Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Running Gear: Minimalist Shoes

From left to right (and roughly the order acquired, best I can recall):
Vivo Barefoot Neo Road 
Vivo Barefoot Neo Trail 
Vivo Barefoot Lucy Lite Road
New Balance Minimus Road Zero 
Merrell Road Glove Dash
Vivo Barefoot Neo Trail

Disclosure: I don't have any formal training in barefoot running. The following information is based on a few years of personal research from various sources. 

With the exception of the Vibrams (which I would consider a "barefoot shoe"), these are all "minimalist shoes". What makes a shoe minimalist? This is debatable, and is more of a marketing term than anything else (think the way the word "natural" is used for food marketing), but what I look for when buying running shoes that I consider minimalist:
  • Zero drop - the heel and toe are the same distance off the ground
  • Wide toe box - more "foot shaped"
  • Thin and flexible sole (stack height) - these are all in the 4 - 8 mm range
  • No arch support
In essence, it's a shoe that lets your foot... be a foot! The idea is to work with your body, rather than work against it by using a shoe to alter it. It doesn't raise you heel above your toe (like virtually all shoes do - high heels do it more noticeably but even "flat" and athletics shoes generally raise you heel a half inch or so higher than your toes), it allows your toes to spread out, and lets your foot feel the ground beneath it.

Now, the downside, of course, of letting your foot feel the ground, is that it feels the ground. By the end of my marathon, and the first time I ran a half marathon in minimalist shoes, my feet hurt! The pounding really got to me. BUT - do not take this to mean you can't run long distances in minimalist shoes, just that you have to more gradually increase your distance and allow your feet to adjust to it. I've since run three more halves in minimalist shoes, and each time the pounding has felt less significant, down to nothing most recently. During marathon training, it wasn't until I got to 15 or 16 miles that my feet hurt from long runs.

When buying any running shoe, minimalist or traditional, be sure to size up at least half or a full size. Once you get to double digit runs, your feet swell, and shoes that are too small will hurt! My Merrell shoes are almost too big (a full size up from my street shoe size) - bought on a trip in the midst of marathon training when my current shoes were hurting my feet, so skipping runs or waiting for an online order wasn't an option, and this was the best-fitting size in the best minimalist option I could find. Sometimes they feel a little loose/floppy, but that's still better than too tight.

Why were the shoes I had with me on that trip hurting my feet? I estimated that I had been using them for about 600 miles. For conventional running shoes, the common advice is to replace them every 300 to 500 miles of running. This is not just because the tread will wear down, but the cushioning and stability structure within the shoe will wear down. Of course I don't believe that cushioning and stability is necessary, but if it's part of the shoe and no longer formed in the correct way, it's no longer just useless but potentially harmful.

In this case, I was wearing trail shoes (both for safety while running on wet leaves during the fall and winter, and to add a touch more cushioning for longer distances without sacrificing zero drop and flexible sole) that had a few millimeters of tread on the sole that had gotten worn down. Although in a normal shoe with 20 mm of cushioning this small change probably wouldn't make any noticeable difference, on a minimalist shoe that was only 8 mm high altogether, this change of 25% of its height may have caused enough change in how my feet rolled in the shoe as to cause the pain I was feeling. That's my hypothesis at least.

For minimalist road shoes, though, it will be harder to notice any visible wearing on your shoe, I haven't found any recommendations to replace them with any frequency. There really isn't component of the shoe to get worn in a way that will alter how they work.  As long as your gait doesn't seem affected, I don't see any reason to replace them until they're visibly worn out.


  1. I found you through GOMI and figured I should introduce myself in case you have a tracker and are seeing some random person stalking your blog, and I might as well introduce myself on this, one of my favorite subjects!

    I hike more than I run, but Merrell Pace Gloves meet all my hiking needs (minus snow and extreme cold), and I find myself turning into one of those annoying, preachy zealots, trying to convert my hiking partners to ditch their heavy boots and jump on the barefoot train when they complain about foot pain. Minimalist shoes have made my hikes sooo much more comfortable (and safer, since boots made me twist my ankles all the time), even on really rocky trails.

    Anyway, I'm adding you to my reader - I'm a fellow Pacific Northwesterner and I'm looking forward to getting some motivation to move my arse from someone more goal-driven than my lazy self. :^)

    1. Awesome, welcome! I love how much of my traffic comes from GOMI. :)

      Your blog looks interesting too! The last year or so I've been wanting to get into hiking (so many pretty spots to do so around Portland!), but last summer didn't manage to do any because of prioritizing time for (and spending time recovering from) long runs from marathon training. Definitely need to work on that this summer.


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