The other day I ordered a couple pairs of cross country (XC) racing flats. More precisely, I ordered some Mizuno Wave Universe 4’s to replace the two pair I wore out over the past year. This got me to thinking about the Minimalist Shoe Craze.
[Important: I am not a doctor, kinesiologist, or any other kind of expert on the subject]
What is a Minimalist Shoe?
Not everyone agrees. For me it is the lightest shoe possible. When you are hiking 10, 20, or even 30 miles in a day, heavy shoes (or boots) cumulatively become a huge burden on the muscles. Studies suggest that a pound on the foot is equivalent to adding 5 pounds to your pack. Over the past 4 years the shoe I have used the most is a pair of Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra Trail Running Shoes. By “used most,” I mean they are the brand and model I have used continuously. These are conventional trail runners and by no means are light. But what I have been using the most are XC flats. For me the biggest problem with using these flats is they don’t last long. And every time I wear out a pair of flats, I keep telling myself that I am just going to stick with the Salomons. But I keep going back to the flats. The Salomons weigh about 15 ounces each, versus the Mizuno at 4.9 ounces. Now 10 ounces per shoe may not sound like a lot, but it makes a significant difference for me.
Many people say that a Minimalist shoes is one that simulates barefoot running. That means it has a thin sole, is ultralight, and the heel to toe drop is close to zero (e.g. the sole of the shoe is the same thickness front and rear). These folks say that running barefoot (or minimalist shoe) is better for your feet, muscles, and tendons. I agree.
But you can’t just suddenly change from traditional shoes to minimalist shoes.
Benefits of Running in Minimalist Shoes
Instead of discussing the benefits, lets look at the problem with traditional running shoes.
We need to start with Bill Bowerman, famed Track Coach at the University of Oregon and the co-founder of Nike. Bowerman felt that runners could run faster if they lengthened their stride, thus covering more real estate with each stride. Using a normal natural running stride, a runner will normally land on the ball of the foot. This stride would force the front of the foot and toes to spay out, and the bent legs act as a spring. Also the muscles and tendons in the feet stretch a lot. So far, so good. The problem Bowerman found with a longer stride was that the runner now struck the ground with the heel, and the leg was straighter — all of which caused a hard impact with each stride; the heel strike was like a braking motion. So he developed shoes with thick padded heels to minimize the impact. Because the foot muscles and tendons do not stretch as much with a heel strike, over the following decades it soon became apparent that runners were suffering a higher percentage of injuries — but no one seemed to correlate this with running shoes. As Nike became more and more profitable, other shoe companies followed suit with all kinds of shoe construction to alter and “improve” the feet. But in the end, all these innovations caused more problems than they solved. And this has led to the minimalist/barefooted running “craze.” Many runners report fewer injuries and even rehabilitated problems (such as “fallen arches” or flat feet) after switching to minimalist shoes or just running without shoes.
If someone suddenly switches from conventional shoes to a minimalist design, a few things are going to happen:
- The calf muscles are going to absorb much more of the effort from running
- Foot muscles and tendons are going to stretch more
This is going to result in some sore muscles and tendons, so the switch much be gradual to avoid injury. And if the runner is overweight, the impact will be greater. So you can’t just simply switch. You must slowly adapt.
Hiking is not the same as Running
When you hike or walk you tend to strike with the mid-foot or heel, especially if you are wearing any kind of footwear other than a minimal shoe. For decades backpackers often wore heavy boots with thick soles to provide additional foot support, ankle support, and traction. One might make a case for this kind of boot when carrying pack loads that might be 25% or more of your body weight. But if you can lighten your pack, then a lighter less supportive shoe could be appropriate.
As a teenager I backpacked in Converse All Star tennis shoes, which had a flat sole (zero lift). This was a purely economic choice; I could not afford hiking boots. Although these shoes had little traction, they served me well without injury. In my early 20’s I purchased a pair of Pivetta hiking boots because boots were the “common wisdom” of the day and I finally could afford a pair. In my 30’s I replaced these boots with a pair of Danner Mountain Lights because the sole and heels were wider that the Pivetta’s. At the time is seemed reasonable that a wider footprint would enhance my hiking. But both boots were heavy and I often hiked in my much lighter tennis shoes with no ill effects. Bottom line was I was less tired after a long hike using the lighter tennis shoes.
I have been walking, hiking, backpacking, and running for a very long time without a serious injury. Often I use shoes with no support; no heel lift, or any artificial mechanisms.
It seems the Internet is running crazy with reviews of minimalist/barefoot running shoes. It is quite the fad, or so it seems. The theory is that we evolved basically as barefooted creatures and it is natural for us to be barefooted.
The barefoot/minimalist craze is now making its way into the ultralight backpacking crowd too.
It is well documented that ancient man did not always run or walk barefooted. Winter shoes, sandals, and moccasins were often worn. However, ancient man did spend a lot (if not most of his time walking barefooted).
So what say the barefoot running community denizens? Basically the running shoe manufacturers have been causing injury and pain to runners for decades by designing and selling shoes that attempt to alter how a runner foot-strikes.
- Heel to toe drop greater than 10 millimeters
- Mechanisms to force the foot not to pronate
- Other arch support mechanisms
So what say the running shoe companies? Well, they are selling the heck out of barefoot/minimalist shoes and and at the same time selling the heck out of those shoes the barefoot pundits say are bad the runner. Best of both worlds for them, I guess.
What is a Barefoot/Minimalist Shoe?
It is a shoe that closely imitates running barefooted. This means that it:
- Has a very thin sole
- The wearer can “feel” the ground when the foot strikes
- The drop from heel to toe is close to zero (the shoe is flat)
- The construction does not artificially support the foot
Why do the Barefoot Advocates Support Minimalist Shoes?
They claim that traditional shoes artificially changes the natural running foot-strike from the front of the foot to a heel strike. Running barefoot will
- Allow the runner to develop a more natural running gait, which will strengthen foot muscles, ligaments and tendons
- The runner will learn how to land on the ball of their feet instead of the heel, which is the most efficient way to run
- Landing on the ball of the foot allows the foot arch, and other parts of the leg work as shock absorbers; instead of a heel strike that acts like a brake
- Zero drop (no heel lift) may reduce injuries and allows the calf muscles and achilles tendon to stretch and lengthen
- Balance will improve
Should Ultralight Backpackers Adopt the Barefoot Mantra and Switch Shoes?
Yes and No. First of all, walking, hiking and backpacking is not running. The gait is different. Even if one backpacks barefoot, they will not necessarily walk with a forefoot strike; they will probably have a mid-foot or heel strike. So if the foot strike does not change, how will a minimalist shoe help them? The main advantage is a much lighter shoe. Studies have shown that a pound on the foot is equivalent to carrying 5 pounds on the back. So there can be a benefit. This means less fatigue and the ability to hike faster and further. But a minimalist shoe can cause impact injuries due to the thin sole.
My Experiences with Minimalist Shoes
I have been wearing minimalist shoes most of my life. Not by design or with any planned benefits. I have been backpacking for years in Cross Country racing flats, which tend to be even more minimalist than the barefoot/minimalist shoes marketed today, and I have done this without any negative consequences. But there is a perspective that must be discussed.
Above: My typical footwear (L to R) Van’s, Converse tennis shoes, flip flops.
As a kid I often was barefooted unless at school where shoes were required. Each summer vacation I never wore shoes. When I did wear shoes it was usually a pair of flat canvas tennis shoes. And for the 40 plus years of adulthood I have continued this. So my feet are conditioned for barefootedness. Now this minimalist lifestyle was not by design. I just don’t care for shoes. And since my feet are conditioned, it does not bother me when I must wear dress shoes for work or even in the past when I used leather hiking boots. Seems the barefoot/minimalist shoe regime made wearing this kind of footwear less problematic for me than other hikers.
Today I usually backpack in a pair of Mizuno Wave Universe 4’s. But consider that:
- My feet have been conditioned for most of my life by going barefooted or using a minimal shoe (not by design, but by accident)
- I have never been overweight — which adds unneeded stress to the structure of the foot
- My pack loads are normally less than 30 lbs total or less than 20% of my already lean body weight
Over the past few years I have occasionally hiked with friends who are into backpacking. As such, they have been somewhat skeptical about my choice of shoes, causing them to scrutinize my hiking style. They report that I usually go uphill on the balls of my feet, and often downhill on the balls also — they notice that I don’t “brake” going down hill, but move quickly and agilely using short steps. They also report on difficult terrain I go slowly planting each foot securely as I move methodically downhill. Of course to me it is all subconscious.
Current Inventory of Shoes
Above (L to R): Salomon XA Pro, Saucony Peregrines, New Balance MT 101, Vibram Five Fingers KSO, Saucony Shay XC Flats, Mizuno Wave Universe 4.
Salomon XA Pro 3D
Size 12, weight = 13.4 oz each. I normally use this shoe on longer trips in difficult cross country hikes where I will be carrying at least a gallon of water and food for several days. They provide protection from cacti and other pointed objects. I have a pair that is larger (size 13.5) for use in snow where I wear a thick wool sock and a GoreTex sock too. They fit well, are comfortable, and last a long time.
This is not a true minimalist shoe, but a trail running shoe. I use them on day hikes where I need to cover a lot of miles quickly, especially slippery downhill sections on granite. They have the best traction of all the shoes in my inventory. Size 12 are 11.25 ounces each.
New Balance MT101
I bought these because of the “rock plate” in the midsole for protection on rocky surfaces. They weight about 10 oz. I don’t like them. The midsole is very stiff and my feet do not flex as much as I like. Overall the traction is good. Just not that comfortable for me.
Vibram Five Fingers KSO
At first I fell in love with these. Flexible and no socks required. But after time I found them hot, stinky, and my little toe would catch on rocks and other obstacles on the trail. Weight is 6.7 ounces each.
Saucony Shay XC Flats
7.2 ounces each. The only injury I have suffered in minimalist shoes were while wearing these. I must have landed hard on a pointed rock resulting in an impact that grew into a large blistered that covered the entire ball of my right foot. I was able to continue my hike though, averaging 20+ miles over the next two days. This shoe is meant for running and the midfoot of the sole is very narrow, as they are designed for a fore-foot strike. The small arch area fell apart internally. But I still run around town in them at times.
Mizuno Wave Universe 4
I am on my third pair of these shoes. My size 12’s weigh 4.9 ounces each. The sole is fairly wide from toe to heel. The heel to toe drop is around 3-4 mm. The fabric has been fairly tough and surprisingly little sand/dirt works through the material. They dry quickly. Poor protection from cactus. I have hiked down steep canyon walls with mostly loose scree and sand. I have done hikes with single day elevation gains of over 10,000 feet and have descended 8,000 feet in a single day’s hike. Without a doubt, these are my favorite hiking shoe.
Above (L to R) the bottom of the shoes: Salomon XA Pro, Saucony Peregrines, New Balance MT 101, Vibram Five Fingers KSO, Saucony Shay XC Flats, Mizuno Wave Universe 4.
The Saucony Shay’s have a hard plastic like bottom with little spikes. The sole has withstood some serious mileage over volcanic rocks with no damage or wear. Very long lasting for this kind of shoe. But notice how narrow the middle of the bottom is. The shoe is designed to “force” you to run on the forefront of the foot. The Mizuno’s on the very right have a much wider middle section and weigh 1.3 ounces less each.
Minimalist shoes are like walking on air. When you first start walking with a pack on your back, you are amazed at how light your feet feel. With proper conditioning you will hike faster and further than in more conventional footwear. Without conditioning your feet you will suffer. Some things to keep in mind:
- Make sure you are not overweight. Unless you are very muscular, a BMI (Body Mass Index) under 22 is probably most desirable.
- Condition, condition, condition. Whenever possible, walk barefooted. When you must wear shoes, wear something with a minimum sole. I suggest the Van’s or flip flops in the first picture.
- Run or jog in your new minimal shoes. Take it easy at first. You will be using muscles that you are not used to using. After several weeks your feet and leg muscles will start to adapt to your new shoes and gait/stride.