Minimalist Shoes

I’ve been walking and running (and I guess cycling) in minimalist shoes for a few years now, so I thought it would be worthwhile to share my experiences.  The timing seems right, too, as I’ve just hit 1500 miles in my first pair that worked for me.  I’ll cover why I changed, what worked and didn’t, and how I look at shoes now.

Why?

I’ll admit that reading Born to Run (Christopher McDougall) was a factor, but I think it mainly served more of an informational purpose than a motivational one.  The idea of letting the (healthy) body do the work rather than propping it up resonates well with me.  And in some ways I am minimalist – for example my distaste of a car when a bike will do or even the distaste of a bike when feet will do.  Without knowing it, I think I had been headed down this path much earlier.  Back in school I trained in typical Asics GT-2xxx models.  However, I never replaced them on a schedule.  This can partly be explained by me simply being cheap.  If you pay $150 for a pair of shoes and replaces them after 300 miles, you’re at 50 cents a mile, which is almost the IRS deduction for car mileage!  But there was more to it than that.  New shoes had that bouncy feel, but I never really thought they felt right until many would say they should be replaced – that 300-500 mile range.  In fact, there was one pair that my teammates pretty much forced me to replace when it was determined that I had probably put 2000 miles on them.  I think that this means that I had some things working for me.  I wasn’t a exaggerated heel striker though I’m sure my heel came down first, and my stride seems to have been fairly sound.  So I probably had less need for the cushioning and pounded it down more slowly than many others would.  However, being able to grab any normal shoe and run over a thousand miles on them is a pretty good place to be, so a vague notion of minimalism is hardly a reason to change.

I think the biggest reason that I switched was foot health, though this was more of a positive thing.  I wanted stronger or better feet; I wasn’t trying to escape a cycle of injuries.  Of course these are related.  I’ve had some foot injuries – some minor plantar fasciitis (PF) in school, a bigger PF issue when I raced two marathons seven weeks apart, and some Achilles tendon pain when I increased mileage pretty quickly.  But it was more the general feeling that my plantar and Achilles were the weak links, not really up to the task and ready to fail.  Minimalist running theory suggests that “normal” shoes end up weakening these areas.  For example, heel lift in a shoe reduces the range of motion of the Achilles, which ends up shortening it, which feels easier in the short term but in the long-term creates a weakness.  Similarly, arch support takes some of the job away from the arch, which is a rather remarkable structure made for the job.  (Here’s an interesting read from the folks at Soft Star and Dr. Ray McClanahan.)  This all irritated me a bit – all of this shoe technology is working against us!  A really good overall read on the topic is Tread Lightly by Peter Larson (of runblogger) and Bill Katovsky.  One of the specifics that stood out for me was a study that randomly assigned shoes to runners and found no difference in injury rates versus following shoe industry practice of selecting a shoe based on the runner (e.g., stability for over-pronators).  In fact, there seems to be almost no evidence that we know anything about running (including anything showing that barefoot/minimalist shoes are better).  Given this, it doesn’t surprise me that a class action lawsuit was brought against Vibram for claiming just about anything.  What does surprise me is that the rest of the industry has escaped similar lawsuits.  A few things known are that it does appear that most runners overstride, which the minimalist community blames on modern running shoes, and that changing just about anything tends to be risky.  So I can’t offer any specific suggestions for anyone.  I can just share my story (sample size of one).

How?

I think that I inadvertently ended up using a pretty good transition plan.

My first attempt ended up being a waste of time and money.  I bought a pair of Vibram FiveFingers from the now-closed Footzone at Redmond Town Center, and they just weren’t right for me.  I’m not exactly sure why, and strangely I’ve never found anyone at a running store interested in talking about it.  I found that they put a lot of pressure on the foot.  Part of this was the neoprene upper, as their running shoes seem to have essentially been converted water shoes.  Bigger was the heel strap on the two models that I ended up trying.  It felt like it continuously grabbed at my Achilles.  In fact, just wearing them for an hour or two at my desk would leave me with significant fatigue bordering on pain.  Larger shoes weren’t really an option because I was barely making it to some of the toe slots.  For a short bit I tried acclimating to them, but the whole thing just seemed broken and I stopped.  They certainly might work better for someone else, and later on (after transitioning with other minimalist shoes) I was able to wear them for a day at the beach.  I got rid of them.

Next up was the Soft Star Moc3.  This was inspired by our shoe purchases for the kids.  This didn’t directly work for me running-wise but was a great find.  The Moc3 is incredibly minimal.  It’s pretty much like wearing a slipper.  Running in them was a bit much for me.  If I slowed down a fair amount (and even more so on any downhills), I could get around.  I used them for the first few miles of some of my runs, but it was pretty rough.  I suspect there’s some commentary in there about my running form, but this was pretty discouraging.  On the flip side, they were really great (very) casual shoes.  I wore them all the time outside of running, being at home (shoeless), or needing dressier shoes.  The very first time I wore them to work, I wasn’t thinking about them and headed up some steps.  I often stepped with just my forefoot on the step, except this time, my foot pretty much gave out.  It had been the shoe holding me up!  Not too long after this, the steps were no longer a problem – this was the stronger foot I was looking for, and I wasn’t even running yet.  I ended up with months of transitioning, which I suspect was a really good plan (and indeed, most transition plans are very slow).  I have two pairs of the Dash (one won in the minimalist division of the Corvallis Half Marathon a few years ago) for walking and want to give the Geo sole on the Portlander a try if I can find a size that fits (they run roughly a size small).

The first shoe that really worked for me running was the Merrill Road Glove.  It has a Vibram sole similar to the FiveFingers without the individual toes and with a “normal” upper.  I could pretty much just run in these.  I had to be careful around medium-sized rocks because they would hurt to land on.  I also found them to be a bit slippery on wet pavement.  I spent many weeks only running in them 1-3 times out of 6-8 runs, and they felt more normal as time went on.  They’ve been a bit of an enigma to me.  They’ve never felt fully right – I almost never do any speedwork or racing in them – but I keep going back to them anyway, now to the tune of 1500 miles.  The rock issue is still there, though I think I’ve gotten a bit more resilient to it.  The traction is now fine.  I think that is due to a mixture of slight improvements to my stride (increased cadence and my weight being more balanced on the shoe) as well as just rubbing down the nubs.

What now?

My ideal shoe now would have the following features:

  • Zero drop from heel to toe:  In fact, I run exclusively in zero-drop shoes now.  I suspect doing a small amount of mileage with a small (4mm) drop would be ok and would make finding shoes easier, but I’m hesitant to do so.
  • Very flexible with lots of “ground feel”: I want to feel where I’m running and I want my feet and legs to work with it.
  • Protection from rocks: Even though I mainly run on roads, I still catch a rock here and there and run on some unpaved sections.  This, of course, is a direct contradiction to the previous item.
  • Make me want to run fast: This is hard to explain, and I don’t know what properties of the shoe yield this.  I think a similar contradiction is involved: being light while protecting from rocks and impact.  I think this means a bit of cushion, but I don’t want to feel like I’ve got a brick on my foot, even a soft brick.

I probably should include a wide toe box in my list since many others do, but for some reason I don’t think of it that way.  If the toe box is narrow then the shoe won’t fit and I won’t buy it, but I haven’t sought out wide toe boxes.  I think I’m less picky than most because this hasn’t really been a problem – either that or my other criteria have led me to meet this one too.

I don’t have shoes that I would consider perfect, and I suspect that perfection doesn’t exist.  However, I’m happy having several pairs that come close and switching between them.  And they’re cheaper than bikes.  Right now I rotate between six pairs, though three are beat up enough that most people would probably have discarded them.

My most minimal pair is the New Balance Minimus Hi-Rez (sometimes also called the MR1 or MR01).  They are so minimal that I found that running on a wet road (not puddles) was enough to get my socks/feet wet.  They will be more of a summer shoe.  They have an interesting design with hexagonal pads that provide protection while still allowing the shoe to roll into a ball.  I’m eager to see how these work out.  So far they seem to provide some (but not perfect) rock protection, and they don’t make me want to run fast.

Before the Hi-Rez, my most minimal shoes were the aforementioned Road Gloves and the Saucony Hattori.  Neither does well with rocks.  The Hattori has some cushion to it and is incredibly lightweight.  I’ve raced quite a bit in the Hattori.  I got them on sale and punched holes in them with my big toes pretty quickly, so they don’t get a lot of use and have tape across the holes now.  I still go back to the Road Gloves frequently for a more minimal feel.  The uppers on these are detaching from the sole on both sides, but they lasted over a thousand miles before that started.

My heavier shoes consist of the Merrill Bare Access 2, Mizuno Wave EVO Levitas, and New Balance Minimus Zero V2.  I have no rock problems with these.  The Bare Access feels large and heavy though, but it’s been a workhorse (though failing in the same way as the Road Gloves, probably starting around 700 miles).  The Levitas make me want to run far and fast.  In fact, I ran too much in them after buying them and had some strange ankle fatigue problems.  They’re my usual workout and race shoe right now.  Their weight definitely fits into this group, and they probably feel the most restrictive of my shoes with a bit of a cup to the heel.  The Zero V2 are fairly new.  They feel like less shoe than the other two and still protect from rocks.  I’m pretty sure they’ll become my go-to shoe for rock protection or racing, and maybe both.

I’ve also been searching for a shoe to run the Fueled by Fine Wine Half Marathon and the occasional trail run.  I first tried another pair of Soft Stars (the Dash with the 5mm trail sole rather than the Moc3 with the 2mm road sole).  It protected against rocks well enough, and I was able to do some successful speedwork on the flat and paved Sammamish River Trail in them.  However, the race is half road and half vineyard with lots of hills, and the downhill road stretches just tore up my legs.  I also have a pair of Inov8 Trailroc 235s.  They feel kind of heavy and would definitely take care of the trail portion of this.  I’m not sure yet about the downhill road sections.  I also messed up and ended up with an unreturnable pair that is a half size too small, so they require and chew up really thin socks.  I could see just using something like the Bare Access 2 or Zero V2 and just giving up some offroad traction.


Finally, a brief note on walking and biking:  I consider finding a shoe for walking and biking easier than one for running.  The same guidelines apply for running except that there’s less need for protection of rocks and no need to want to go fast.  The only thing that’s more restrictive is appearance, and that’s personal preference.  I like Soft Stars in solid colors for casual shoes, but there are also many other options out there.  Biking is the simplest for me because I have no desire to have bike-specific shoes.  The most minimal shoes are fine for a stroll around the neighborhood, but they don’t work very well when I need to be put above a minimal amount of force on the pedals.  Unfortunately for me that includes my work route, which has a hill.

I’ve been happy with what minimalist shoes have done for my feet and legs.  Transitioning very slowly was the key.  Balancing protection and minimalism is difficult, especially for racing.

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