heard of minimalist running. Ditch the heavily padded running shoes and slip on the Vibrams. Born to Run, baby! Like the South Beach Diet, everyone was doing it, whether or not they knew it was doing them any good. But it seemed to be about to transform running by reducing injuries and making running more enjoyable.


Yet the fad seems to have faded. The newest craze in trail running is just the opposite – thickly padded shoes like the Hoka One Ones (which, as I’ve written about, are terrific for running in snow.) And the shoe companies have cut back sharply on their minimalist offerings for 2014.

So what happened?

I’m not sure there’s a clear answer, but it was the subject of a great discussion and Q&A recently at the Northville Running Fit. Among the panel invited to share the experiences and answer questions were physical therapists, the business manager at Running Fit, and some local avid runners, including one who is better known for something else.

Who is this mystery panelist who graciously posed with me? Answer at the end of this post.
Who is this mystery panelist who graciously posed with me? Answer at the end of this post.

Much of the conversation was about shoes. Did thinly padded, lightweight shoes actually help any of the panelists? Here’s what they had to say on their experiences with running footwear.

What’s wrong with the “traditional” running shoe?

Standard running shoes of the last two decades generally have a padded heel and a higher heel than toe (referred to as a “heel to toe drop”). Such shoes can include arch support and features to “stabilize” a poor foot strike. It’s all intended to protect against injury. But does it?

Panelist Jef M. was originally told he needed stability shoes with motion control, due to his flat feet. “Still, I got hurt a lot,” he said. Then he was given an opportunity to participate in a shoe-testing program – and made a discovery. “The more expensive the shoe,” he reported, “the more I got hurt.” After switching to minimalist shoes, “I’ve been injury-free ever since.”

No one on the panel or in the audience spoke up in defense of traditional shoes, not even the Running Fit employees, though no one disputed that some people need corrective shoes for certain physical conditions.

As a side note, Chris McDougall, the author of Born to Run, also had frequent problems when running in standard shoes, and his injuries vanished when he began running in minimal shoes.

So we should start wearing “minimalist” shoes?

Like “traditional” shoes, the definition of “minimalist” is not fixed. Some shoe companies refer to minimal padding, some to a low heel-to-toe drop, and others to lighter weight. And there’s a lot of variety and combinations of those characteristics. But it usually means a less complicated shoe, with little or no artificial support built in.

So is it true that “less is more” with running shoes? Farra, another panelist, ran many ultramarathons, including a 100-miler, in minimal shoes without serious injury. (Although her self-admitted “too frequent” ultras led to other problems. More on that next post.) And I run quite a lot in them, including marathons, without any trouble.

But panelist Jeff Kong of Tri-Covery Massage & Fitness was less sold on them. “The Five Fingers brought in a lot of business,” he said. Among the issues he sees are calves getting tight and painful. And there was agreement to start slowly if you weren’t used to them. “Running 12 miles my first time in those shoes was a bad idea,” someone admitted.

Barefoot RunnerOne of the audience members then spoke up. “Even fit people can get hurt by going too far too soon in minimalist shoes,” he said. Turns out he is a member of the Barefoot Runners Society, and he only runs barefooted.

Okay, then let’s all run barefoot.

This approach has its supporters. One advantage is that it quickly punishes bad form. As the BRS member pointed out, “You can’t heel strike running barefoot.” (But I wish I’d thought to ask him what he does in the snow.) And the barefoot runner I saw at a Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon didn’t seem bothered at all running barefoot on hot pavement. But like with any major change to form, you need to start slowly to allow the body to adapt.

Panelist Kristen from Michigan Rehabilitation Services says she puts runners on the treadmill barefoot, “to see what kind of strikers they are.” She says that runners can be trained to stop heel striking even in motion control shoes.

So what kind of shoes should I wear, then?

Here there was agreement; as we’re all different, there is no single style of running shoe that works for everyone. The best approach is to get a pair of shoes that fit well and are comfortable. Minimalist shoes, and even barefoot running, can work if your form is good and your feet and ankles are strong enough. The good news is that form and strength can be improved with practice and exercise.

I have a beef about shoe companies that I put to the panel. “Every time I find a shoe I really like, the next year’s version of that model is different. Why can’t they leave well enough alone?”

“Fashion,” said Trevor, Running Fit’s business manager. “Every designer wants to make his mark. Every year they want to use the latest technology.”

“Embrace the diversity,” Jef M. said. “You may find something new that works for you.”

So I guess it’s something I’ll just have to live with – or buy 100 pairs of my next favorite.


Next up: if you’re hurt, should you blame the shoes? The same panel also addressed the question of what causes injuries and how they can be prevented.

Yep - Jef Mallett, creator of the comic strip Frazz.  Indirectly, he helped my daughter get a job...but that's another story.
Yep – Jef Mallett, creator of the comic strip Frazz. Indirectly, one of his strips helped my daughter get a job…but that’s another story.

2 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Minimalist Running?

  1. rhgramma

    Jef Mallett. Love Frazz. Waiting to hear how Frazz helped Rachel get a job.

    As I was reading the blog I was all set to suggest that to me, “minimalist” meant barefoot..but you beat me to it.

    Was there anyone on the panel not named Jeff/Jef?.

    Forgive me, Mr. Mallett, but I had you pictured looking a lot like Frazz. So much for imagination.

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