Two weeks ago, I ordered a new pair of shoes – the Altra Instincts. They are (so they claim) the first zero-drop non-minimal shoe on the market, and are my first pair of reduced running shoes. I’m writing up a review of them even as we speak, but I thought that the majority of people who read my blog need a bit of a primer on the whole minimalist shoe debate. I’m not an expert at all, and this is just a basic intro, so if you know anything about this you might just want to skip this post.
(A warning: this is long. Most people will find it boring. I’m not even sure why I spent so much writing it, since it mostly duplicates information you can find elsewhere. But I’ve become a shoe-nerd, and I like to write about things I nerd over. Feel free to skip this post and come back later today when I’ll post about a run again. I won’t hold it against you. Or even know.)
Still here? Okay.
This post is for people who don’t obsessively read running shoe-reviews, haven’t read Born To Run, haven’t bookmarked half a dozen barefoot running blogs, or don’t follow multiple independent shoe companies on Twitter (I confess: I do all those things). If you don’t fall into any of those categories, you might not know that there is a bit of a revolution taking place in the running world right now, and like all revolutions, the rhetoric can get heated and fists bloodied, a civil way between the barefoot runners and the shod. Some barefoot advocates refer to shoes as “foot coffins” and think even minimal shoes are destroying your feet; some shod runners think barefootists are hippie nut-jobs who are destroying their feet. I fall somewhere betwixt these extremes, with my sympathies leaning towards the hippie nut-jobs (of course, insert any heated debate, and that is pretty much the case. In fact, if I ever start a political party, that will be our slogan; “Betwixt the extremes, but leaning toward the hippie nut-jobs”).
A brief summary of the factions. Barefootists claim that traditional running shoes encourage poor running form by allowing and practically dictating that one runs with a “heel strike,” meaning when you run you land on the big, padded, air-gel-micro-nonsense-filled heel that your state of the art running shoe possesses. Heel striking is supposedly bad for a number of reasons. For one, it is inefficient, as your forward movement is arrested with every stride. It also delivers the entire force of your strike directly up your leg into your knee, and you land even harder to compensate for the extra-padding. In addition, you land with a very small point of contact, making it more likely for your weight to be unstable, leading to more heel injuries. Besides disliking heel-striking, barefootists claim that most shoes, through their very form, lead to foot injuries. Most shoes have a raised heel (the average running shoe has a 2:1 ratio, with the heel being twice as thick as the sole near the fore-foot), which causes a shortening and weakening of the Achilles tendon and calves. Arch-support — something a lot of people actively look for – is also blamed for weakening of the foot, as the extra support and padding causes your foot work less, and alike any group of muscles, not working leads to weakening. Think about it: an arch gets its strength through the weight placed on it from above; one way to weaken an arch is to apply pressure from below. This isn’t even to get into the issues involving motion-control shoes, toe-spring, and various other “improvements” that naturalist claim is destroying our feet and hurting our running form by forcing unnatural technology into our running. Barefootists also go on at length about “ground-feel,” running “light and easy,” connect to the surface they are running over, and a lot of other ideas that do nothing to dispel the hippie-vibe of barefoot running. I say all these are “claims,” since I’m not a podiatrist or anything, but all of them make sense to me.
The opposing forces, those of the shoe industry and traditional runners, think this is all a bunch of hippie blathering. They claim that the body is not designed to take the sort of repetitive pounding that comes with running, and that in order to run efficiently and without injuries, we need to have a shoe that cushions the foot and absorbs the impact that comes with running. Shoe companies also sell products that correct of pronation and supanation, two common forms of running that can lead to injuries. Without the padding and support of a shoe, they say you will get more foot and knee injuries, stress fractures, et cetera. Basically its an argument for the status quo – shoes work, we developed them for a reason, and you’d have to be crazy to want to run without them.
Okay, the length I devoted to each argument clearly reveals where my bias lies. As I said, I am not an expert and have to take most of these statements regarding the benefits of barefoot running on faith, but honestly they seem to make sense to me. However, I’m not quite willing to just chuck my shoes and become a barefoot cultist, if for no other reason than I live in Brooklyn, and would pretty much be signing myself up for heel lacerations, tetanus, and most likely worse. For a longer discussion of the topic (though an even more biased one), pick up Born to Run, by Christopehr McDougal. Whether or not you are bored to tears by all this shoe talk, his book is also an amazing, page-turner of non-fiction,– it isn’t all about barefoot running, even if it was the catalyst for much of the current barefoot craze. There is also a great article in New York Magazine from 2008, proving that this is not a recent fad, but has been simmering in the running community for years. Interestingly enough, I can’t point you to any articles in Runners World, since they haven’t really touched the subject, making it the elephant on the treadmill. Two months ago they ran their first ever article addressing running form and mid-foot striking, and it briefly discussed barefoot and reduced running. (However, since the magazine operates as a massive advertising engine for Brooks, Saucony, New Balance, Nike and the other big shoe companies, I suppose this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. But that’s my hippie distrust in the Man coming through).
So those there are the two extremes: fully barefoot, and traditionally shod. In between are two interim categories: minimalist shoes (also known as “barefoot” shoes, but that seems a bit of an oxymoron), and reduced-running shoes. Minimalist shoes attempt to mimic as closely as possible the experience of running barefoot, only with the added protection of something between the sole of your foot and the ground (usual a thin Vibram sole). The provide no arch support, no padding, little to no heel-rise, and have thin soles (2 – 5mm) which should ideally offer you “ground feel” and “zero drop” (i.e. no rise from fore-foot to heel). Vibram Fivefingers are the most iconic example, but Vivobarefoot and SoftStar are also examples of truly minimalist shoes. Reduced running shoes, on the other-hand, look and act more like a traditional shoe, but have been stripped of much of the padding and features that lend to poor form and over-protection, or had all the features minimalized. They usually have a slight heel-rise (4mm or so), no gel or foam or any padding like that, and are less rigid than normal running shoes. Brooks Greensilence, New Balance Minimus, Saucony Kinerva, and Merrell Trailgloves are all reduced shoes. They allow one to run much more naturally than with traditional shoes, but not as naturally as in a minimal shoe or barefoot. (note – these terms, “minmal shoe,” “barefoot shoe,” “reduced running shoe,” etc., are flexible and ill defined, and the borders betwixt them can lead to blows and drawn blood. If this blog had an actual following, I expect fights to break out over these terms) (Also, I’ve used “betwixt” twice now. I either deserve extra credit or a punch in the nose).
So that’s where the battle-lines are drawn (did I say brief introduction? I guess I lied). Here’s my personal history with this topic. Like most people, I’ve spent the last number of years running in a variety of traditional, motion-control shoes. I started in the Saucony Ride, moved over to New Balance 767’s, then settled on the Brooks Adrenaline, which turns out to be the single most popular running shoe in the world. I started noticing the Vibram Five Fingers a while back, but like sane people everywhere, I dismissed them as freaky toe-shoes . . . until I read Born to Run, which is pretty much the story most runners who start down this barefoot/reduced path will tell. McDougal outlines all the points I mentioned above, gives a pretty damning history of Nike and the running-shoe industry, and generally makes a convincing case positing that all this “shoe-technology” is, instead of helping us, hurting us, and that the less shoe the better. Since I was in the middle of marathon training at the time, I didn’t do anything, but I decided I’d buy myself a pair of Vibram’s as a post-marathon present to myself and my feet.
In the meantime, I started reading a lot of articles about running technique, and the supposed benefits of fore- and mid-foot striking. I read up on Chi Running and the Pose Technique, watched YouTube Videos posted by bearded men with long hair and read blogs . . . and again, it all made sense. After the marathon, I bought myself a pair of Vibram Bikilas (the model designed to be a running shoe), and took it out for a short, 1 mile test run. Everything you read about transitioning to barefoot or reduced running shoes emphasizes you have to make the move slow and gradual: the different foot-strike works different muscle groups, and puts a particular strain on the calves and Achilles tendon. My first run, however, felt fantastic – my feet were light, I moved naturally, and nothing hurt when I was finished. Two days later, I went out for a three mile run in the Vibrams, and again I felt great. Then I got up the next day and it felt like someone had taken a sledge-hammer to my claves: I could barely walk across the room, and had to clutch the hand-rail when I went down the stairs. I had twice finished a marathon, and my legs hadn’t felt as sore as three miles in my Bikilas. Which told me two things. 1) I definitely had to take things even slower, and 2) traditional running shoes don’t even touch your calves, so barefoot running would add something to my running.
After my legs recovered, I started easing into my Vibrams, while at the same time trying to transition to a mid-foot strike in my Brooks. I focused on increasing my foot-cadence to 180 strides per-minute, the supposed optimal rate, as faster, smaller strides reduces heel-strike and lessens the impact of each step. I read up on Chi-Running, tried to develop a forward “lean” from my ankles, worked on keeping a straight spine, and all the other things one is supposed to do. Then, in January, while on an 17 mile run in my standard shoes, I felt a tightness in my left-heel. I arrived at work thinking I was okay, but a few hour later I was hobbling around with the tell-tale swelling and creaking of Achilles tendonitis. I was confused: I’d kept my barefoot runs short, so what had I done wrong? It was only after the injury, unfortunately, that the obvious fact hit me – a mid-foot strike would work all the same muscles as barefoot running, so by trying to change my stride with every run at the same time I was working on barefoot running, I was still doing too much, too fast. (Those of you who have been reading me since I started the blog, this is where I was when I started writing).
This was basically only my second real running injury, my first since I blew out my knee over-training for my first half-marathon over four years ago (“too much, too fast” or TMTF, is the most common cause of running injuries). I iced, rested, and went back to my old running form, as landing on my heel was the only way I could make it through even a short run for weeks since it shifted the impact off my newly over-loaded muscles and back to the ones I’d been strengthening for years. I essentially didn’t touch my Vibrams or try to do anything with my running form for 8 weeks while I recovered. I did, however, spend the time reading and fantasizing about shoes. I decided that I would still like to use Vibrams as a supplemental shoe, but that I might be able to transition to a reduced running shoe as my primary shoe. There was only one problem: no company made one that I could wear.
My curse as a runner is my massively wide feed. Sure, they look like pretty normal feet at first glance, but normal shoes crush my feet so badly on the sides of the fore-foot that my toes will literally go numb. Most models of running shoes are not offered in widths, and I don’t just wear regular wide (E), but depending on the shoe company I need extra wide (2E or even extra-extra wide (3-4E). This, rather than thrift or brand loyalty, is the real reason I’ve been a fairly monogamous shoe customer: very few companies even make a 2E, and even those companies offer very few models in those widths. My new obsession with reduced-running shoes, therefore, was an exercise in frustration. I would find out about a new shoe, read all the amazing reviews of it, then inevitably discover it didn’t come in widths. Brooks’ Green Silence, Saucony Kinverva, Merrel Trail Glove, even the Nike Free (the popular kid everyone in the minimal shoe community likes to tease behind its back), none of them would fit me. I went to running stores to torture myself by trying on shoes I was 99% sure I wouldn’t even be able to fit my toes into (just to be sure); I e-mailed heads of design teams and posted to minimalist shoe discussion forums, asking if anyone knew of any reduced running shoe that cam in widths, to no avail.
Eventually, I caught wind of the New Balance Minumus, and knew I had found my shoe. New Balance is the only company that consistently offers a wide line of shoes in up to 4E, so I knew that they would enter into the wide-open market for wide-footed runners looking for a reduced-running shoe . . . but the head of the development team e-mailed me back to say that while they would, eventually, be offering the shoe in widths, it was only rolling out in standard D. So there was hope, but nothing for me now.
Then, I came across the website for Altra, a new shoe company. How new were they? So new their shoes weren’t even on the market yet. And since I’m writing up a review of their shoe, I suppose it won’t hurt to give away the exciting climax to this quest. But I’ll leave that for the review later this week . . .
Did you actually read all that? Are you battling insomnia? Are you NOT my dad? Huh. I assume you’re lying about one of those answers. Well, for better or worse, I’m done with this monster of a post. (Which I titled “Less is More.” The iron is not lost on me) Hopefully some shoe-nerd out there enjoyed this, or, better yet, perhaps I’ve planted the seed of shoe-nerdom in some unsuspecting insomniac. Everyone else, I promise to get back to running, musing, and Buddhism soon. Whew. Lets post this sucker.