Sole Man: Why Cushion Is King

Traditionally cushioned and maximally cushioned running shoes have been hot-sellers in recent years. Photo: Scott Draper

In just a few years, the trend has gone from minimalist shoes to traditional and maximalist options.

It’s almost ridiculous how a hot trend goes cold and another pops up in its place, isn’t it? Take for example the minimalist shoe trend. A few years ago, running shoes that were lighter, leaner and lower to the ground were the hottest thing going. And with good reason: Minimalist shoes do have their merits. If used properly by runners with optimal conditioning, they can allow uninhibited movements of a runner’s feet, ankles and lower legs.

The cold truth is, though, that most runners can’t (and probably shouldn’t) wear “barely there” shoes most of the time, either because they lack the necessary foot, ankle and lower-leg strength or because of pre-existing irregularities with their mechanics, or perhaps a compensation because of a previous injury. That’s not to say minimalist shoes are inherently bad. They’re not bad. (But you certainly can’t make claims about potential benefits without any scientific research, as Vibram found out.) It comes down to how you use them and, to some degree, what you prefer on your various runs.

The shift away from minimalist shoes to the other end of the spectrum—softly cushioned or maximally cushioned shoes—has little to do with what mainstream runners thought about minimalist shoes and is really just because most runners tend to prefer a soft, forgiving feeling underfoot when they run and not the hard impact and pounding of “barely there” types of shoes. It’s that simple. Ask your running friends. Heck, look in the mirror and ask yourself.

RELATED: Fall 2014 Road Shoe Buyer’s Guide

Over the past two years, many running retailers have reported the pendulum swinging back to more moderate options in the traditional neutral cushioning and light stability categories, but many have said that maximalist shoes have been the fastest-growing category of shoes this year.

If you want to run fast, the traditional thinking (backed by a few independent studies and leading biomechanists) has been to choose a model with a slightly more firm midsole and lower-to-the-ground profile that mimic natural foot movements. That still makes sense for a lot of runners. But two things about that: 1) Of the 20 million or so active “runners” in the U.S., most aren’t running most of the time but doing something more akin to jogging (and there is nothing wrong with that) and a shoe with softer cushioning makes more sense or at least feels better for that; 2) There’s plenty of proof that you can run fast in traditionally cushioned and even maximally cushioned shoes. So to each their own.

As for much cushioning and how soft or firm you want or need, that’s entirely your preference. Listen to your body, let your feet by the judge. The range of options is increasing every season. Thanks to new midsole foam materials that are lighter, more resilient or more responsive, plus new shoe design and construction techniques—some of the same details that spurred the minimalist movement—some of the leading maximalist shoes (for example, the Hoka One One Clifton) are lighter than traditional everyday trainers and have design traits that promote natural gait tendencies.

But some shoes outside of the maximalist realm offer some of these elements as well. There are a lot of great new minimalist shoes (including several enhanced with slightly more cushioning) and more traditional styles too. There are plenty of models that probably aren’t in the maximal cushioning category but are still fairly high off the ground and very softly cushioned—for example, the Brooks Glycerin 12 and the ASICS GEL-Nimbus.

RELATED: 12 Things About Maximalist Shoes

“At the end of the day, the best thing about maximalist shoes is that they offer another option for runners,” says Kris Hartner, owner of Naperville Running Company stores in suburban Chicago. “Some people will love them; some people won’t touch them. But if it works for you and that’s what gets you out the door, then it’s a good thing.”

No matter what you feel about minimalist or maximalist shoes, you shouldn’t run in the same shoe or same type of shoe every single day. Instead, every runner should have a quiver of two or more shoes to rotate through during a typical week of running.

Maximalist shoes aren’t for every runner, but—just as with the minimalist movement—there are runners who say they can’t (or won’t) run in anything else. And, also just as with the minimalist movement, there are zealots who will swear it’s the only answer.

My advice? Take it all with a bit of moderation, visit your local running specialty shop and take time to find out what’s right for you. There’s no single right answer (or best shoe) for every runner, nor does it make sense to do all of your running in one pair of shoes. Having more than one shoe in your quiver allows you to pick the right pair for the type of running you’re doing that day. (You wouldn’t use a paring knife for all of your cutting needs in a kitchen, nor is a pitching wedge the only club in your golf bag.)

RELATED: Why You Should Have A Quiver Of Shoes

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