A friend dropped me an email recently to ask which running shoes he should buy next. He’s been a dedicated runner for years but one who was still running in cushy, somewhat heavy training shoes with a 12mm heel-toe drop. He said he had heard all of the rage about minimalism and had even done some research about heel-toe drop. “I know I need to get into shoe with less drop, lighter and lower to the ground,” he told me. “My only question is ‘how low do I need to go?’”
That’s a good question. I immediately called him to give him my answer. Without boring him with technospeak, I gave it to him straight. It really has little to do with the shoes and everything to do with how fit, strong, agile and flexible he is or is willing to become.
Yes, there are lighter, sleeker and more minimally designed shoes available now than there were for the past two decades. Most are lighter and offer more “feel” for the ground. But, I told him, to run in shoes that are lower to the ground, flatter (meaning less of heel-toe drop) and less substantial, you need to be very fit, flexible, agile and strong. Those kinds of shoes can make you a more efficient runner—ultimately by improving your form and lowering your running economy—and thus allow you to run farther and faster with less energy.
But you can’t just jump into these modern training shoes—no matter if you’re talking about barely-there barefoot-style shoes or just lighter, less structured, less cushioned models—and expect instant results. Unlike Forrest Gump, there are no magic shoes.
The reason so many people have gotten hurt switching over to minimalist shoes in recent years isn’t because minimalist shoes are bad for you. It’s because most runners aren’t ready for those kinds of shoes. It’s all about the runner, not the shoes. (Unfortunately, I’ve heard from dozens of runner/jogger friends and acquaintances who have taken that leap without any sense of moderation or preparation and wound up getting hurt.)
Let’s keep in mind that most runners need some level of cushioning and protection most of the time — at least those of us in the Western world who have been conditioned to wear shoes and walk/run on hard surfaces most of the time.
Running in shoes with very little protection and/or cushioning is best done with careful moderation, unless you happen to be a supremely fit, strong, flexible and agile runner. And to be honest, most people who run on a regular basis aren’t supremely fit, strong, flexible and agile. Some are, but most are not. The way to get to that level is to spend time doing strength, form and flexibility drills or a variety of cross-training activities in addition to running copious amounts of miles.
My answer to my friend was to consider buying a pair of modern, everyday trainers—those with a heel-toe drop between 4mm and 8mm (as opposed to the standard 12mm or the uber-minimalist zero-drop design) and a modest amount of cushioning—and to also start doing form and strength drills on a regular basis and engage in some kind of general strength routine two or three times a week.
In time, he could become a stronger, fitter, more flexible and more agile runner, one who could become faster and less injury prone. The choice of which shoes he should buy is relative to how much he wants to prepare his body. Because, when it comes down to it, it’s not about the shoes, it’s about the runner.