Why neither “normal” nor minimalist running shoes will disappear


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


Which is better: a pill that 75% of the population can take, which produces wonderful benefits for 25% of those who take it; or a pill that 25% of the population can take, which produces wonderful benefits for 75% of those who take it? I was pondering this question while re-reading Peter Vigneron’s long, thoughtful piece about running form, from the June issue of Runner’s World. This passage, in particular, made me think:

Perhaps—and this, too, is speculative—the modern cushioned running shoe makes running easy for the modern runner. This seems like a good thing. Should millions of runners suddenly decide to change their form and then find that running is no longer a manageable activity, it would be a tragedy. The solution to an imperfect state of affairs ought not make things worse—it should not produce more injured, unhappy runners.

One of the common narratives you hear a lot these days is that modern running shoes are the product of an insidious corporate campaign to sell us useless shoes that effectively enslave us by weakening our feet. I find this conspiracy-theory stuff quite tiresome — shoes may or may not be good for us, and of course shoe companies want to sell us anything they can, but I have no doubt that the origin of what Pete Larson calls the “pronation paradigm” was well-intentioned. The simple but often overlooked point is that the shoes caught on. I’d bet that, in 10 years, the recent fad for “toning shoes” will be all but forgotten since they simply don’t work. But running shoes have had remarkable staying power — perhaps because, as Vigneron says, “the modern cushioned running shoe makes running easy for the modern runner.” Or at least some modern runners, some of the time.

Let’s say we accept that, in a perfect world, the barefoot running style is optimal for humans. What if in our postlapsarian modern society, a large proportion of us are simply not equipped to make that transition after decades of sedentary, shod living? Or we can make the transition, but it requires the careful, patient, dedicated, slightly obsessive six-month transition period that barefoot advocates scrupulously recommend? Given the staggeringly high numbers of people who can’t be bothered to do any physical activity, even so much as a brisk walk, despite the overwhelming evidence that it’s the single best thing they could do for all aspects of their physical and mental health, I suspect that the barriers to successful barefoot running will always limit it to a fairly small subset of population.

So that’s what my opening question was about: what if barefoot running is fantastic for a small segment of the population, while running shoes are hit-and-miss but accessible to a much larger portion of the population? What’s the “right” answer to how we proceed? Obviously I chose my sample numbers carefully (so that both versions of the pill help 18.75% of the population, if anyone’s checking the math), but I wonder what those numbers are in reality. How many people can barefoot running reach? How “bad” are normal shoes? In the end, the numbers don’t really matter — because there will always be some part of the population that can succeed with one approach but not the other.

18 Replies to “Why neither “normal” nor minimalist running shoes will disappear”

  1. Good call Alex, I do reckon there’s a case for runners to take on a little less shoe than they think they need though. Shoes are like car models, each year they got bigger and more feature rich. These days I run in marathon racers and frees, both of which are not extreme minimal and are probably about the same profile as shoes I grew up running in during the eighties. To me running in these was great stimulus to make improvements because they delivered better feel for the ground but still had enough support to nurse my devolved western feet. Don’t think you’ll be seeing me running barefoot anytime soon!

  2. My daughter just started playing volleyball at school. I played in my younger years so I gave her some pointers and taught her how to strengthen her fingers with various exercises IE. finger wall push ups for one. I didn’t tell her that we need to go out and buy some rigid pieces of plastic to stick to her fingers to support them. Why is it OK to do the same for running? Why do we to stoop to the level of people who want an easy transition from “couch potato” to athlete. Why tell a 10 year old to buy over priced rigid running shoes that are made for his older just getting back to working out after 20 years Auntie who suddenly decided that she wants to run a marathon. But this is what the shoe companies are doing and they are making a ton of money putting false and misleading “scientific” studies out into the market place. OK Rant over. When I began running I did a walk/run program. I also wish I was educated on how to strengthen my feet like I was with my fingers when I began volleyball.

  3. ” I find this conspiracy-theory stuff quite tiresome — shoes may or may not be good for us, and of course shoe companies want to sell us anything they can, but I have no doubt that the origin of what Pete Larson calls the “pronation paradigm” was well-intentioned.”

    Thank you. The corporate conspiracy narrative is very annoying. These same bad companies that want to ruin our feet are now selling minimalist shoes because there is now a market for them. Surprise.

  4. Another great post, Alex. I’ve never figured out why people get so heated about the shoe companies. Yes, shoe companies want to sell us shoes, and the way to do that is to make shoes we want to wear. Simple enough right? Based on my own observation, I’d say that most athletic shoes are worn by people doing nothing more athletic than walking, so the shoe companies make a lot of shoes that suit that group. Why the heck do people think that what’s good for the couch potato should also be good for the runner, or what’s good for one runner should be good for every runner? Is it the shoe companies’ fault that most buyers of their product prefer comfort over some notion of ideal mechanics? They just want to sell to everyone, so they make shoes that that they think will sell well to most every need. It’s up to the consumer to figure out what shoe is best for them, not the company. I’ve acquired five pairs of shoes in the last year in the effort to find the right shoe for me, and it turns out that the best shoe form when I run isn’t the shoe that’s most comfortable when I walk/stand, and the shoes I prefer for shorter tempo runs aren’t the same as the ones ones I prefer for my distance runs. Can we rationally expect a shoe company to build one shoe that covers all that ground? I think people are just being lazy and are avoiding the responsibility of finding what works best for them as a unique individual, and would rather just blame some big corporation because it isn’t easy.

  5. Amen, and bravo. Thanks for bringing common sense to the barefoot/cushioned debate. At age 69, I won’t soon try barefooting. But I find, to my surprise, that “moderate” shoes are working better than my old, high-heeled Hurricanes and Triaxes. And they’re working better – double surprise – without my orthotics, which I wore for 20 years and swore by (they “cured” knee pain in 1991). Sample of one, of course, but why not take a middle-of-road approach and not have to watch the road continually; might make for more thoughtful, interiorized runs.

  6. I think you’ve identified the larger issue. It doesn’t really matter which shoe is better for the small segment of the population who are avid runners; much more valuable would be to find a product that gets all the rest of the population doing anything other than sitting. Heck, if circus stilts got people off their couches, it might actually be worth the increased injury rate!

  7. Sensible post. I was recently intrigued when my daughter started running regularly and she expressed a massive dislike of cushioned “normal” running shoes. She much prefers running in a fell-running shoe, fell shoes (mountain/hill running in the UK) have been “minimalist” shoes since before the term or current vogue was created.
    I think there’s a phenomenal amount of pseudo-science about when it comes to shops fitting people out with shoes as well. The current retail trend or idea that a 2 minute video “gait analysis” will be effective is probably nonsense, the camera shows nothing higher than the mid calf in many shop systems for a start.
    Also what is minimalist? No cushioning? Less cushioning? Less or no fore-foot/rear-foot height differential.
    At least the athlete now has more choice, the question is perhaps now how to choose.

  8. One assumption it seems like you are making is that modern “normal” cushioned running shoes have caused more people to take up running. Is there anything more than a correlation here? Could the popularity of running have come from something else? And if it may have, might then your conclusion that certain types of running shoe are here to stay be flawed?

    Interesting article.

  9. I just want to say up front I’m a barefoot runner. I haven’t always run barefoot, in fact I ran for 19 years in running shoes. Personally I don’t think there is any “huge conspiracy” going on, I think for the most part people who sell modern shoes shoes don’t have some sort of secret agenda, they generally want runners to continue to run using their own brand of shoe. What most people don’t understand however is that the modern running shoe was not adaquately researched when it was first introduced in the 70’s. There was never any research to support weather or not running shoes reduced injury or were any better than running barefoot and vice versa. Most people are usually quick to say there is no research to support barefoot running over shod running, often forget to say that there is no evidence to support shod running over barefoot running either. In effect you’re taking a chance if you run unshod or shod at this time we don’t really know what the injury rates are compairitively. Although assuming the shoe companies should sholder the burden of proof and of course that burden of proof has not been met, it’s at least logical to run barefoot until they prove their product is better.

  10. Thanks for all the comments, folks — lots of interesting perspectives here.

    @Stephen: “One assumption it seems like you are making is that modern “normal” cushioned running shoes have caused more people to take up running. Is there anything more than a correlation here?”

    You’re right — correlation isn’t the same as causation. I don’t know the answer. My feeling is that cushioned running shoes do “lower the barrier” to make it a bit easier for someone who’s otherwise completely unprepared to do a little running. But only time will tell if that’s true.

    @Paul: “At least the athlete now has more choice…” I agree completely. I think we’re in a better place now than we were five years, both with the availability of a wider range of shoes, and with greater awareness that there are options beyond the traditional running shoe.

  11. @alex
    Agree with what your saying here, completely. It’s now a quest to make sure the average runners knows there is a choice. You would be suprised to learn how many runners simply don’t know about minimalist shoes, or that running barefoot is a possible option. Things are getting better though I remember when I first started running, I really had no ideas of all my choices in footware (and lack thereof), not so nearly 20 years later..

  12. I don’t think having cushioned running shoes lowers the barriers for new runners who are ‘completely unprepared’ for running. If you have poor running form and you start running on really cushioned shoes with high heels, you are more prone to injury because of heel planting or putting excess strain on your feet. If you start with a minimalist shoe, it is more painful to heel plant and you will naturally change your form while running. This is what I have experienced. I don’t think actual barefoot running is for everyone because it does take some commitment to build up callouses on your feet, but certainly a true minimalist shoe is great for everyone who’s feet aren’t already ‘ruined’ by conventional binding shoes.

    One thing I find very sad is the lack of minimal and flexible shoes for children. My daughter has large feet (she’s a very tall 2 year old) and I have to order shoes for her online because of the lack of availability of proper shoes. If I put her in any of the shoes I can find in any shoe store where I live, I feel like I might as well be putting her in clogs! What a way to set her up for a lifetime of foot/knee/hip/back problems.

    So far there is only one generation of children who grew up wearing stiff shoes, and we’re in our 30’s. Who knows what issues many of us will have in the future caused by a lifetime of restrictive footwear. @alex

  13. This is an interesting article. My understanding is that at the beginning of Nike, the founder, who was not used to exercising, went for a bit of a run. He decided it was a bit hard on the feet and so strapped on big rubber soles. Thus the modern running shoe was born. At about the same time, people started to get more interested in running and exercise and those were the shoes that were available. So people started to run in shoes that tipped them forward out of alignment, caused them to heel strike, generally changed the way they would otherwise naturally have run and started to get injured. So research was done to improve the cushioning of the shoes, reduce the impact, provide support, basically compensate for the misalignment and impact produced by the shoes. Since footwear has almost always been about fashion and not function, I think that whilst all this research was being done, the natural form of human movement was forgotten about in trying to improve the shoes that people liked. Everything the footwear companies do to promote their products is, I feel, completely justified and entirely appropriate for the products they sell. However, I think possibly the best evidence for barefoot/minimalist running is that people have done it for millions of years on all sorts of surfaces, hard and soft, with no shoes, and still do in most less developed countries. People who have a generally sedentary lifestyle are going to struggle with starting exercise regardless of which shoes they wear, but starting with flat shoes that allow the foot and leg to work as it has evolved to do, and build up gradually, as you would with “ordinary” shoes, will give them a head start on strengthening themselves and potentially reducing the risk of injury. What I find interesting is that, if you look for it, there is a wealth of information on barefoot/minimalist running and how flexible flat footwear is best for children. However, there is nothing in the main stream about it, it sounds like a hippy fad to people who haven’t heard about it. In my opinion, the cost of the footwear, in the main, makes it quite elitist too. And like you Amanda, I struggle to find shoes for my children (nearly 2 and 5) which allow their feet to flex and spread. I think much more needs to be done to spread the word, for the benefit of ourselves and our children, and not to mention, our pockets!!

  14. Thanks for the comment, Natasha. In case you’re interested, the founder of Nike (Phil Knight) wasn’t “not used to exercising.” In fact, he was an elite middle-distance runner at the University of Oregon. The shoes he developed were intended to help people run fast. Later, the coach at the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, developed the first waffle-soled shoe for Nike. Again, the goal was to help runners run fast.

  15. I wear my 3-year old vibrams in the summer, when it’s hot and dry. I fixed a few holes in them using crazy glue (careful though that stuff burns cotton) but they’re just not practical for many other uses. I took an old pair of skate shoes (leather, still durable) and cut off all of the excess rubber on the sole in a shape around my foot, using the the wear pattern as a guide. I use ’em for running, hiking, whatever. Feel better now than they ever have. My point is, be creative! Don’t be limited by just what you can buy. Your feet are unique, so your shoes should be as well. Best wishes 🙂

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