The Great Shoe Pendulum

Part I – Minimalist Shoes Get a Thick Skin

  Pendulums tend to swing back and forth and when you reach one extreme, you can be sure that it will head the other way.  The running shoe industry is no different.

  The 1990’s and early 2000’s saw a gradual move to heavy, bulky shoes with elevated heels and pronation control out the wazoo.  This big, stiff shoe trend was reversed in the mid to late 2000’s through a variety of sources including the book “Born to Run”, research by Lieberman and others.  Studies found that stability shoes increase joint forces at the knee, hip and ankle as well as research reviews that found there is no good evidence that elevated heels, cushioning or pronation control reduce injury and that the link between pronation and injury is tenuous at best. The minimalist movement was underway.  By ditching the big, stiff, bulky shoes, it was suggested that the lower joint torques would reduce injury.  This has been largely unproven, but not dis-proven either.  More likely, by switching to a more minimalist running shoe, you are moving joint loads around from one joint to another.  There is no doubt that most people run differently when barefoot compared to wearing cushioned, elevated heel, pronation control running shoes.  Some people may experience lower rates of injury, some may not, some may become more injured.

  Personally, through all the research I’ve read and the 1,000+ patients that I’ve done gait analysis and rehab on, I can state that I feel barefoot running and minimalist shoe running play a significant role in helping runners correct certain gait patterns.   This makes barefoot running and minimalist shoe running a great tool to use for running.

   So, more and more people bought Vibram Five Fingers and other barefoot style shoes.  Predictably, some people loved them and became zealots and others tried them and didn’t like them.  Possibly the biggest complaint about barefoot style shoes is that it doesn’t feel very good on the feet.  You feel much more impact due to the lack of cushioning – what the barefoot proponents euphemistically refer to as “feedback”.  Ironically, it is thought that the changes in form seen with barefoot running is because you feel more impact and so you moderate your running style.  For the most part, this should be of benefit to your form.   However, training many miles whilst feeling the full effect of every footstrike is unrealistic for many people.

  Well, here comes the pendulum.  We are about to witness the advent of “maximalist” running shoes.  Not in the way that it was in the 90’s and 2000’s, with the pronation control and the elevated heels and stiff, heavy shoes.  Instead, the new maximalist era appears to be staying with the low drop, lightweight flexible shoes, but with the addition of maximal cushioning.  Enter the era of Hokas, New Balance Fresh Foam 980’s, Altra Olympus and other Uber-Soft, plush rides that manufacturers are making lightweight (relatively), low drop and flexible.

  Hoka can certainly be credited with initiating this style of shoe.  Just like what happened in the minimalist movement, the big shoe makers (Brooks, New Balance, Adidas etc.) are likely to follow.  I have heard through different sources that up to a third of the ultramarathoners are wearing Hoka’s at some races (depending on the terrain).  Whether or not this “maximalism” trend will become as big as “minimalism” was (or still is…see below for more info on that) is yet to be seen, but it is apparent that it is starting to get a foothold on the upcoming shoe market.

Part II – The Fad is Over…Or is it?

  It has been reported that the minimalism trend is over, and the pendulum is swinging back the other way.  According to SportsOneSource, “Sales of Minimal/Barefoot Running Footwear, net of Nike Free, declined by nearly 30 percent and were only 4 percent of all running shoes sold. Sales of Nike Free gained more than one-third.”

  That statement made headlines and so people naturally thought that minimalism was dead.  In fact, the original article from SportsOneSource reported “the fad is pretty much over”.  However, they eliminated the Nike Free from the equation.  Although they classify the Nike Free as a minimalist shoe, they felt that it is purchased more by active people, not just runners.

  Unfortunately, SportsOneSource also did not include running specialty stores.  Leisure Trends Group does include those stores.  Pete, over at RunBlogger posted an article back in June where he went through the last 16 months of data from LTG.  This is what he found: (green means increased dollar sales, red means decreased relative to that month in the previous year; darker colors indicate double-digit change):


  Pete states, “If anything, minimal did better in terms of relative growth compared to more traditional categories in Dec 2012-Mar 2103…growth of minimal as a category has slowed, but has not declined.”

  However, this begs the question, “What is minimalism?”  Is it a low heel-forefoot angle?  Is it lightweight?  Is it a wider toebox?  Is is minimal cushioning?  Is it no pronation control devices?  Is it a combination of all those?  It is difficult to quantify what a minimal shoe is, and if you can’t quantify what it is, how can you track it’s sales?

  Even if “the fad is over”, which is questionable, there are a lot of positive things that came out of the minimalism movement.  For example – many people started thinking about their running form, the idea of prescribing footwear based on foot type is quickly losing credibility, toe boxes are being made wider, most shoe makers are lowering the heel-to-forefoot angle on their shoes (Saucony went as far as to make their lineup of shoes with no more than an 8mm drop).

   If the barefoot/minimalist trend is fading, again I would assert that it did the running community a huge favor by getting people to think about their form and get away from relying on a plastic insert in a shoe to end your running injuries.

  In the end, I would assert that no matter what shoe you’re in, if you have poor training (too fast, too often and ramp up too quickly) or if your form or running style is poor, you will get injured no matter what shoe you’re in. In the September issue of Men’s Health, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella probably worded it best when he said, “The bottom line is, running causes running injuries. Not shoes, not barefoot. Running. If you don’t want a running injury, don’t run.