Least Is Best: A Guide To Minimalist Running Shoes

ASICS Gel Neo 33, $105 -- A speed-oriented trainer is how the designers at Asics describe the 33 Series. “Our goal was to strike the perfect balance between lightweight, flexible performance and the responsive durability necessary to stand up to the real-world demands of high-mileage training,” Asics says. The geometry of the shoe includes a minimal drop but with a full midsole, making the Neo 33 a safe pick for runners accustomed to more traditional designs. Also, the Neo 33 is built on a standard last instead of the more narrow constructions you typically see in the minimalist and racing flat arena, so it can accommodate wider feet. Asics lists a men’s size nine at 10.2 ounces. ADAPTATION TIPS: Because of the modest heel-to-toe drop, the Neo 33 requires the same amount of adaptation a neutral runner would afford any new shoe—meaning very little or none. According to Asics, “Runners can feel confident taking the Gel-Neo 33 straight out of the box and begin running their usual mileage.”


Scroll through the carousel at the left for a glimpse into the exploding number of minimalist choices.

Let’s get something straight—minimalist shoes have been around for a long time. Racing flats, cross-country racers and track spikes have long been major players in the super-light shoe domain. And almost any runner who has made the jump to a track spike can tell you that common sense is required during the transition. Track spikes, which enable you to run at a speed so fun it produces giddiness, can also leave your calf muscles feeling like exploded grenades.

VIDEO: Shoe Talk on Competitor.com

But racing flats and spikes are meant for two things—speed work and racing. And along with the running booms that have transpired since the 1970s, the mainstream category of shoes meant for logging daily miles on the roads, sidewalks and trails have evolved into a many-layered beast of categories and sub-categories. Terms such as “neutral,” “motion control,” “stability,” “lightweight trainer,” “cushioned” and “trail”—mixed in with podiatry vernacular such as “overpronation” and “oversupination”—have made for an increasingly confusing decision making process for consumers.

With Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” best seller giving thrust to the backlash against the belief that the overstuffed, overbuilt running shoe is the “best” shoe, and the emotionally charged barefoot running movement drawing in all-comers, the running shoe companies (and the $2.5 billion in sales they generate annually, according to the National Sporting Goods Association) have responded. This year’s shoe collections are robust with minimalist models that promise a barefoot running experience—better form, less injury, more fun—that is realistic only for some. There are deeper ranks of runners who want the benefits but need at least some protection from the asphalt.

This user-friendly guide is intended to shed some light on the design and thought behind the new models populating today’s minimalist shoe category. These shoes vary in purpose, materials and construction of lasts, but the key components that gauge the severity of the shoe are the light weights, amount of “drop” from the heel to the forefoot, and thin (or non-existent) midsoles. Traditional running shoes typically measure a 12mm to 16mm difference in heel-to-forefoot height. Some minimalist shoes have moved down to the “zero drop” level with little or no midsole, meant to offer a simulation of running through the jungle without the fear of cutting your feet.

We have also sought advice on the mechanics of making the transition to a minimalist running shoe. There is one key point here uttered many times over, and that is in regard to patience and gradual adaptation. This especially applies to individuals who have been running in heavy-duty shoes and have tender feet and weak tendons and ligaments. Just as it takes someone new to running to adapt to the stress of pounding the pavement, going to a minimalist shoe almost always requires a cautious approach of progressive exposure. Otherwise, the very injury you may be hoping to avoid could strike with alarming speed.


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