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.
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.
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.
— Pete L. (@Runblogger) June 11, 2012
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:
- foot-type based prescription doesn’t work and may indeed lead to more injuries
- pronation is not actually controlled by motion control or stability shoes
- pronation is a natural function of the foot
- retail gait analysis systems are not accurate enough to detect pronation; and
- 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?
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.
Words and images by Brian Martin