Did you see the episode of Seinfeld where everyone couldn’t stop eating the “fat-free frozen yogurt,” only to discover — after they put on weight — that the frozen yogurt wasn’t actually fat-free, but was just advertised that way?
Well, something similar is happening with “minimalist shoes.”
Why minimalist running shoes?
To answer that question, we need to go back in time. In 2009, Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, and research published by Dr. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard, inspired the barefoot running movement. In large part, the idea to get back to the basics came from a few fundamental ideas:
- Despite decades of “technological advances” in running shoes, and promises that the latest and greatest in padding and motion control would eliminate runners’ injuries, there was not one study — and not even anecdotal evidence — that the big shoe companies could deliver on their promise.Even with insoles made from baby seals, trampoline outsoles, and laces made from the hair of Nepalese princesses, 50% of runners and 80% of marathoners were getting injured every year.
- As Lieberman showed, when you have a big, padded shoe at the end of your leg, you’ll use the padding, land with an outstretched, straight leg, and seemingly paradoxically, send a giant spike of force through your joints — up your ankle, knee, hip, and back.
- Instead, Liberman and others showed, if remove your shoes and run BARE FOOTED, you tend to adjust your gait, land with flexed joints, and use your muscles, ligaments, and tendons, as the natural shock absorbers they are, sparing your joints.
- The foot is made to flex, to bend, to feel the ground. Remove the sensations by wrapping your foot up in a shoe, and you’re short-circuiting this natural feedback loop, and depriving yourself of the pleasant sensations that come from walking or running across varied surfaces.
Put all that together, and vast numbers of runners ditched their shoes to try running barefoot. In fact, many people who were unable to run at all gave barefooting a try. I was surprised we weren’t seeing bonfires made up of old, thick, heavy running shoes.
So, at this moment, you had 2 choices: your old running shoe, or barefoot (or Xero Shoes, which are as close as you’ll get to barefoot, but with some protection).
Not surprisingly, the big running shoe companies saw this situation and had to respond.
At first, they merely put out press releases and claimed that running barefoot would hurt you, that only gifted athletes could do it, and that if you even contemplated running without shoes, you were in destined for unhappiness.
Meanwhile, they were working on a response:
What are minimalist running shoes?
In short, most of the time they’re the big shoe companies’ way of capitalizing on the barefoot running craze by offering the only thing they know how to make — SHOES — and promoting them as “barefoot” or “natural.”
To do this, they made shoes that were lighter, a bit more flexible, and with less of a heel-lift.
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about how minimalist shoes are the new big trend in running shoes.
A TRULY minimalist shoe — like Xero Shoes — will also be lightweight, but will typically have these other features:
- NO heel lift, also known as zero-drop
- VERY flexible sole (you can roll it up into a ball)
- A low-to-the-ground design (a 4-12mm “stack height”)
- A foot-shaped design rather than a pointy toe
- NO unnecessary arch support
- A sole that’s thin enough to let you FEEL the ground (while still providing protection)
Do minimalist running shoes live up to the claims?
Ah, here’s where things get interesting.
Shoe companies are claiming that minimalist shoes will help you change your gait to a more natural, barefoot-style, way of moving. That their new shoes encourage a mid-foot strike. That wearing their shoes will reduce injuries.
They’re making all the claims that barefoot runners made about removing your shoes completely.
But there is no evidence whatsoever that their minimalist shoes will do any such thing.
In fact Vibram, the company that makes the FiveFingers shoe — arguably the original minimalist running shoe — was sued for making similar claims without having the scientific backing to make them (that doesn’t mean the claim wasn’t true, just that they didn’t have a study to back it up).
Let me say it again. There are no studies to back up the claims made by (or, rather, borrowed by) the big shoe companies.
Why aren’t minimalist shoes and barefoot (or Xero Shoes) the same?
One of my favorite things to do is meet someone who’s been wearing a minimalist shoe, including the Five Fingers, and have them put on ONE Xero Shoe and take a walk.
Within two steps they’ll turn around, eyes wide open, and say something like, “Oh! That’s a WHOLE different feeling!”
What’s the difference? One the freedom in the toe box. Then the flexibility of the sole. And then, the amount of sensation you feel from the ground. I don’t care how much someone in a Nike Free says, “I can really feel the ground in these.” They’re comparing their current experience to wearing ultra-thick running shoes.
But some minimalist shoes still have 1/2″ or more of padding between you and the ground.
And even the newest, lightest, most flexible shoes aren’t as light and flexible as your bare feet… or a pair of Xeros.
Minimal and barefoot are simply not the same.
And, frankly (and I’ve said this often), even Xero Shoes aren’t identical to barefoot. People wearing them tend to move identically to when they’re barefoot, but since you’re always stepping on the same thing — a thin bit of rubber — when you wear Xeros, it’s not the same as feeling the myriad and varied sensations with every step that you get when barefoot.
But doctors and other experts are recommending minimalist shoes
Yup, they are.
Check this out, though… in the WSJ article, it says:
The American College of Sports Medicine… recommends shoes with a heel-to-toe height differential, or drop, of no more than 6 millimeters, or about a quarter of an inch… buying shoes that are neutral, meaning without extra arch support or rigid motion-control components. The shoes should have enough forefoot room that runners can wiggle their toes easily and shouldn’t have excessive cushioning, the guide says.
But when you go look at the shoes that are marketed as fitting that prescription, you’ll usually find arch support, narrow forefoot areas, thick soles, toe spring, and all manner of other non-minimal design components.
More, I’ve been on panels with a lot of the experts that recommend minimal over barefoot. A surprising number have quite a few anti-barefoot opinions without the experience — personal or from research — to back them up. They’ll say things like, “If you’ve been in running shoes for a long time, you need to spend months, if not years, letting your Achilles tendons stretch out.”
Frankly, I’ve never met a formerly shod runner whose Achilles were “too short” to run barefoot.
I’ve met a lot of doctors (and runners) who think that getting Achilles pain when you switch to barefoot is because of “too short” tendons, without knowing that the real cause is simply USING your Achilles more than is necessary, and that by relaxing and improving your form, you don’t need to stretch — or strengthen, for that matter — anything.
Aren’t you just whining?
Okay, maybe I am 😉
The WSJ article isn’t as anti-barefoot or hyperbolic as many pieces about barefoot/minimalist/maximalist are.
In fact, it promotes everything we stand for here at Xero Shoes — natural movement, lightweight, freedom, feeling.
And, maybe, getting people to switch to something minimalist might make them more likely to go the whole way and try Xero Shoes or barefoot.
But given the experience of tens of thousands of our customers, many who’ve switched from something they were told by shoe salesman was “minimalist”, I wish that what people are offered can really live up to the marketing promises. And I don’t see that happening with “the latest trend in footwear.”
UPDATE: Check out this NEW article, How Can You Make Running Less Painful? in the Wall Street Journal that actually RECOMMENDS Xero Shoes