A question of balance

While recently watching a TV panel program on the hot topic of climate change I found myself wondering where all the middle ground has gone in such important debates. We seem to hear and read about the polar opposite opinions in these matters, but very rarely do we hear from the middle ground. Extreme points of view seem to hog the limelight with the realists sometimes lost in the fog.

What has this got to do with running you may ask? Well personally I believe the same “question of balance” relates very closely to the current changes in the footwear industry. It’s very easy to consult your search engine of choice and find differing opinions on what footwear we should and shouldn’t be running in. From a shoe retailer and coaching point of view I feel there is an air-gap between the opinions of minimalist skeptics and the passionate zeal of some barefoot advocates.

Growth in sales minimalist running shoes and light weight trainers

Here in Australia we watched with interest as US sales figures come out for 2011. It wasn’t surprising to see that the sales of minimal running shoes have sky-rocketed in percentage terms. But what has been overlooked by some commentators is that the sales of the lightweight trainer category have also gone through the roof. Sometimes we need to take these figures with a grain of salt as we’re not sure exactly how they categorize each shoe, but for the sake of looking at trends I’m happy to run with them. For a detailed breakdown of the numbers and some intelligent commentary on what it all means check out Pete Larson’s overview.

I must confess my bias toward the lightweight trainer/minimal transition category due to the fact that they take up much of my shoe wall. I believe they are an underrated and underutilized group.

So who should be wearing these shoes? The short answer, in my opinion is everybody, at least for some of their running. Most brands have some excellent shoes in this category (more on those later) but go into any regular shoe store and nearly everybody is fitted into overly supportive shoes regardless of their technique, history or running aspirations.

Three steps down, two steps back

On the flip side I’ve seen an increasingly number of minimalist runners in the store looking for a shoe with a little more cushion to complement early adoption of Vibrams or other zero-drop, thinly cushioned models such as Vivo or Merrell. In most cases these early converts have found the need to find some balance between aspiration and the reality of attempting too much running in extreme minimalist models without an adequate transition period. Many of these runners have taken at least three steps down from a traditional cushioned 12mm drop shoe, so it’s great to have some middle ground two steps back to help graduate their transition.

Minimalist transition – begin with a lightweight trainer

If you’re looking to take your first steps away from your traditional shoes into something less massive, then the lightweight trainer category is a great place to start. Most of these shoes have a slightly lower heel-to-toe drop than traditional shoes and can weigh up to 30-40% lighter! Who wouldn’t enjoy that?

As Brian and I have seen in our coaching practice, changes in footwear are a very useful tool for providing a stimulus for improving technique. This doesn’t mean throwing people straight into zero-drop shoes; it simply means finding a shoe that will facilitate making changes rather than a shoe that forces the body to change. The latter is asking for trouble and can lead to overcompensation back in the support direction when runners inevitably get injured.

When the injured runner seeks treatment we have found that depending on where they go for help, the medical advice can be very black and white. In some cases there is zero belief that running in a bit less shoe has any benefits, in others there’s more middle ground, acknowledging the benefits, but rightly pointing out that doing too much too soon isn’t desirable or necessary.


There are some fantastic shoes in this lightweight trainer category that many of the recreational running community might never have heard of unless they visit a specialty running store: here’s a few of my favorites to point you in the right direction:

Nike Free Run & Nike Zoom Speed Lite ST
Adidas Adizero Tempo & Boston
Mizuno Wave Precision, Wave Elixir, Musha
Saucony Kinvara, Mirage & Cortana
New Balance 890

My experience with most customers is this: once they step down into this lighter weight category they never want to return to heavier, inflexible and overly supportive shoes. And on the other side of the equation, minimalist runners that have dived into the extreme end too quickly enjoy having something a bit more forgiving to do some regular miles in.

By Mark Gorski

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13 Responses to A question of balance

  1. Mark Cucuzzella MD May 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Great post Brian and this is the safe place to put folks.

    Goal is to identify where customers are and retrain the spring of the system, this is why transition shoes are safe. Lots of science in this simple paradigm but it think you and customers can understand this. Dr. James Stoxen wrote about this:

    You Can Reverse the Trend…The Rise and Fall of the Human Spring
    · I was Born Barefoot
    · I ran barefoot, when I was a kid
    · I ran fast when I was a kid
    · I jumped and bounded high and far when I was a kid
    · I used to be able to run in skinny shoes
    · I used to be able to run without motion control shoes
    · I used to be able to run without orthotics and motion control shoes
    · I used to be able to walk without orthotics and orthopedic shoes
    · I used to be able to walk without orthotics and orthopedic shoes and this cane
    · I used to be able to walk without orthotics and orthopedic shoes and this four prong walker
    · I used to be able to walk but now I have this wheel chair
    · I’m bedridden.

    Some of us die bedridden

    Mark Cucuzzella MD

    • Brian May 22, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

      Hi Mark, thanks for the comment … I hope none of us end up bedridden though regardless! I think part of the problem is that most of us never even got to first base here: I’m a classic case, always in shoes from young age, never ran barefoot or even played barefoot as a kid and can even remember having shin splints running about in the playground in my hard black school shoes with heels. So far it’s taken me four years to undo some of my personal evolution and there is a way to go. Be great if parents can think about keeping their kids in flat, flexible shoes and/or go barefoot for play for as long as possible – be a good step forwards.

    • Steven May 26, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

      Soooo, does this mean that running in any way other than barefoot will put me in a wheelchair then ensure I die bedridden? Hmmmm….don’t suppose the effects of ageing has anything to do with the decline outlined above?

      Don’t get me wrong, I think Mark Gorski’s article makes some excellent points and recommendations, but I’m not sure I agree with Mark Cucuzella’s inferences, assuming I’ve interpreted them correctly.

      • Brian May 26, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

        Hi Steven, thanks for chipping in. Hoping none of us die bedridden! I think Dr Mark was making a general point rather than inferring we should all run barefoot. Obviously he does run barefoot, but agrees a lightweight trainer is a great place to be for many runners to safely enjoy the running experience.

  2. Greg Strosaker May 17, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    Good post Brian, and that’s a nice set of shoes from a category that has been overlooked in the debate. I’d propose that the Nike Lunarfly’s would make a good addition to the list as well – they don’t seem to get a lot of attention, but are lightweight (9.6 oz, close to the Wave Precisions at 9.3 oz) with a 9mm heel-to-toe drop and a little bit of stability for those who need it. I have yet to find a runner who has tried them that didn’t like them. I’ve rotated back to them from the Kinvara’s after some Achilles issues.

    • Brian May 18, 2012 at 7:49 am #

      Thanks Greg, I’m not that familiar with The Lunarfly but it sounds like a good viable option in this category.

  3. Leon Boone May 16, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

    Mark, this is an excellent post. I agree that most people can get away with a lightweight trainer. I try to run with proper form and find that a good lightweight shoe, not necessarily a minimalist shoe, is what works best for me. Once I ditched my old Asics and got some new Nikes I have felt better on my runs.

  4. Andrew Rose May 13, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Mark, this article is spot on based on my experience, moving from the addidas salvation which is big bulky shoe to the addidas adizero my running has improved and they are an absolute pleasure to run in. It definitely improves technique and you can feel your glutes engage.

    There is no way I’ll be heading back to the dark side.


    • Brian May 13, 2012 at 11:50 am #

      Thanks Andrew, have passed comments onto Mark.

  5. Matthew May 13, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    Hi Brian, by all means inject some colour into the article but not at the expense of falling victim to the very issues you speak against (“alarmist” language which is also inaccurate). I realize it can be difficult to avoid on controversial/emotional topics such as this. I support your attempt at a “middle ground” take on the subject for various reasons. Of which due to time constraints are outlined as well as subsequent opinion at… http://backontrackpodiatry.com.au/index.php/barefoot-running-the-issues-involved/the-barefoot-versus-shoe-controversy

    • Brian May 13, 2012 at 9:40 am #

      G’day Matthew, have had a quick look at your article and I’d say we pretty much agree philosophically. Most of the articles on this blog are aimed at middle ground thinking and use pretty careful language. I’ll take your comments on board for future pieces. Thanks Brian

  6. Curb Ivanic May 13, 2012 at 12:44 am #

    Excellent points Mark! As a fellow coach I’ve sometimes been discouraged by the polarizing viewpoints that seem to get so much attention in media and social media. So it’s great to see more middle-ground points of view like this. I believe it actually represents a large though maybe not as outspoken segment of the running population.

    In my experience, for most runners the truly minimalist shoes will only be good for limited amount of training volume so lightweight trainers are a terrific option for many people for the majority of their training (after an adequate adaptation period). And as was discussed in a previous comment thread, using 2 or 3 pairs of shoes regularly throughout your training is a good idea.

    • Brian May 13, 2012 at 8:26 am #

      Thanks Curb, have passed your comments through to Mark. I think many runners can do much of their training in the lightweight trainer category and this will be their minimal transition end point. For others it may provide a safer transition pathway to running in lower profile, flatter shoes. Brian