Friday, March 9, 2012

WTF is "Minimalist" anyway?

It goes without saying that when you are a part of a social running group, many of the mid-run or virtual conversations revolve around footwear.  Everyone has an opinion about what is best for most, or works for some, or causes injury, etc., but I fear the tag words we use (and misuse) are causing a lot of misunderstandings in the running community.  Therefore, I have promised some of my running friends that I would blog my 2 cents.
Minimalism no doubt is a movement that is gaining speed in the running community, even though many runners have been running barefoot or nearly barefoot for many years.  As with any runaway trend, manufacturers are quick to jump on the bandwagon and slap the popular label on their latest products, whether they embody the true nature of the paradigm shift or not.  It harkens to the early 90s, when terms like “grunge” and “alternative” were the sell-sell-sell names for what was just plain rock ‘n roll.  In fit of pop irony, “alternative” became the new mainstream.  I foresee a similar phenomenon happening with the “minimalist” descriptor in terms of running footwear.
NOTE: In the interest of adding to the debate, everything contained in this post hereafter is solely the opinion of the Sockless Runner, who does not pretend to be an authority, but who does feel that he is knowledgeable enough to spark a discussion on minimalism.
What makes a shoe minimalist?  For that matter, what makes a runner minimalist?  Let’s tackle that first.  Not all runners who wear lightweight or minimalist shoes are minimalist runners.  Some runners have found this out about themselves through injury or discomfort.  In order to be a minimalist runner, one must run with a more natural stride, as if one were barefoot.  This involves a quick cadence (180+ steps per minute), a midfoot or forefoot landing directly beneath the hips, an upright posture, and relaxed, flexed joints (no locked knees).  Even some minimalists have a hard time keeping their form correct, this blogger included.  Minimalism discourages over striding and heel striking.  In order to gain more speed, a naturally minimalist runner would lean forward with his or her chest, and let the falling momentum generate more forward energy, rather that shoot the legs way out in front of the hips in order to steal a couple of extra inches on each stride. 
Many barefooters encourage ditching shoes altogether in order to let one’s body find this natural running form, because heel striking is physiologically unnatural and painful to unshod runners.  Said barefooters then suggest moving to minimal or barefoot shoes only after establishing proper form.  The other camp on transitioning to a natural running style favors gradually reducing the cushioning and support of the shoes you chose to wear in order to not shock your joints, muscles, and tendons, which have atrophied and shortened after a lifetime of wearing supportive shoes.  I have used the latter method to make the transition. 
Does this mean that one can run with a natural running style with conventional, cushioned running shoes?  Sure.  In fact, I ran my 1st marathon and 1st ultra in cushioned, light stability shoes (Brooks Ravenna for both).  Cushion does allow a runner’s form to slip, though.  In the last 7 or so miles of Frosty 50K, I used a lot of brain energy to concentrate on my form.  Nowadays, no matter how much I used to love my old stability shoes, I just can’t bring myself to run in them anymore.
Ok, so now that we have an idea of what a minimalist running form looks like, we move to the shoes.  I describe a minimalist shoe as having 4 qualities: little or no heel-toe stack height differentiation (0mm-4mm); light weight (<8 ounces per foot); little or no cushioning in the midsole; and extreme flexibility.  The flexibility is important because it allows the muscles in the feet to do their work and become strong, rather than just get pounded by body weight.  If a shoe has 2 or 3 of these characteristics, I would consider it semi-minimalist. 
Some shoes are just plain conventional shoes that adopt 1 or 2 of these traits, but don the “minimalist” moniker.  The Brooks Pure Project and the Saucony Kinvaras come to mind.  I would consider these shoes “transitional,” or just plain light weight.  Conventional runners might call them minimalist, but they would be a lot of shoe for someone like me.  I have a pair of Brooks Pure Flows, and I still use them for long runs, or for recovery when my joints are pounded after a marathon or long race, but they feel comparatively pillowy now, and they don’t turn over as quickly.  They are still a great shoe, and I recommend them for runners looking for a lighter alternative from their conventional trainers, but they are by no means minimalist.
So here’s a list of shoes I either own or have tried, and how I would categorize them:

Minimalist Shoes:
Vibrim FiveFingers, Merrell Barefoot Trail Gloves/Road Gloves, Inov-8 Bare-X series, New Balance Minimus

Semi-Minimalist Shoes:
New Balance MT110, Inov-8 F-Lite series, Altra Instinct, Merrell Bare Access

Transitional Shoes:
Brooks Pure Project series, Saucony Kinvara and Mirage, New Balance MT101, Montrail Rogue Racer, Nike Free

Obviously, I missed quite a few brands (Vivobarefoot, Newton, etc.) but most everything else is a conventionally cushioned trainer. 

That’s my 2 cents.  Make of it what you will.  However I MUST STRESS THIS POINT: if you do want to make the transition to minimalist running, follow the 10% rule and don’t do it too quickly.  Getting injured in the process of a transition would defeat the whole purpose!

1 comment:

  1. Ok, so no sooner did I publish this blog post than I checked my mailbox and looked at the latest cover of Running Times magazine. Evidently, they have a large part of their current issue dedicated to this subject. Great. Let in be known that I came to all of my own conclusions independently, and before I saw said issue. -C.