Minimalist Shoes, Punk!

In some ways this post is overdue, but really the conclusions I’ll articulate here have only started to solidify with any confidence in the last year, exponentially becoming clearer very recently. Six months ago I would not have dared come out swinging on either side of what is as much a culture war as the paleo versus vegan debate (and boy am I going to hear about it). BUT, even though the 30-odd ultramarathons I’ve run in these five years is not much by ultra-running standards, I feel the experience, along with the amount of exposure I’ve had to other runners – the opportunity to observe habits, methods and performance, as well as reading a hell of a lot about it all – has produced a body of evidence that resonates strongly towards the following conclusion: minimalist shoes, punk.

About five years ago I read the most famous, most widely read running book that will probably ever be written. Like so many wide-eyed idealists, reading that book inspired me to venture into the world of long distance running. Also joined by God knows how many other naïve hipsters, I transitioned from ‘traditional’ running shoes (I was wearing Asics Keyanos at the time, about as structured and high-tech as it gets) to ‘minimalist’, neutral shoes. A caveat that may cast a shadow over many of the following conclusions reached through my own experience is that this ‘transition’ was not a huge behavioural shift for me, as I had done very little running in my life up to that point, even as a kid, so there wasn’t a long history of entrenched habits or muscle memory to retrain. I do understand such a transition may be more involved for long-time runners.

Picture credit: naturalrunningcenter.com

My initial foray into neutral shoes just involved discarding the Asics and starting to run in a pair of old Converse, or it might have been Vans. The effect was fairly instantaneous, with the injury I had sustained in my first half-marathon vanishing almost immediately. I was quickly able to increase my distance beyond anything I had run before, and within a month had planned my first marathon and signed up for my first trail run. The Converse had some limiting factors, and so commenced the ongoing saga of searching for the perfect minimalist shoes for the various terrains I was racing.

There is a list at the bottom with brief appraisals, which itself is not exhaustive, but the shoes that ended-up being the go-to weapons of choice, the ones I wished they would keep making forever, all shared similar characteristics. This is a much shorter list: the New Balance Minimus road shoes; the Vivobarefoot Trail Freaks…umm, actually that’s about it. If I just had a constant supply of those two types of shoe, I’d be set for life. Any distance, any terrain.

Ultimately, the successful shoes were the simplest ones. The ones with an entirely flat platform – no messing around with arch support, no cinching up through the midfoot. They were the ones that had a wide enough toebox to not interfere, while hugging the heel and the top of the foot enough to stay put. None of them had more than 13-15mm stack height, tops. A number of shoes that I really wanted to love went into the B-list from being just a few millimetres higher than this, which after many hours of running would translate to fatigue and pain that over time I learnt I didn’t get with the lower shoes.

As I would approach my next big ‘goal’ race, battling injuries, undertraining or what have you, I used to agonise over what shoes to wear for the race. For a few years I had this idea that for the really long, gnarly stuff I would be best served by switching to something slightly more robust, slightly more cushioned for race day. This is how I came to have some more cushioned models in the stable: the Altra Lone Peaks, for example, I bought to tackle my first miler (the Great North Walk 100). Trying them out in training I observed their squidgy feel, lack of traction and excess weight, and yet told myself that because I’d be wanting to go so slowly over the 100 miles anyway, these might still work out well. Fast forward, and I now know that they would have contributed to the knee issue that forced me to stop at the 100km mark (I returned another year in a battered pair of Trail Freaks and nailed the full distance in a reasonable time).

Leading up to the 240km Coast2Kosci race last year, I spent a lot of time trying to find a more cushioned road shoe for such a long haul. The Inov-8 Tri-Extremes I bought rendered my knee useless about 50kms in to the Ned Kelly Chase 100km, where I was trying them for the first time, reducing me to a run/walk for the rest of the race. For C2K I eventually just chose to run in a very well-worn pair of my trusty NB Minimus again, which worked well.

The more races I did, and the more times I would find myself approaching race day and unsure what shoes to wear, the closer I got to realising that I didn’t need a ‘next level’ shoe to get me through the long or technical races. In fact, the longer I was running, the more advantage I was getting from being so low to the ground – turning my feet over with such little effort compared to how my fellow competitors looked as they yanked their giant platforms off the ground with each step and then sank down into their maxi-pads, all the while desperately trying to cram thousands more kilojoules to fuel the slog. The tougher the race got, the more I noticed the disparity in effort. This includes times when I really hadn’t done the volume in training, so it can’t be put down to that.

What I found was that these types of shoes regularly enabled me to outperform. By that I don’t mean that I was outperforming other runners, although I did often surprise myself by finishing much further up the field than people I felt were stronger runners. I was outperforming against my own potential.

Being too impatient to ever actually recover from my (admittedly minor) injuries, it’s almost miraculous – looking back – the degree to which I was able to continue racing almost constantly over the last five years, avoiding disaster at worst and often surprising myself with half-respectable results at times. I know that the same me in ‘normal’ shoes, or even just slightly more cushioned zero-drop shoes, could simply not have achieved those results.

How the mechanics work: the less protected my foot is, and the less stack height it has, the lighter and shorter my strides naturally fall. This results both in less energy being used and less aggravation of my various imbalances (not the least of which being a material leg length discrepancy, without even getting started on my REAL biomechanical faults). With enough room for my forefoot and no structure pulling my feet out of shape, they land naturally. Without a wad of cushioning to fight their way against, they then take off again straightaway, as the firm ground returns the energy straight up through the forefoot and toes.

My many attempts at trying to replicate the short stride and easy action when wearing slightly more cushioned shoes have all failed repeatedly. Most recently, I made a huge effort to transition to more traditional shoes to run the NYC Marathon. This was because the shoe company had given me four pairs to train in and race in, two of which were special limited-edition models styled for the event itself. I REALLY wanted to make them work, because they we REALLY cool. I tried all of them in training.

I found I could knock off a few kilometres without issue, but even within an hour my left foot was starting to kill me, as the muscles along the bottom of it screamed in protest from fighting against however the shoes was trying to make me land, with the right also starting to ache and my knees and hips on amber alert, and I could feel my legs getting more tired than usual, in as little as 10kms. Even the pair that was much closer to neutral, with a significantly lower stack height than the others would possibly have seen me DNF on event day. In the end I had to concede and wear my usual road shoes – at least they were the right brand!

So, if you’re thinking “This is hardly scientific” you’d be understating terribly, it’s not scientific at all. I’ve experimented with a sample size of one and got the results. I’ve observed others also benefitting in similar ways, and I’ve observed many more struggling along in their basketball boots. With all things considered and a careless balancing of the available data, all I can say is: minimalist shoes, punk!

The following list comprises all the shoes I can conjure from the top of my head, many of which have not been entirely discarded as a bust, but instead shelved for future circumstances (for the most part, once various injuries magically disappear in the distant future). Roughly in order of discovery:

Model Terrain Drop Comments
Saucony Hattori

Road 0 I still have some in rotation today, although no longer manufactured. Completed my first couple of marathons, including a 3h20m, as well as used in a 24-Hour track race. Many ‘000s of training kms.
Adidas Adizero XT3

Trail 6 Not really a minimalist shoe at all. Good general trail shoe. Did my first few trail runs and first ultra in these. Stack height too high = fatigue.
Merrell Trail Glove (original)

Light Trail 0 Fairly successful, ran my first 100km in them with no issues. Great neutral footfall. Some protection underfoot but not enough for serious trails. Fine for Melbourne Trailwalker, though.
Merrell Bare Access II

Road 0 Stack height a bit high. Still occasionally worn for short, slow run/walks and casually.
Altra Adams

Road 0 Super-comfy. Blamed a particular niggle on their extreme flexibility at some point and am yet to go back…no longer manufactured but two working pairs on hand.
Altra Samsons

Road 0 Replaced the Adams in the product line and I pounced on a couple of pairs in a sale – got a lot of use until the same niggle put me off them. Will definitely get revisited soon.
Merrell Flux Glove

Road 0 Would be perfect if they weren’t a bit too shaped through the midfoot/arch. Still walk in them and occasional runs up to 15km
Merrell Vapor Glove (original)

Road 0 Do just as they say – represent basically the same experience as running without shoes at all. Hence, not of much use, given you can just take your shoes off. Sexy as hell, though.
Inov-8 X-Talon 190s

Trail 3 Was my go-to trail shoe for a couple of years and a number of ultras. Excellent mud and soft trail shoe. Great if you don’t step on a sharp rock, which I increasingly needed to do for mountain and technical races. Brand new pair still in box for future use in the right race.
Inov-8 F-lite 195s

Road 6 I had hoped to be entirely a road version of the X-Talons. Close, but for some annoying reason with twice as much drop. Still use two pairs occasionally up to medium distance and casually.
Altra Lone Peaks (original)

Trail 0 Mostly bought due to Wasatch Front connection (bucket list). Too sloppy, too high. Grippiness absent. Blister central at my first GNW miler attempt.
Altra Superior (original)

Trail 0 Still slightly more cushiony than I like, but much less than Lone Peaks and without the sloppy factor. Still wear occasionally. Did the last 40kms of the Coast2Kosci 240km race in them.
Vivobarefoot Evo Lite

Road 0 Very firm ground feel with a truly neutral strike, no arch support etc. Have used for long training runs and still do occasionally. Also wear the black pair casually.
Vivobarefoot Achilles Sandal

Road 0 An excellent platform to run in, if only the moulded plastic that separates the big toe from the others and also serves as toeguard did not cause instant destruction to my toes!
Saucony A6

Road 3-4 Not strictly a minimalist shoe as it’s a racing flat, but worth a mention as an excellent shoe. Don’t get much general use as narrow toebox means only an option when my tailor’s bunions are under control. Will be wearing these in my next marathon PB attempt.
New Balance Minimus MR002

Road 3-4 The specific model I like is brilliant, whereas others differ dramatically. No longer available. I have four pairs which I will make last FOREVER. Perfect amount of sole (about 13-14mm stack height), completely flat/neutral last – says it has around 4mm drop but I can’t feel it. Worn for marathon PB (3h06m), first 200kms of Coast2Kosci, many ‘000kms training. Have even worn these in a couple of trail 100s because nothing else was guaranteed to keep my High-Hamstring Tendonopathy under wraps.
New Balance Minimus Zero v2

Road 0 Snug fitting, lighter than the above model, even slightly less cushioned sole. Very responsive. Mostly save these for speedwork and potentially future fast road race attempts. Dead sexy.
Vivobarefoot Trail Freaks

Trail 0 Gold. The outer soles are made of some pretty tough rubber and the aggressive lugs add just enough to protect the feet from the worst of the trail, and bring the stack height up to only around 13mm. Toeguard does the job. Not super-light, but definitely light enough not to hold you back. Any distance is fine. Looking at them you’d think they’d only be good on softer trails, but I’ve done some rocky, alpine stuff in them with no issues, and know someone who’s done many of the gnarlier internationals in them, including UTMB.
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Posted in Gear Review, General, Trailrunning, Ultrarunning

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