The Return of the un-Minimal (?) Shoe

by nomeatbarefeet

One of the cool things about owning any pair of Vibrams (and Merrells for that matter) is that they are machine washable. That’s right, toss them in cold water delicate cycle with a mild deterget and you are good to go. It just so happens that both my Bikilas and my Trail Gloves were in the wash last night, and so I had a bit of a problem deciding what you run in this morning: I could chose to run in my KSOs, but I could also dig out my old pair of Brooks Launch’s and see how it felt to run in them. As a kind of experiment I opted for the latter.

I have been running in minimal footwear for over a year now (switching between VFFs and my Launch’s at the beginning), but every race since then has been in shoes that were both minimal and zero-drop. But what does it mean for a shoe to be “minimal,” and what exactly is “zero-drop”? (For a really helpful discussion on these topics—what might be termed “barefoot” shoes—check out this page on Birthdayshoes.com) For my purposes, I would qualify a shoe as being minimal the less there is to the shoe; put less colloquially, a shoe is minimal if its heel height (which would include the midsole and the outsole) and forefoot height are relatively low, though the number is certainly not set in stone. As far as the concept of zero-drop, this just means that there is no differential between the heel and the forefoot. In most conventional running shoes the heel will be heavily cushioned, resulting in a heel height that is greater than the forefoot height, and thus a large differential between heel and forefoot.

The Vibram Bikilas have a heel and a forefoot height of about 8mm (not sure if it is the same as the KSO), and thus they have a zero-drop from heel to forefoot; the Merrell Trail Glove offers a heel and a forefoot height of 10.5mm, and a zero-drop as well. Compare these numbers to other running shoes and you begin to see why minimal footwear can be so beneficial (that is, if you subscribe to it):

(Thanks to Pete Larson at runblogger.com for some of these numbers)

You can see that the Brooks Launch offers a decent heel-toe drop (10.5) compared to some of the other shoes, so when running in them there is a good chance that your heel will come down and strike the ground first…unless you consciously alter your form and attempt to land with a flat/midfoot or forefoot strike.

So, how was it to run in the Brooks? It was definitely different. I could feel my heels scrapping the ground as I ran, and I had to consciously ensure that my feet landed directly under my body. I only ran for about 4 miles, so I didn’t have to experience a long run in them. It certainly was “nice” to have cushioning under my feet, but it came at the expense of less ground feel and awareness of where I was stepping—which resulted in almost rolling my ankles on the uneven ground.

I had originally given up running in conventional shoes because of the injuries that resulted from them (hip, knee, ankle, and ITB pains). Now, you obviously won’t get injured from running in un-minimal shoes or shoes with a heel-forefoot differential once or twice, or even usually (look at all the runners that wear them and do not suffer from injury). But over long distances, and especially when you get tired, the chances of injury go up. The only evidence I can give is of the subjective anecdotal type: since switching to minimal footwear Katie and I have not suffered from any serious injuries.

If I have to run in un-minimal shoes I certainly can, though the only reason I would run in them in the future might be if I am in a pinch for a road run. (I actually just bought a pair of the New Balance Minimus Roads to use for longer road races. I will write up a review as soon as I get some long runs in them.) In the end, though, I do not see myself ever returning to un-minimal shoes so long as “barefoot” shoes continue to provide me with injury-free running. Un-minimal shoes might make brief appearances along my running journey, but they certainly will not play a central role in who I am, and who I want to be as a runner.

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