The minimalist running trend

For the past two days I’ve been at the annual The Athlete’s Foot conference in Melbourne, giving a series of talks and demonstrations to franchisees about how we use minimalist running shoes as part of our coaching methodology.

Interacting with the owners and managers of one of the biggest shoe retail outfits in Australia has given me a very good insight into where running shoe minimalism is headed in the Australian context. It has also made me stop and think about how the minimalist running trend is filtering into the mainstream.

Law of diminishing returns and apologetic running

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 keen recreational runners need to travel down the barefoot/extreme running shoe minimalism road to achieve good benefits without subjecting themselves to undue risk of injury. This 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 thinly cushioned foot-gloves. Many runners get good benefit from moving into a flexible lightweight trainer that gives a more responsive feel while retaining some protection from the running surface. At some point, continuing to remove cushion ceases to have a benefit 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 also experienced this in my own running and have now settled on wearing a range of shoe models from different manufacturers that have the flexibility and feel I’m looking for, but still provide a bit of protection to allow me to run strongly rather than apologetically. These are quite minimal in comparison to the old clunkers I used to get around in, but are still recognisable as running shoes.

Mainstreaming running minimalism

Sales data out of the US would suggest that the entire industry has taken a step or two towards minimalism, there is almost no growth 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 people I’ve met in the past two days. The mix of shoes you will see in shopping centres has and will continue to change, but it won’t be at the extreme end of the minimalist spectrum. There was very strong feedback that the barefoot style shoes, without any cushioning, are simply not selling in these mainstream running stores. So what you’ll expect to see in the coming months is running shoe consumers offered a mix of lighter weight, cushioned, more flexible footwear. The shoe brands that strengthen their product offering in 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 modest 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 it with the initial pair.

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 and healthy dose of scepticism and caution about getting too aggressive in taking up the extremes.


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