Written by DBR Ambassador Caileigh Colo
Ahhhh…. The age-old running debate: traditional vs. minimal shoes?
Now before you get your running shorts all in a bunch for either side of this debate or decide to throw your phone across the room, let me tell you that yes, there is a place in the running world for both styles and everything in between.
Now I know what you’re thinking (cue sarcastic tone and eye roll): wow, this girl REALLY knows her stuff. Why is she telling me something that every runner already knows? But really, do all runners know that?
The plain and simple answer here is no. Everyone is going to give you their two cents on the subject and it’s all subjective, so please pocket those thoughts and just hear me out because yes, minimal shoes and traditional shoes both have their pros and cons.
Humans are meant to run.
Why else would we have developed as a bipedal species whose ancestral beginnings were to chase our food until we outran them? Do you think we had EVA foam and rubber traction with a microchip that told us how far and how long we were running or spring loaded shoes to absorb and rebound some of your energy? No!
It was simple which is why minimal running trend started. The simplicity of just relying on your own body’s capability to propel yourself forward and up mountains is a very appealing idea in a day in age when we’re all about gadgets and gear; that and a little book called Born to Run.
Don’t get me wrong, I was right on board with everyone else. I wanted to chuck my Brooks Ghosts out the window of my college dorm room and start running barefoot all the time. And then I realized: I train on concrete roads upwards of 70 miles a week.
Having no cushion on the roads of nowhere Ohio was not the greatest idea. However, that thought was in the back of my mind all the time as I ran and nursed sore hip flexors and shin splints every night…
Traditional Running Shoes:
In the 1970s, running in America was at an all-time high. It seemed the running bug hit everyone!
Prior to 1972, minimal “barefoot” style shoes were all you could find; that is until two men by the names of Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight (ever heard of them?) came around and introduced the world to the Cortez, the first running shoe with cushioning in the heel. This model would change the shoe game and introduce us to a little company by the name of Nike.
Ok, ok enough history lesson for now. Onto shoes.
At some point in a runner’s life, they were probably fit with a pair of traditional shoes. Upon the first step, its as though you’re standing on clouds of marshmallows and a choir of angels is singing from your feet.
You take those first few bouncy steps, feel the pronation control and think WHERE HAVE THESE BEEN ALL MY LIFE?!
We see run companies competing to come out with the lightest and most responsive foams or who can create the most pronation control without feeling like it’s causing you to supinate, and boy does it get us pysched to run.
Understandably, your feet love the soft cushy feel of half-inch thick EVA foam under them and the idea of a nice cushioned ride. You’re out running and don’t feel the impact of the concrete roads; your joints all feel great as you push further and fast until…. Your shin hurts, then your knees, followed by your hips and IT Band and you think, what’s happening to me?!
Cushioned shoes were introduced as a way to absorb shock as you opened up your stride and to take some stress off of the Achilles tendon. Awesome! Cushioning should protect the feet and it does, however, it simultaneously puts you in an unnatural position.
The typically 10-12 mm heel lift (or drop as many running companies talk about) causes your hips to move forward and misalign the spine. High drop shoes also are heavier in the heel, causing the typical heel-to-toe action while in a long stride.
These two little details are the cause a lot of typical running overuse injuries in many people.
Now I’m not saying you’re running wrong if you wear traditional shoes: you can run efficiently in high drop shoes, it just takes work.
You may ask, what do you mean by running efficiently? It’s relatively simple: driving your knees, quickening your cadence, and getting your feet to contact the ground quickly while under your center of gravity.
With a high heeled shoe like traditional running shoes, the platform tends to get in the way, causing more ground contact, longer impact time and higher risk for overuse injuries.
Before you say anything about the whole Vibram Five-Finger debacle, let me start with saying that yes, you can get hurt running in minimal style shoes as well, but if done right, minimal shoes and strong feet can provide enough support to get you from point A to B.
In my mind, a minimal shoe, or lower profile shoe, is anything 4mm or lower. Minimal doesn’t mean huaraches or bare feet, it just means a lesser ‘built up’ shoe.
NOW the Vibram debacle: in the 2000s, runners tried to sue Vibram for causing them injuries after running in their Five Fingers after Vibram made claims that they would run faster. However, I would say 99% of runners out there can’t throw on a pair of minimal shoes and go rock a long run. Why? Because your body has to get used to it.
It’s the day before your first 100-mile race and you haven’t trained. Do you sign up? Probably not (with the exception of those rare unicorns out there, of course). You would ease into it and train yourself to respond to the new distance (or in this case, shoe).
What you may not realize is that your body looks for the most cushioned part of the shoe. If you have a level platform, your forefoot and arch are therefore going to absorb the impact. The good news is, that’s exactly what those 33 bones in your foot are designed to do. This alone is what makes minimal style running possible.
In order to efficiently land on your forefoot and take advantage of all those moving bones and muscles, a runner must pick up their cadence to allow their feet to land under the center of gravity (aka, their hips). Running tips as well as the pros and cons of shoes, bonus!
Now if you go from a 12mm shoe down to a minimal style shoe, you are essentially shocking your whole system, especially your Achilles, as the tendon-cushioned shoes are trying to relieve the added stress. So why run in minimal shoes and stress out your Achilles? Because your Achilles is meant to act as an elastic recoil. However, if you haven’t trained yourself to run this way, it can cause major Achilles tendinitis and Plantar Fasciitis.
In a nutshell: minimalist shoes can help make you a more efficient runner. And the more efficient you are, ideally, the faster you can run. Sneak a peek at a pair the next time you’re at your local run shop.
So What Shoe Should I Wear?
Here’s where things get tricky: You need to find what works for you.
In the 20 years I have been running, I’ve gone from traditional to super minimal to what I call a mid-low profile shoe. I made these drastic changes because I had to.
After a major ankle injury after 14 years of cross-country running, I was told I’d never run again. Walking without a brace was the goal, nevermind running again. So as an exercise phys major who had far too much time on her hands, I started looking into my biomechanics and how I could alter my form. The search led me to minimal shoes and taking the impact off my surgically repaired heel, instead of putting it on my forefoot. After trying to make it work in super minimal shoes for five years, I finally found my niche with the 3-6mm range.
If you’re interested in making the switch to one or the other or alternatively, think you could benefit from both styles of shoes, ease into it!
Don’t try to take drastic jumps in shoe styles and end up taking yourself out for most of a season. Everyone knows the worst thing ever is being injured in the spring and summer. Think smart and hit your local run shop if you’re interested in learning more about traditional or minimal shoes.
There’s a whole world out there to explore.