When Christopher McDougall‘s book “Born to Run” was published in 2009, it set off a booming trend in minimalist running, sending thousands of runners previously beholden to clunky “support” shoes on the streets with barely-there sneakers, most recognizably Vibram’s 5-finger shoes.
Since then the debate over which shoe is more effective for runners- shoes that offer maximum bio-mechanical support vs shoes that simulate “barefoot” running- has been raging between professional and casual runners alike.
According to Runner’s World, the pendulum is beginning to swing toward more traditional running shoes, due in part to the sheer number of brands and products now available to runners (too many choices often leads to information overload and consumer burnout). As Runner’s World quotes Peter Larson, author of the popular minimalist shoe blog Runblogger.com, “I think we may have reached the end of people’s infatuation with them. The fit is so hard to get right. The toe pockets, you either love those or hate those when you run in them. I think a lot of them are sitting in people’s closets.”
Walk NYC Podiatry‘s Dr. Amnon Barnea cautions against framing the issue as the search for the definitive “better” shoe, and instead suggests that consumers rely on medical evidence tempered with personal data to inform their shoe-buying decisions. In other words, when the commercials tell you to consult your physician before making any major changes to your workouts- especially if you suffer from bio-mechnical foot issues- they mean it!
As Dr. Barnea explains, the consumer market is currently flooded with products that fall under either end of the spectrum. How could they all be good for you? Buying the correct shoe for you is an individual endeavor that should be predominantly informed by your current foot bio-mechanics and your future goals for running.
Consider your surfaces: Since NYC is mostly concrete, remember that you’re running on mostly hard surfaces. If you’re running for longer distances on hard surfaces, you might want to explore shoes that offer more support and protection against debris. Minimalist/barefoot running shoes maybe be better for your feet if used on shorter distances and softer surfaces (like grass, sand, boardwalks, or dirt trails).
Mix it up: If you’re torn between using minimalist shoes and traditional running shoes, try mixing up your routine. 1/3rd of the time, use barefoot running shoes. The rest of the time stick to traditional running shoes, or shoes that offer more bio-mechanical support. Vice versa also works if you’re addicted to your running shoes, but bottom line: MIX IT UP! Varying the support level on your feet will prevent them from relying on a specific set of muscles/connective tissue over another.
Seriously, consult your physician: Having a physical therapist evaluate your feet yields indispensable information that you can use to set healthy, achievable goals for your running. Choosing your running shoe is simply dealing with the symptoms of underlying bio-mechanical problems. Teaming up with your physical therapist to understand and treat your underlying bio-mechanical problems is the most effective way to truly improve your form.
Dr. Barnea says that the jury is still out on the debate between minimalist vs. maximum control shoes. In 3-5 years we will be able to collect more data to reach more substantial conclusions. Until then, be mindful of the needs of your feet, and of course, trust your friendly neighborhood medical professionals!