The running fad known as minimalism is by no means a new concept. For humans, minimalism WAS the concept before the advent of the modern running shoe. For thousands of years minimalism worked. Why? Because humans were pretty dang active creatures that spent their entire lives building up strong feet, joints, muscles, and ligaments. Humans could tolerate barefoot or minimal footwear such as leather/thatched sandles because they had spent their entire lives building up a tolerance to it. The state of nature for humans back then was as Thomas Hobbes noted, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Well times have changed. Rather than living “brutish and short” lives, humans are now living extremely luxurious and long lives – compared to our brethren of even just a few hundred years ago. We now live most our lives in relative sophistication. Rather than spending most of the day walking, farming, hunting, and gathering, we spend our most of our lives sitting in office chairs, cars, or on the sofa in front of the television. Us humans have been getting soft.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably an active athlete and might be thinking to yourself “Hey, I’m an athlete! I’m not soft. Grrrrrrr…I work out and stuff” But I don’t care how many CrossFit classes you take or how you might be on a new paleo/caveman diet kick, you are still extremely soft compared to the humans of thousands of years ago; and so am I. And there is nothing wrong with that. What I mean is that I’d much rather sit on the couch and watch Jerry Springer than get chased around sub-Saharan Africa by a saber-toothed tiger. Wouldn’t you? The choice between lazy comfort or certain painful death isn’t a tough call. But at the same time, I’d much rather go out running in the beautiful mountains behind my house than watch Jerry Springer inside cooped up on the couch.
So there is the rub; I want to have my cake and eat it too. I want to have my nice, modern, comfortable life, but still enjoy the primal and rewarding bliss of being able to run. I am not alone.
Since 1990, the number of Americans completing road running races has grown 400%. The sport of triathlon in the US is growing even faster – at a rate of almost 20% Year-Over-Year. Since the big running boom in the US in the 1970′s one company has dominated the running shoe market more than any other. Nike obviously. The problem is that since Bill Bowerman (University of Oregon running coach and Nike co-founder) first ruined his wive’s waffle iron making his first polyurethane outsole – Nike’s formula hasn’t changed. Nike’s formula is essentially this: take an extremely durable and somewhat stiff polyurethane-type outsole and mount it to the bottom of a soft and cushiony EVA foam sole that is much thicker in the heel than the forefoot. The big heel-to-toe “drop” allows for a cushioned feel if you’re a modern human that doesn’t know how to run efficiently and over-strides with a heavy heel strike.
Just look how similar Nike’s current model-year Pegasus 29 compares to its original of more than 20 years ago. These has been more evolution in toothbrushes than Nike’s shoes since the 1970s:
Want to know something interesting? While Nike still has massive 31% US market share in running shoes, only one competitor in the Top-15 Men & Women at the 2012 Ironman World Championships ran in Nike’s – Axel Zeebroek. Only ONE in THIRTY athletes. In fact, in the same group of athletes, the average heel-to-toe drop of racing shoes was just over 7mm with a range of 3mm on the low-side (Newton Distance Racer) to 10mm on the high-side (Zoot Ultra TT and Pearl Izumi Streak II). The average heel-to-toe drop of top competitors at Kona is approaching what I consider to be the threshold “drop” of minimal or neutral drop footwear – a drop of 6mm.
Why is drop important?
I consider low to zero drop to be the most important aspect of modern running footwear, minimalist or otherwise. While hardcore minimalists want their footwear to have zero drop, little cushion so you can feel the road, and have no support so you strengthen the ligaments of your feet – I say THE HELL WITH THAT. I want to run and I want to run fast. That means I have to be able to train and train a lot. If I don’t have enough cushion, I’m not able to run on the jagged rocky trails behind my house without destroying my feet. I have no interest in barefoot running because it isn’t sustainable for serious training and isn’t worth the pain and suffering of stepping on rocks, thorns, critters in the desert.
Low to zero drop in running shoes gives you almost all of the benefits of “super minimal shoes” like the Vibram Five-Fingers, with none of the downsides. Low to zero drop does not mean that you don’t get cushion and can’t have a comfortable shoes. Just look at the line of shoes from Hoka One One. Hoka’s motto might as well be “if less is more, than a LOT MORE IS A HECK OF A LOT MORE!!” Hoka has turned the minimal world upside down by giving their shoes and incredible amount of cushion, while still having little amount of drop. When I first saw these shoes I thought they must be extremely clunky, but I was wrong. The low drop promotes an efficient stride by improving the ability to land with you’re feet under your center of mass. That is the key with low-drop footwear. A shoe with an extremely built up heel, like the one’s Nike is used to making, gives the user no tactile feedback when they are over-striding/ heel braking. In fact, a big heel drop rewards poor running form. Low drop footwear is similar to running barefoot in that you feel like you want your feet to land as close to under your center of mass as possible. Feel = Proprioception = Naturally better technique. This allows for a spring like action that the master of running efficiency, Bobby McGee describes brilliantly in this video: http://tinyurl.com/beuk7bx
If you’re a stanch barefoot/dogmatic minimalise consider that even Abebe Bikila preferred shoes. If you’re up on your running history you’ll know that Abebe Bikila was the Ethiopian runner that won the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathon. In 1960, Bikila was given racing flats that were too small for him, so he opted to run barefoot. Four years later he would have the right shoes and run 4-minutes faster. The descendants of Ethiopian distance running Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebreselassie, and others all prefer shoes, even when running on soft trails and track.
While companies like Hoka, Altra, Inov8, and Newton are leading the cushioned minimalist trend, large companies like Saucony, Mizuno, Brooks, and others are starting to catch up. With market growth in the minimalist segment growing at a rate of over 150% according to Leisure Trends, are you behind the curve? If you haven’t tried some of the new cushioned minimalist shoes, if you have the means, I highly recommend you picking some up…
Shoes are my bag, BABY!