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:
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