If you haven’t heard, the minimalist footwear industry has taken a turn for the worse. Shoe sales aren’t booming like they used to and companies are starting to add more material to their shoes to try to stay with the current market trend. After all, that’s what it’s about – the trend. If you’re a shoe company your job is to sell shoes. If shoes with more padding and more support are selling, well then you better order some more EVA.
The trend doesn’t shock me at all. Actually, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who wear “barefoot” style shoes, especially the ones with five individual toes. If “Healthy People = Barefoot People” is accurate, as I wrote a while back in 2012, then there really should not be too many people wearing truly minimalist-style shoes. After all, our overall health is not improving as a society. As I discussed in that article, your feet are a great reflection of your overall health. So the more health problems you may have, the more your feet will reflect that, and the more shoe you will need to support your failing body.
Minimalist is not just walking around in less shoe – it’s about your body’s ability to adapt to the environment, including the surface, regardless of whether you’re standing or walking on tile, concrete, stone, grass or hardwood. A well adapted body is a healthy body. A healthy body can handle less footwear or none at all on any surface if the environment is safe.
Follow the Fad or Follow the Research?
Do you need research to tell you what you should be doing? If you truly believe that less footwear support and cushion is beneficial to your body then you could care less about what the latest and greatest research says. Remember too that the research is often funded by shoe companies and their study participants are coined “healthy” because they have no known disease and don’t smoke. They’re often considered fit because they exercise a few times a week and have no current injuries (daily aches and pains don’t count). Hopefully you don’t want to compare yourself to these average folks.
People follow the fad and the media. If five-toed shoes are hot then let’s all wear them as we grab our gluten-free bagels and soy latte coffee. It’s the cool thing to do. If you really understand how beneficial something is to your health then the fad doesn’t matter. You were hopefully eating eggs when your doctor told you it would result in high cholesterol. You were using salt while the media warned you that it would harden your arteries. And you were staying away from hydrogenated fats at the time when everyone was told margarine was the food of the future and butter was dangerous. So, now that the minimalist industry is going backwards after only a few short years are you going to stick more cushion in your shoes or stick to what you truly believe in? After all, there’s really not a whole lot of funding for the barefoot walking/running movement because there is no money to be made here; don’t expect some mind-blowing beneficial barefoot studies to pop up anytime soon.
You Ain’t Wearin’ Minimalist Anyway
So what really constitutes a minimalist shoe? Is it a 4mm or less drop? Is it a certain width in the toe box? Is it a shoe that a Leprechaun can fit into? There isn’t a set criteria for a “minimalist” shoe or even the ones that claim to be “barefoot-style” shoes. Shouldn’t a barefoot shoe be just that – barefoot with no shoe?
Without naming names – ah screw that – let’s talk Hokas and the many other “minimalist” running shoes out there that are far from that – most are maximalist shoes. I completely understand that if you can hop into a Hoka and run again then it’s a beautiful thing but perhaps you should be asking yourself, “Should I really be running if I need these devices on my feet?”
I’ve said before that most people should NOT be running because they are broken – their health and fitness is so poor, their mechanics are poor, and they don’t move well. So if that’s you, why would you want to go and run when you can’t perform basic essential human movements such as walking, squatting, and balancing? Running is too far advanced for you and putting on a shoe that gives you the false reality that you can now perform such activity is just like taking a sleeping pill and thinking you’re getting the benefits of sleep. Yeah you fell asleep, but you really didn’t go through the proper sleep cycles necessary for a restful night sleep; you cheated the system and it’ll catch up with you eventually. Step back and learn the basic mechanics before you run.
Saucony Kinvara and Virrata, Brooks PureFlow, and all the other “feel the ground shoes” out there that many think are minimalist are not even close to my definition of such. Being zero drop with a +15mm stack height or a 4mm drop and a crazy amount of cushion and motion control are a far cry from letting your feet move as they are designed to do. I know they make a lot of people feel good when they’re able to step into a trendy barefoot-style shoe while drinking their Kombucha tea, but your shoes probably aren’t much better than what you were wearing before you stepped on the trend-train.
My definition of a minimalist shoe is one with <10mm stack height, zero-drop, a firm, motion-free and cushion-free midsole, and enough room to allow your toes to not be mashed together. But regardless of what I think, the idea here, (well one of them anyway), is that less is usually better. If you can’t get away with less then you need to ask yourself why.
Everyone is going to break down at a certain point. Muscle imbalances occur at this point when the nervous system has met the maximum amount of stress it can handle, (different for everyone and always changing in each individual too), and then fatigue, pain, and possibly an injury sets in. Many distance runners feel that more of a shoe is better because it allows them to run further without pain or injury. I understand this concept but I also think that if you need a shoe to support you at a certain distance in training or in a race then maybe you shouldn’t be running that distance in the first place. After all, more shoe, just like an orthotic, is not going to truly correct any imbalance, it is just going to support the imbalance while altering other aspects of your body such as your proprioception, and therefore your muscles, tendons, and ligaments will pay the price. So if you can’t run 20 miles without Hokas, you should be running much less. Something to think about.
Remember that shoes are for protection only. And of course I can see style at times; you don’t need to be some barefoot hippy that shuns all footwear all the time because they’re evil. (But if you’re into that then good for you, hippy.) You might not want to, and maybe in some cases you’re not allowed to, go barefoot, but you should be able to. You should be able to walk with only a few millimeters of material between you and the ground on any surface for any period of time.
If you always need foot support then you’ve got problems or you’re doing more than what you’re currently capable of. Wear the footwear you need to as you address why you can’t wear less but don’t do more with more footwear – that’s the completely wrong idea. Minimalism and barefoot is about injury prevention and treatment as well as performance regardless of what new and exciting research the NY Times might come out and discuss tomorrow.
If you follow the trend you will soon be wearing more of a shoe next year than you were last and you’ll miss the health and fitness benefits without even knowing it because fewer and fewer people will be talking about it.