Minimalist running evolves towards the mainstream

Last week Mark Gorski and I attended the annual The Athlete’s Foot conference in Melbourne for two days, giving a series of talks and demonstrations to store owners, managers and staff about how we use a gradual and modest minimalist running transition as part of our running technique coaching methodology.

We were invited by the distributors of Saucony in Australia to give a series of presentations and discuss one-on-one with store representatives our ideas on running technique. The whole experience was fantastic as we met a number of retailers who were (as you’d expect) passionate about selling running shoes, but also interested in the well-being of their customers and learning more about running technique. There was no shortage of willing volunteers ready to step-up as test subjects!

Interacting with the franchisees of one of the biggest shoe retail outfits in Australia has given us a very interesting insight into where running shoe minimalism is or isn’t headed in the Australian retail context. It has also made us pause to think about how the minimalist running trend is generally filtering into the mainstream.

The week also served as a milestone on the way broadening our coaching work to include a stronger education focus. Retailers and distributors of running shoes are certainly two groups we are looking to share our ideas with.

Presentation overview – key messages

We described how we coach running technique and explained why shoes and shoe technology was only one factor out of four or five interventions we generally use with clients to improve their running form. We then gave an overview of the general benefits of a gradual evolution towards minimalism and explained how we prescribed shoes for client based on technique, purpose and aspirations. Finally, we looked into the crystal ball and speculated about where we see the running shoe industry, especially retailing and the minimalist running trend heading in the short to medium term.

What we learned about mainstream shoe retailing and the trend towards minimalism

There’s no doubt the level of awareness among these retailers about the move towards minimalism was very high, but there’s a very mixed understanding about where to begin and how benefits to runners might be balanced with risk of injury. There were some understandably cautious (considering recent litigation) attitudes about the truly barefoot end of the minimalist shoe spectrum.

The killer question

One of the common questions was just where to safely begin this minimalist transition? A tough one to answer definitively, but we’ve been at the coaching for running technique business now for more than 12 months and have seen good benefits from runners gradually moving away from heavily cushioned and structured running shoes.

As we explained, these benefits have begun to kick-in a long way from zero drop and zero cushion shoes. In most cases recreational runners have made a modest shift in footwear, often beginning in a lightweight trainer, which is not too far away from where they have been. The sometimes surprising thing we have seen is the positive response from clients without making a quantum leap towards barefoot running. This was a key message we shared with the retailers: the middle ground can be effective.

Specialty running retailer perspective

Mark has also seen thousands of runners from a retail perspective in his specialty running store these past three years, many of whom have shifted their footwear choice a step or two in the minimalist direction. Most just enjoy the experience of running in a bit less shoe, even if they’re not working on technique. An interesting aside is the number of runners he has seen that have been de-transitioned from wearing zero drop, zero cushion shoes exclusively, back into something with just a little bit of cushion and forgiveness for day-to-day running.

Law of diminishing returns

While we only focus on footwear as one of four or five interventions used to help runners improve their running technique, it is an important stimulus and part of the mix. But the question remains about just how far runners need to travel down the barefoot running shoe road to achieve good benefits without subjecting themselves to undue risk of injury.

This is journey is generally termed making a minimalist transition from traditional cushioned running shoes with a 12mm heel-to-toe height differential or drop, and various foot support/control systems, towards shoes with more flexibility, less cushion and a lower heel-to-toe drop.

From my personal and professional coaching experience, making this transition does seem to have a logical end-point that is a long way away from all runners wearing thin slippers.

Many runners get good benefit from moving into a flexible lightweight trainer that gives a more responsive feel, while retaining protection from the running surface. Clearly this is an individual thing, but what we’ve seen so far suggests the end-point for a large group of runners isn’t going to be as far as many (including me) perhaps first thought.

As an observation, it does seem that continuing to remove all cushion ceases to have a benefit at some point, because runners begin to worry too much about damaging themselves on landing and forget about some key movement and muscle activation patterns. It’s a bit like running with an injury or sore spot, the more you try to protect yourself, the worse you actually run. This can result in what we loosely describe as apologetic running – I don’t think you’ll find this in any biomechanics text books.

I’ve seen a lot of runners moving this way, almost tiptoeing or dancing on hot coals rather than contacting the ground with confidence and assertively activating the big running muscles (buttocks and hamstrings). I’ve even fallen into this apologetic running trap myself and will be writing a bit more about that soon.

Mainstreaming running minimalism

Sales data out of the USA would suggest that the entire industry has taken a step or two towards minimalism, there is minimal growth, despite the running boom in the heavily cushioned and stability shoe category, but strong growth and market share in the lightweight trainer category. Barefoot shoes are growing but it’s a very small niche in comparison to the lightweight category. This stacks up with the anecdotal comments of the retailers we’ve met in the past two days.

The mix of shoes you will see in shopping centers has and will continue to change, but it won’t be at the extreme end of the minimalist spectrum.

There was very strong feedback at the conference that the barefoot style shoes, without any cushioning, are simply not selling in these mainstream running stores.

We believe what you’ll expect to see in the coming months and year is running shoe consumers more frequently offered a mix of lighter weight, cushioned, more flexible footwear. The shoe brands that strengthen or have in their product offering geared towards this sweet spot will no doubt sell a lot of shoes to happy customers.

Multiple shoe model purchases and mainstream minimalist transition pathways

One of the recommendations we made to the retailers was to encourage runners to move away from buying two pairs of the same model towards having at least two different models to rotate through during the running week. In terms of a mainstream minimalist transition this means offering the runner a shoe that is only one step away from where they have been in terms of a baby step towards minimalism. Enough to add to their enjoyment of running and stimulate some benefits – this combined with an aspirational shoe that could be two small steps from the shoes they are used to wearing. The second pair would come with instructions to use for short runs initially, and once comfortable, to rotate as part of the regular mix.

A new shoe fit paradigm

The Athlete’s Foot, along with many other retailers, tend to fit shoes based on foot-type and the expectation that pronation is a problem that needs to be controlled. Like a few keen runners interested in form and footwear I’ve just finished reading Pete Larson and Bill Katovsky’s thorough analysis of exactly these topics in Tread Lightly. Anyone involved in the running shoe industry should buy a copy.

While it’s been known for a while that scientists were struggling to prove any linkage between shoe prescription by foot-type and reductions in injury rates, Larson and Katovsky have pretty much put this baby to bed by logically stepping through the available scientific studies and expert opinion to draw the following important conclusions:

  1. foot-type based prescription doesn’t work and may indeed lead to more injuries
  2. pronation is not actually controlled by motion control or stability shoes
  3. pronation is a natural function of the foot
  4. retail gait analysis systems are not accurate enough to detect pronation; and
  5. finally pronation hasn’t been linked to increased rate of injury

So my take is that point five is the most telling, but the other four serve to underscore that shoe companies and retailers need to move rapidly towards a new paradigm for designing and recommending shoes.

Therefore the $64,000 question for retail stores is how are we going to put the right shoes on runners’ feet?

If a wet test (or electronic version thereof) won’t cut it what will? By and large this is something we’ve been pretty successful at during our technique coaching evaluations.

In the end we believe it will come back to good old fashioned service, but service geared towards understanding runners’ requirements and responding to them, rather than using technology that tells the runner what they need.

The shoe sales process just got a whole lot more complicated and at this point we have concluded that there is a big need for education in running retail. Watch this space.

Conclusion – a comfortable shift

I’ve come out of the last couple of days pleasantly surprised at the organic shift that is taking place in running shoe product design and mainstream retailing. Retailers and consumers are hungry for more information about the benefits of minimalist running, but on the part of the retailers and most of the running shoe manufacturers there’s a commendable cautiousness about getting too aggressive in taking up the extremes.

I’m happy that there are ultra minimal shoes available for those with the skill and desire to adopt them, but I’m more pleased with the one or two step shift taking place in the industry as a whole. Our running technique coaching and retail experience suggests this progression of the industry is exactly what the average runner needs to enjoy running more.

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21 Responses to Minimalist running evolves towards the mainstream

  1. Ben Clarsen October 3, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

    “In the end we believe it will come back to good old fashioned service, but service geared towards understanding runners’ requirements and responding to them, rather than using technology that tells the runner what they need.”

    Great conclusion! As a physio working mainly with cyclists I feel we are seeing the opposite happening within the bike fitting industry, to its detriment. Flashy new technology abounds, but nothing is validated, we have no reliability data, and there is absolutely no evidence that it can prevent injury or improve performance. Hopefully the pendulum will swing back one day, as it appears to be doing in footware prescription.

    • Brian October 4, 2013 at 6:31 am #

      Thanks Ben, appreciate the feedback. That’s really interesting re: bike fit for cycling. I’m just in the process of rediscovering bikes after a 20 year break and already come across a lot of varying opinion in that space. I think I’m going to ignore most of it and just adjust by feel!

  2. Gilles July 5, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    Hi Brian, I’ve been transitionning slowly to less shoe going from Brooks Ghost 4 to Brooks Pure Flow with a 4mm offset. I’ve been suffering from the piriformis syndrome and now recovering slowly from it and I am questionning myself whether it could have been caused by the new shoes. Wonder if you found something in your research that could make this link. Thanks!

    • Brian July 5, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

      Hi Gilles, sorry to hear about the piriformis syndrome. No linkage that I have heard of or seen in research to link the shoe transition to this problem. It could be many other factors, however I’d make sure you are strong enough and can maintain good form when wearing the minimal shoes. If you need to take a small step back to resolve the condition then no harm in doing so. Also be sure sure to look into doing some strength work as part of your overall running program.

      • Gilles July 6, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

        Glad to hear this because I really love running in the Pure Flow. After decades of running, I finally found the perfect fit and comfort with good cushionning and a low offset and most all, no blisters after 20Ks of running, which is something I thought could not happen. And it supports a perfect running form, which is the cherry on the sunday.

        You speak of strength work, I would really appreciate if you could be more specific as to which parts I should work on and what exercice I should do. If you could just give me some key words and I’ll look out for videos on youtube. This would be of great help in my pursuit of qualifying for Boston. Thank you very much!

        • Brian July 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

          Hi Gilles, strength work for runners should start with the hip extensors and external rotators (glutes and glute work that also strengthens) the hamstrings at same time. There is a heaps of information on this website concerning what to do, start here with a free download Also check out the strength category on the top menu, the Jerry Schumacher series is worth a look. Good luck with Boston!

  3. Campbell Maffett July 2, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Good article, and an interesting insight into the retail industry and the direction it is heading. My concern in what you write, however, as a fellow coach with specialisation in running form, is that I don’t think you should work with an athlete with the end goal in mind of turning them into a minimalist runner. That is one possible outcome, but is not necessarily the right thing to be encouraging all runners towards…for some people it is like putting a square block in a round hole. I think each person needs to be treated on their individual merits, and making a unique judgement in each case…in my own case, I went back to “big, bulky, shoes” after numerous issues in progressing towards slightly more minimal shoes. They are great in principle, not always in practice.

    • Brian July 2, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

      G’day Campbell, thanks for the comment. I don’t disagree with you, we’ve worked with many different runners, each coming from a different starting point in footwear, but more importantly with individual strengths, weaknesses, injury histories and performance aspirations. Shoes is one factor in four or five areas we work on and by no means the most important – it’s the last item we address in our report and recommendations to clients. In terms of what we recommend in footwear, it’s very much individual.

  4. Peter Larson July 2, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    Fantastic post Brian, my position is basically identical to yours.

    I’ve had the opportunity to run in over 50 different shoes these past few years and I find myself honed in on flat to 4mm drop cushioned shoes as my sweet spot. I do still use uncushioned barefoot-style shoes regularly, but I view them as a tool for form training and not my everyday training shoe. I actually find the barefoot-style shoes of more value as my all-day shoe for when I’m not running.

    Ultimately I feel like every runner should aim to find as little shoe as they can handle, and the end-point will likely be different for each person. And I also agree that having a small rotation of shoes used for different purposes makes a lot of sense.

    It’s amazing how far we’ve come in terms of options in just a few short years, but I think the change has been a very positive one. The shoe fit process is the big question right now, and I’m hopeful that better methods of matching runner to shoe will be available soon.

    • Brian July 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

      Thanks Pete, I appreciate the positive feedback. 50 shoes, impressed 🙂 Although I’m probably sneaking my way up in that direction too. I agree with you, the really flat uncushioned shoes are great to walk around in during the day and/or for gym work. Will be writing a bit more about this soon, but for actual running I prefer to go barefoot than use the ultra minimalist shoes. For the rest of the time I’m pretty happy, like you, to have some cushion.

    • eric johnson July 3, 2012 at 12:55 am #

      As usual, I think Pete is right on the money. Get as minimal as you can safely handle and vary your shoe choice (as well as terrain, training pace, etc). We can all generally handle a lot more minimal shoe casually than running. This has certainly been my experience personally and with customers at my store.

      Jay Dicharry told me his testing at the UVA Speed Lab showed, in terms of offset, that 5mm was somewhat of a breaking point. Shoes above that tended to increase tendency toward what we believe are negative technique factors and below that did not.

      In terms of fit, the Gait Guys have something coming down the pike soon that will allow retailers to be certified in their fitting process. It will take into account foot structure so there is a place in their paradigm for stability shoes (rear-foot valgus, for example). They do have a minimalist bent – the foot just needs to have the strength and structure to handle that type of shoe.

      Thanks for the great article Brian. Eric Johnson, Manager

      • Brian July 3, 2012 at 9:03 am #

        Hi Eric, thanks for adding to the discussion. Interesting point re the 5mm drop, I wonder what was considered negative technique factors and whether Jay found a wide variance among individuals re the offset?

  5. Kyle Roberts June 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    This is exactly why, one year ago, I opened Revolution Natural Running & Walking Center, one of the first “Minimalist Only” Running Stores in the United States, where we teach natural running form every day. Thick, cushioned shoes are not appropriate for anyone, and we don’t offer any of that type of shoe because all those do is cause people to run with a very inefficient over-stride.

    • Brian July 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      G’day Kyle, thanks for comment. I think there’s more than one way to approach the combination of running shoes and running form changes, personally our experience suggests moderate changes and progression gets good results without needing to ditch all cushioning and protection. I also know plenty of runners with good technique that run in shoes with more cushion than you sell in your store and do just fine.

      • Paul Joyce July 1, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

        I agree with Brian here. While personally the shift to minimalist shoes has helped me improve my running form I know plenty of runners who wear conventional running shoes and have great technique. Over the past year I have formed the view that what you put on your feet while running is only one part of the running form equation.

  6. seda June 30, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    It’s really good to see that there are more options for minimalist/lightweight shoes but I hope in the future both the running shoe companies and retailers will think more for the small size feet people. Ok, we’re not the majority but we do exist! 🙂

    • Brian June 30, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      Hi Seda, Yes it can be a challenge if you have either extremely small or large feet! Might be some more options going forward perhaps.

  7. Sam Murphy June 29, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

    Hi Brian
    Really interesting summary of the conference and valuable insight into the direction the market is heading. Thanks. I agree that the initial rush to get into barefoot shoes has slowed down it’s probably partly as a result of people’s ‘bad experiences’ of barefoot/barefoot shoes (from running too much, too soon or too badly)and some negative media. But like you, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing for the minimalist movement. I also coach running technique and I think there are some people who aren’t ready for – and may never be ready for – a zero drop uncushioned shoe, so my goal would be to get them into the least shoe they can get away with. And I love your ‘de-transitioned’ phrase! I guess I could qualify for that, having initially worn only true barefoot shoes (or gone unshod) but now mixing inov-8, Fivefingers and VivoBarefoot models, according to where and how far I run and how I feel. None of us should feel ‘chained’ to a particular shoe, or shoe philosophy.

    • Brian June 30, 2012 at 8:36 am #

      G’day Sam, thanks for chipping in. I think it’ll be really interesting to see how things play out in the next few years, right now runners are spoiled for choice which is great. I like your approach of the least shoe people can get away with and agree that can mean something different depending on the individual and where they have been, the surface, how far and the type of training to be performed. I’m a self-confessed shoe junkie, being able to rotate up and down the spectrum and sideways between brands/models keeps things interesting.

  8. Paul Joyce June 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    Brian, interesting observation as to where the running shoe market might be heading. It is also consistent with the views of a couple of local running store owners that I know i.e. that many runners are looking for lighter and lower drop shoes but there is much less appetite for ‘barefoot’ style shoes. I do most of my running in flat, non-cushioned shoes but do like some cushioning on my longer runs. Personally, I will be happy if runners continue to be provided with a range of options whether that be conventional running shoes or ‘barefoot’ style shoes. Cheers, Paul

    • Brian June 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

      Hi Paul, thanks for the additional feedback from your local stores. A agree with you on the choice and that’s part of why the shift in the industry because of minimalism is so healthy – more choice and more likelihood you’ll be offered ‘enough shoe’ rather than too much shoe going forwards.