Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Running shoes – my perspective

With the advent of Spring thoughts turn to summer activities, and for a lot of folks its running.  And, fortunately for me (job security) people seem to be pretty infatuated with running shoes.  Lately a few folks have made the mistake of asking me the innocent questions “what do you think of running shoes these days?” and “what do you think of the whole minimal shoe thing?”  and shortly thereafter looked for a place to hide to escape from my pontificating! 

My running shoe history dates back to buying sheets of waffle soles to put on my Nike Roadrunners:
in nineteen hundred and seventy-seven, to the far-superior LDV’s:

 a couple of years later,

to testing the very first Nike “Air” the Columbia:

the Air Max:
(which I hated; too squishy, and sucked all the life out of my legs)
and the Air Pegasus:
which I loved, because it wasn't too squishy (see the polyurethane in the heel, vs the EVA)....

and then I got a job at Nike, where I ran in pretty much every model they made for the next 5 years, which happened to correspond to the rise in the unfortunate genre of the “motion control” movement, with the introduction of the Air Stab:

and it’s Brooks counterpart, the Beast:

For years the shoe industry labored on, trying to convince runners that  really busy-looking shoes in silver, white, black, and blue (that looked exactly like their competitors’) with some sort of Flubber in the midsole was the way to a) run faster, b) not get hurt as much, without really doing that much research that supported either of these very desirable aspects.  While I was working at Nike a study was done with runners trying three different Air Max configurations:  1)  a full airbag, 2) a popped airbag, and 3) no airbag (with foam filling in the void).  We proved pretty conclusively that – at least on a treadmill – runners could NOT detect a difference. Needless to say, in the annals of published statistics, that little study was not included in any marketing materials!  And while I was at Saucony, I was tasked with taking their venerable “Grid” technology (a little injection-molded trampoline thing under your heel) and somehow exposing it on the side so it looked more like Air, Wave, Gel, Hydroflow, etc, with the directive of “just make sure it doesn’t hurt anybody!”  Inspired design indeed. 

And then it all changed. 

Several years ago I got a call from Tony Post, the president of Vibram USA, who said he had a cool little “kayak shoe” one of his Italian guys came up with that he’d like me to test.  That test never came about, but I was intrigued by the shoes with the funny little five-toe design, and thought indeed they'd be great for tight-fitting play boats.  Running?  Never even occurred to me, nor  - at the time - did it to Tony, who was a former national-class runner yet was completely innocent to the seismic shift those shoes were about to cause (one reason I love the Five Fingers: despite years of work and zillions of dollars spent on development and marketing, the running shoe companies didn't come up with The Big Concept: a boot sole company that didn't even make shoes did!) .  And then the book Born To Run came out, and I think it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that book changed the running shoe industry, if for no other reason than Christopher McDougall made all shoe companies squirm by pointing out that – despite 40 years of footwear evolution - not only had Americans NOT become faster runners (actually, slower) but far more importantly, running-related injuries had NOT decreased at all!

So the two goals of running shoes  - increased speed and injury reduction – had not been accomplished, despite a ton of effort.  And then along comes the concept of NO shoes, or at most, minimal shoes, with the soon-to-be iconic Vibram Five Fingers leading the charge of the latter.   Chances are good that if you are reading this you also read Born To Run, so I won’t go into the details of what went on there.  But now, a few years later,  what’s the status of the running shoe market today, and what of the minimal “movement”? 

As is probably well known by now, one of the most oft-cited studies is the Harvard Study that showed that shoes with a lot of heel “lift” (in new school vernacular: too much “drop”) had this weird blip in the stride where a hard heel striker came to a micro-second stop, which was not present when running barefoot.  As indicated above in the Nike airbag study, I learned while working there that even scientific statistics can be creatively/selectively delivered to enable your likely-predetermined and desired outcome (in the Harvard case, the study was partially funded by Vibram).   And the simple fact that it was on a treadmill in my mind makes the findings a little dubious (hats off to the participants who ran barefoot on a treadmill long enough to validate a study; I did it for 5 minutes on an Asia work trip and blistered the bottoms of my feet badly!).  But there is no doubt that the concept of spending more time barefoot – running or no – increases the strength of your feet, and like all muscle strength, that’s generally a good thing. 

The problem with Born To Run and it’s application to the shoe market is that in the early stages of the “revolution” there were two concepts that were – in my notso humble opinion – inappropriately conflated:  1) the concept of “minimal” , and 2) the concept of taking down the “drop” (heel/toe differential).  For many years the standard midsoles (white foam between the rubber outsole and the upper) were >20mm in the heel and 10mm in the forefoot, and then all of a sudden the Vibram Five Fingers not only had virtually zero protection but also zero drop.  Both of these were Big Changes to what we had become accustomed to (has it been long enough for us to have “evolved” to this drop?) and making not only one but TWO big changes was a great recipe for injuries, which happened with regularity. We are not very good at moderation, so despite the salespeople’s admonitions to start really slow – like 10 minutes a day, or even less, for maybe a couple days per week, and work up very gradually - few people actually did that and instead went out for their typical 5-6 mile runs, which meant good job security for physical therapists!  And also resulted in a class action lawsuit against Vibram that is as yet unsettled.  However, even though it took a while, the manufacturers have recognized the value of lowering “the drop” – some to zero, some to 4-8mm – but have kept a bit of foam in place to enable “real” running and a more-reasonable transition to – perhaps! – a faster, more nimble stride.  In addition, the “barefoot” revolution has also pointed out to running shoe companies that many of their lasts (the footform that gives the shoe its shape) are too pointy, and that rounding the toebox enables the forefoot to more-naturally expand upon impact.

I do a lot of work with Merrell testing their products, and my testers’ reactions are commensurate with the popularity of their “Glove” line. The original Gloves were quite minimal:

 and it took pretty avante garde testers to really appreciate them, but lately the Gloves have taken on a bit more foam and have a minimal drop of 4-8mm:

and my testers have liked them a lot, including many who were surprised that they liked them.  The New Balance Minimus, the Saucony Kinvara, and Brooks’ Pure line have fed the mainstream, and fringe brands like Inov8, Altra, Zoot, and Newton have bet the bank on the “natural running” associated with zero drop and have experienced a lot of niche growth. 

Interestingly, Nike set a bit of a standard early on with its wildly popular Free series (5M pairs and counting!), but it seems to me that they have fallen victim to the pleasurable feelings associated with success, and haven’t progressed much past the Free (I’ve had a couple of Nike footwear folks tell me “oh, we addressed that minimal thing with the Free”, without – in my opinion – much acknowledgement that the Free is much more a fashion shoe – with its myriad of upper patterns and colors – than a performance shoe, per se). 

The Euro brands that are into trail running  - Salomon and La Sportiva, and to a lesser extent, Scarpa – seem to have been dabbling in the “revolution” with a handful of products, but having talked to those guys a bit myself it seems that they seem to take a bit of the Olde Worlde approach and are still doing shoes with more traditional drop and constructions and hope tht the "fad" wanes. 

There are two great things associated with this revolution:  the pressure to make shoes simpler and therefore much lighter (the average weight of a men’s size 9 running shoe has dropped from 12-14 oz’s to 8-10 oz’s) and the complete demise of the concept of “motion control” shoes.  I think most of the weight loss has been in the less-midsole and lower-profile and strategically-placed outsole lugs (rubber adds a ton of weight).  With regards to the stability/motion control shoes, I have had some discussions with Martyn Shorten, who ran the Nike Sports Research Lab back in the day and now is the lab-test arm of the venerable Runner’s World shoe surveys, and he told me about a huge military study that studied arch flexibility and arch height.

Plotting arch height (ie high vs low instep) vs arch flexibility (the propensity for the arch to flex downward under pressure), they found that us human beings are very evenly-distributed across this spectrum, as this very-quick graph shows:
The red areas are the extremes:  that is, people with high arches and no flexibility, or people with low arches and lots of flexibility.  Keep in mind that we ALL pronate when we run; we land outside and roll inside; it’s our gait, even for those who are full-on forefoot strikers.  Those who are in the red areas either don’t pronate enough or pronate too much – both of which can be injurious - and it was those people who were visiting podiatrists a lot with injuries.  The podiatrists, however, made the common mistake of assuming that this relative minority was representative of a larger population, and thus the concept of “motion control” shoes was born, and pitched to “pronators”, which as above, meant nearly everyone!  However, with the natural running movement came the knowledge that “motion control” was only a concept that needed to be employed by a very small percentage of the population (of my 300-odd testers, only a couple are in this camp) so thankfully this entire concept was essentially abandoned. 

So where does that leave us?  Generally the manufacturers have moved away from touting the next great midsole technology and are basically coming into a middle ground of simpler uppers (with more fun colors), lighter-weight, and less-drop, yet enough midsole foam to protect the feet from rocks, etc., and – importantly – a wider range of shoes for people to try. So there are tons of options, and in my opinion most are very similar to each other (many are made in the same factories by the same hands; the differences come in the recipes and the last, so if you find a brand that fits well, chances are good that the other shoes within that brand will fit well also).  Unfortunately, even though the shoes are now simpler, this change happened to correspond with the Asian factories' - both the manufacturing and the raw material suppliers - prices going up, so today's "simpler" shoes are more expensive than yesterday's more complex configurations. 

And running fully barefoot?  For me, I’m out.  After a whole summer of going barefoot as much as I can my feet are almost calloused enough to withstand just walking around and a bit or running in the park on grass, and for sure it’s super fun; you feel so light, fast, and nimble that it’s worth actually running for 15 minutes in the park.  For trails, some folks can go super minimal on rocky trails, but I still need a bit of protection from rocks.  If I ran more on super-buffed trails like Portland’s Wildwood, I’d be on shoes that barely have any lugs (and therefore weight).  And if I did that, I might be tempted to use the super minimal shoes like Vivo Barefoot , Tony Post’s new Topos: , or the Modaliti-designed B2R’s:, or even the whackjob “Barefoot” Ted’s running sandals:

And whither the other extreme, the mighty Hokas, that seem to be dominating the ultra scene despite their awkward look and high price tag? 

Everyone who has them loves them. Full suspension bikes and fat skis for the feet.  Blast down technical trails with impunity, yet still light enough for long climbs.  Save your quads on those big early-season descents.  They are awesome. Yet interestingly, despite their puffy nature, they actually seem to have zero drop, so you kinda get the best of both worlds of enabling a more-natural stride yet providing the ability to rock descents.  When Born To Run author Chris McDougall visited SLC a couple of years ago I took advantage of the Q&A session to ask him what he thought of the maximal running movement, aka Hokas.  He respectfully demurred, saying he didn’t believe in it, but hey, there’s something for everybody.  However, Golden Harper, CEO of the McDougall talk-sponsoring Altra ( scoffed a bit and decried their lack of trail “feel”, and then closed the conversation with the statement:  “Those are just for going fast!”  Ahhhh, right.  Going Fast.  Don’t want that, do we?  (though I do have a pair of Altra Lone Peaks that I like).   I must say that in an industry rife with knockoffs (I’ve literally done work for competing companies that have knocked each others’ products off!) I’m a bit surprised that no one has done their own version of Hokas, despite the fact that these puffies seem to rule the true ultra market (note that they are soon to be delivering a new model that is slightly-less puffy and also fits a bit narrower than the current models). 

As ever, there’s a ton to choose from, and the good/bad news is that now there are a couple more important metrics to consider in your purchasing decision.  But generally speaking, I think the lighter weight and the less “control” that new school shoes have over your ever-strengthening feet is a good thing, and to fulfill that there’s tons of exciting options. 

Based on a referral by Mike Hales I just got a book called “Tread Lightly”
that I’ll be reading on our road trip next week, and perhaps I’ll be changing my tune after I read it! 

As if this isn’t enough and you’re bored and need more, here’s a follow up article that I saw in a recent Outside Magazine (not that I would admit that I read Outside Magazine!) that is a good couple-years-later follow up to the minimal revolution:

and one of these days I'll go off on my standard rant about hiking "boots" and the conspiracy theory I have of a megacorp singlehandedly putting people in inappropriate hiking footwear for the last 45 years.....


  1. I have acquired some sort of achilles issue from running hard in 4mm drop shoes four days in a row, immediately after buying them. That is all.

  2. We have to take care while buying the running shoes. The running must light weight and fit in the foot.

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  3. Really nice idea for running shoes. This is a excellent stuff and is so helpful to when we want to buy it. Thanks.

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  4. That's a really helpful article. It really helped me out. Like you rightly said good running shoes are equally important when it comes a hard core workout. I recently bought some online running shoesCheck them out if you're looking for new ones.