A Closer Look At Minimalist Running Shoes

Paul Langer, DPM

Given the increased popularity of minimalist running shoes, this author discusses their structural features and separates the marketing from the literature in examining the impact of reduced cushioning, reduced shoe mass and the “zero drop” phenomenon.

Minimalist footwear is the newest and fastest growing segment of the athletic footwear industry today.1 The appeal for consumers seems to be the purported benefits of decreased injury risk and/or performance enhancing effects of minimalist shoes.

   Manufacturers are marketing these shoes as more natural and more like being barefoot. According to Formula4 media, minimalist road running shoe sales were up 119 percent from March 2011 to March 2012 while minimalist trail running shoes grew to comprise 42 percent of all trail running sales during the same period.1 These are dramatic changes in buying habits over a short period of time. Is this a fad, a trend or a paradigm shift?

   Despite the fact that athletic footwear manufacturers spent the previous four decades extolling the virtues of their cushioning technologies and stability devices, some have now changed their tune and want to make sure you know that their shoes are now much more like “being barefoot.” Never mind all that stuff they used to tell us about cushioning preventing injuries and midsole technologies “guiding” the foot. There is a whole new way of thinking about running footwear and we can sum this up as “less is more.”

   Some new manufacturers emerged early with this trend. Altra and Vibram (an established outsole company that had no previous branded footwear models) offer two popular running brands. Footwear manufacturers that were not known in the running business jumped in as well. Merrell, Terra Plana and Skechers are three new players. The established manufacturers such as Brooks, New Balance, Asics, Adidas and others have introduced minimalist lines to complement their established models. One manufacturer, Saucony, has not only introduced minimalist footwear but also reduced the heel height of almost all of its running shoe models.

   One curious aspect of the minimalist trend is that most of the manufacturers that produce racing flats have not promoted their flats as minimalist. It is likely that their respective marketing departments were concerned that running consumers would not perceive the racing flats as authentic minimalist footwear so they instead produced new models.

   Some proponents of minimalist footwear try to create the impression that this is new or revolutionary, but researchers, manufacturers and sports medicine professionals have long known that humans move differently shod versus barefoot, and that footwear characteristics influence gait. Lower profile footwear, such as racing flats and super light training shoes, have been available since the first running boom and were never big sellers. Companies have previously introduced lower profile models such as Adidas’ “Feet You Wear” line of shoes from the late 1990s that were a commercial failure.

   The minimalist type of footwear has been available all along. For some unknown reason, the tipping point came recently and piqued the interest of the media and running consumers.

   Prior to the recent launch of the wave of minimalist shoes, traditional running shoes had been moving, albeit slowly, toward thinner midsoles and lighter weight. The distinctions among the three main categories had become less obvious too. Many cushioned (or neutral) shoes had some stability features while stability shoes were becoming lighter and more cushioned. The motion control category has seen decreasing sales numbers over the last few years probably because many runners found comfort and protection in shoes that were lighter and less clunky.

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