Shoes and Minimalism

This is my story about shoes.

My approach to shoes has always been indicative of my approach to running. In the past that meant that the shoe didn’t really matter; all I wanted to do was run in the mountains. But as I became more proficient in mountain running, and more aware of the mountain running scene (i.e., I read Born to Run), I began to learn about the different types of running shoes and the trends among runners. I happened to enter the sport at the beginning of the minimalist frenzy, and from the beginning I regarded it with skepticism. I was aware of how certain runners were known for cutting all the padding out of their shoes and running extremely long distances, and I heard about the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico running ultras in sandals, and I saw in those stories the same romanticism I saw in Born to Run. The public loves the idyllic stories about dedicated athletes just getting by and doing what they love: the crazy party girl who can still win 100-mile races; the dirtbag runners hitchhiking around the country setting records; the forgotten sandal-wearing distance-runner Indians living much the same as their ancestors in a mysterious mountain range. These images are romantic, but are they the truth? I didn’t think so. It seemed like too pretty a picture to be true.

Because of that I was prone to take more stuff on runs, rather than less. I figured the tried-and-true methods of the past were more difficult and less sexy, so they must be the right way. That’s how the adult world works, I was learning: if something is time-consuming, difficult and slow to show progress, it must be correct. Thus, I turned away from the example of the other young guys going too far on too little, thinking it shortsighted, and began going on runs with a backpack filled with things like sandwiches, space blankets, iodine tablets, a compass, a bivy sack, books, etc. To put it another way, I overcompensated to the extreme.

Over time, my views changed almost subconsciously. The more I ran, the more I understood what I did and did not need. The greater experience I gained, the better I grasped the fundamental principles behind long-distance mountain running. Namely, that by running we forgo traditional comforts and safety nets in lieu of confidence in our ability to return safely because we can move quickly. I gradually learned that I shouldn’t be taking a bivy sack on a mountain run; instead, I should be running only where I am good enough not to need a bivy sack. Barring disaster, I should be able to get myself out of bad situations by virtue of my ability to move quickly, rather than having to rely on artificial protection that hinders my speed, or I shouldn’t go to those places at all. With this knowledge I began to leave out items from my pack until after a while I no longer needed a pack. With adequate preparation and understanding of the terrain, summer mountain running in Colorado can be done safely and comfortably with a water bottle, several gels and/or bars, and a jacket. With enough experience, more than that seems unnecessary.

That said, shoes may be a different matter. I have learned to reconcile my skepticism of Born to Run in the following way: it is a book designed to entertain first, and give information second. The book is absolutely right that many trail running shoes of the past were astoundingly overbuilt, however, I have yet to see anybody win a competitive trail ultra while running barefoot, or wearing sandals, or FiveFingers, or some other iteration of the barefoot scene. While barefoot running is totally valid as a way to be strong and healthy, the science seems to indicate that the vast majority of people need some underfoot protection when running long distances. As for the young guys who were cutting all the padding out of their shoes and running super long distances, I can think of two in particular, one of whom races infrequently, at best, due to injuries and the other is now a farmer and hasn’t raced in years. Perhaps those are exceptional cases not to be considered in the overall pool, but their testimony seems compelling to me, so I have included it. Draw your own conclusions.

I drew my conclusions, and decided that minimalism is a very good thing to a certain point, beyond which the risks become too high. I started searching for lighter shoes, realizing that the extra weight in my old shoes was largely unnecessary. With lighter shoes I was a more precise runner, taking more care of each step, and this allowed me to become a better runner because I was more efficient. But lightness is not the only factor that matters – durability is crucial, as well. Especially in the mountains far from backup, shoes have to be able to withstand uneven, wet, loose and rocky terrain for hours at a time, or else the person wearing the shoes will be a sad sack, indeed. That’s why many road running shoes don’t work for mountain running – they lack the durability to survive the mountains for more than a few runs. I found that Montrail’s Rogue Racers worked particularly well for me, and I have worn many pairs since first trying them in 2010. Although they are by no means a barefoot running shoe, they are much lighter than I would have chosen just a few years ago. Despite my skepticism of the minimal movement, I gradually began to see its merit.

What Born to Run did for ultrarunning has been extremely positive. It put the sport into the mainstream consciousness and did a lot to show the public that ultrarunners aren’t crazy after all. Furthermore, the effect it has had on the shoe industry has been profound. Every company I know about is focusing on lightweight, low-drop shoes that provide protection without being heavy or bulky. Rather than the hiking boots that trail running shoes used to be, they now seem to take their inspiration from road running shoes, just adding more support and grip. Obviously those are generalizations, but nobody can deny that the trail running world has been consumed by the concept of minimalism, and nobody has remained untouched.

This is a good thing, because despite the fear-mongering about shoe companies conspiring to hurt their customers in order to get them to buy more shoes, designers have begun to focus on the natural structure of the foot and how that plays into the individual movements involved in running. Runners aren’t just looking for padding to protect us from rocks; we’re looking for a tool that will allow us to connect with the environments through which we run. Muddy trails need big lugs, rocky trails need sticky rubber, loose trails need stiffness and smooth trails need very little of anything. The trail shoes on the market today are designed to maximize the experience of trail running, rather than the trail shoes of the past, which were designed to minimize the damage done by the trails. It’s a subtle shift, but a profound one nonetheless.

This brings me to the latest stage in my evolution of running shoes. First, I wore whatever they gave me, but as I became better at running I began to seek out lighter shoes that wouldn’t fall apart. Now, I am interested in specificity to a degree I have not needed in the past. No longer am I interested in just running; I want to be climbing and adventuring, too. Normal shoes can only do so much. To truly move to the next level of mountain running, specific shoes are required.

 

That’s why I have recently tried out Salomon’s Fellcross and La Sportiva’s Anakonda. They are both suited to specific terrain that eludes the range of most other shoes. The Fellcross is designed for mud in places like the UK (“Fellcross” being derived from “fell running”), but also works very well for places like the San Juans which feature steep grass, loose scree- and boulder-fields, and snow of all consistencies. The Anakonda’s value comes in the vertical world. They have sticky rubber, which means they are good for rock climbing. Those interested in the progression of mountain running will know that one major direction of the sport is into steep and technical mountains. And the Anakondas are suited to the task.

For most runs I still stick to my trusty Montrails (and this is a secret, but I trust you – Montrail and I are working on some pretty cool products along this idea of specificity right now). When the terrain requires something more specific, I like to test the value of specific shoes. The sport today is becoming so popular that companies can afford to invest in new technologies that will make shoes more minimal without sacrificing quality. That is the real benefit of the minimalist trend: it is placing the industry’s focus on creating high-performance tools for athletes, which will allow more people the opportunity to be their best. I wouldn’t pretend to know the best way to be a mountain runner, because for everybody it is different. The above is what I have learned from my experiences running long distances, and it is helping me move into the future more prepared to achieve my goals. I know I will continue to change my opinions on these matters as I learn and grow, but that’s the best part – it’s always a learning process, and nobody has the right answer. We’re all just doing our best to be our best. Besides experience, the best way to learn is from others.

So I ask all of you reading this:

  • How do you choose shoes, and why?
  • What makes you like certain things and dislike others?
  • What would you like to see in running shoes?
  • What would your perfect shoe look like?

The interplay of opinions is a powerful force. Tell us what you think. People might take notice.

There are 219 comments

  1. Ben Nephew

    Thanks, you would be surprised at how similar comments can be on a single shoe model. I think it is hard to make a 1 arrow work for a rugged ultra. I agree that the 245 is best on technical singletrack vs. smooth trails. The 255 is going to have more cushioning a similar ride as teh 245. I prefer the 313 to the 255 for 50's. If you are looking for a smooth ride with decent protection in a lighter shoe, try a 2 arrow f-lite model. The traction is great in most conditions, and I know Peter Maksimow and Alex Nichols have had good success with them out there. The f-lites also have wider forefoot options.

  2. dogrunner

    Sorry for the long post —

    On the topic of width – I think shape is really the issue. When Merrell made a wide version of the TG, they made the overall fit wider thoughout the length of the shoe, which made for a really sloppy fit. The wider forefoot was great! The wider midfoot and heel was awful :( Can't please some people!

    When NB makes wider shoes, which they do more than any shoe company, they still taper it too much. IOW, the toe still ends up being pointy, because they draw a straight line from the lateral midfoot to the big toe, so leaving enough room at the 5th metatarsel head and then cutting off all the lateral toe tips. Sigh. I must have weird shaped feet ;)

    The shoe shape that fits me best in the toes is the Altra Superior, but the rest of the shoe is sloppy wide. The shoe shape that fits best overall is the Skechers GoBionic, which is my main pavement or easy trail shoe, but that shoe picks up rocks like a vacuum cleaner on most trails and would not be protective enough on technical or rocky trails, or have enough traction on slopes.

    So, in Inov8, what fits? My primary treadmill / stairmill shoe this winter (I run indoors when the temp < -10F with constant high winds and icy or otherwise unrunnable ground conditions… what a wimp!) has been the Bare-X 180. Obviously don't need a lot of cushion on a decent treadmill (these are Woodways with the thicker rubber mat), I strongly prefer 0-drop, and the BareX anatomic last fits… as long as I size up a full size. I get a good snug fit, heel locked down, midfoot snugged in, toes are NOT squeezed towards the middle of the shoe, BUT I have about 1.5 inches of space in front of my big toes. Way too long, to the point where I have to really be careful not to run the front of the shoe into the stairs or catch them under things. Rest of the shoe fits great though. I suspect the Trail Rocs would also fit laterally if I sized up, but I hate having that much empty shoe in front of my feet on technical trails.

    I wore Roclite 295 for years and always had rubbing on both the corner of my big toe and whole length of my little toes. Same for F-lite 195. Liked them otherwise. I could not even get my feet into the Roclite 285. Outer toes get forced very uncomfortably towards the centerline. I have worn the Xtalon 212 and 190 (like the 190 better for lower drop) when I run X-country type terrain (grassy trails), love the traction, don't love the toe squeezin'. Sized up in those too so too much length and only tolerable width because the upper is soft.

    I really want to like the Trail Rocs, but need a wider and not tapered toebox (leaving the rest of the shoe its current shape).

    Also, it is really frustrating that Inov8 and many other shoe companies link drop to cushion and underfoot protection. I prefer 0 drop, even over 3-4 mm, yet when I see 0 drop, I am stuck also with no cushion at all and usually no underfoot protection (rock barrier). I want a little of both, combined with 0 drop!

    Thanks for listening, if you made it this far.

    1. Kim Neill

      I agree with dogrunner about the shape. The perfect shoe would have an ample toe box with a more fitted midfoot and a narrower heel, to hold the foot in place but allow for toe spread. I personally find the fit of the New Balance Minimus series close to ideal (although the 1010 is a bit wrinkly around the toe box, at least it can be laced tight enough to hold well). One thing I have done to add more cushion with 0 drop shoes is to use the inexpensive insoles–the flat ones that don't add any heel drop but provide thin cushioning (Dr. Scholl's).

  3. Trygve

    The best trail runnig shoes I've ever owned are the x-talon 212's. When it comes to inov8 shoes, I've only tried the BareGrip200's and the Mudclaw300's in addition to the x-talon's. I find sole of the BareGrip to be too soft. The tall lugs are excellent for grip, but they hurt my feet when stepping on rocks and other uneven surfaces. The Mudclaw has superb grip and the sole is stiff enough to give a lot of confidence. The problem with this shoe is the heel cap. I can't run in them without blistering my heels, unless I tape them up. The lugs are also too tall for longer runs. The lugs have almost caused me to stumble.

    The x-talon212 seems like the perfect compromise. They are light-weight, they have excellent grip and they are low to the ground. The sticky rubber wears down rather quickly though. I want to try the x-talon190, but being so satisfied with the 212's, I'm reluctant to buy them. How different is the 190 from the 212? In long runs (4hours+) I would have liked the sole to have a bit more rock protection than the 212 gives me.

  4. Adam

    I absolutely second the opinion that the linking of drop to cushion/protection seems quite absurd at this point. Of course, high drop shoes obviously still work great for some people, including some elites, but there seems to me to be no rational reason why a person who does not enjoy the "groundfeel" of having the bottom of their foot poked with rocks, or who likes some cushioning while running downhill with 30 miles behind them, would also necessarily want their heel 9 mm above their forefoot. The "barefoot" movement taught a very valuable lesson- that for many runners high heels in athletic shoes are worse than useless- and a very stupid one- that if you don't enjoy running hundreds of miles fast with nothing but a few mm of rubber between yourself and the ground, there's something wrong with your "form." Looking at many other forms of athletic footwear (track spikes, basketball sneakers, football cleats, boxing boots) you see shoes that are not remotely "barefoot" and represent a clear technological augmentation of the human foot, yet have little to no heel elevation.

    There are a bunch of cushioned zero drop road shoes now, but still very few in trail (although plenty in the 3-6 mm class). I would love to see Inov-8 make a "battleship" shoe with zero drop, like a 255 perhaps. Of course, it remains to be seen whether sub-10 mm heel elevations don't actually benefit most endurance runners more than zero drop, but given the success of so many protective zero drop road shoes, it seems like a risk worth taking. At the moment, all Inov-8's 0 drop options are quite thin (the new Road X-Treme 138) and lack the metatarsal rock plate (235). Perhaps I'm just being picky, and there's no meaningful difference between a 3-6 mm drop and a 0, but it seems like an option worth exploring.

  5. David

    Well said, I'd love to see a zero drop trail shoe from Inov8 that has good "long haul" cushion and protection!

  6. dogrunner

    My knees tell me, in no uncertain terms, that there IS a meaningful difference between 9 and even 3-4 mm drop. It matters… to me, at least, even if people used to higher drop (or anyone else) can't tell the difference.

    To Trygve: I don't think the XT190 has more underfoot protection than the XT212. I could be wrong and I don't have the 212s anymore to doublecheck, but the main differences I remember are that the 190 has a slightly more forgiving upper (stretches better to accommodate my toewidth) and they are 3mm drop (I think).

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