window shopping

By now if you are not aware of the “minimal shoe movement” you must be living under a rock!  I can not pick up a running magazine without minimal shoe comparisons, minimal reports, minimal debates or minimal tests.  Shoe companies are really committed to bringing out new choices in shoes for this new movement.  But are our running stores ready to embrace the movement? My running store shelves say “yes” but the sales people say “no”.  No longer are these thinner minimal shoes something that I can only find online and from edgier naturalist retailers, minimal shoes have made their way to mainstream markets, that sounds good, but my experiences have been less than pleasant. 

For the fourth time this year, Nik and I have had to defend our shoe choices at a local running store while shopping for shoes.   No woman should ever have to endure such a thing while trying to purchase a pair of freaking shoes, a normally endorphin filled experience ruined. It goes something like this:

ME- Hi I am looking for a more neutral shoe to run in.

Shop- Why?

ME- What?

Shop- Why do you think you NEED a neutral shoe?

(I am feeling uncomfortable here, his tone is sarcastic and he crosses his arms)

ME- Uh-because I can’t feel my feet hitting the ground , I feel like I can’t control my foot strike as well in a stacked shoe.
( I feel pretty sure about my decision to buy the shoes but I do not like the way he is asking me to explain myself so much)

Shop- Oh, WHY do you want to change you foot strike?  (again, with the questions, wasn’t the foot strike idea a good enough basis?)

ME- bee-cuz I – I want to change my posture?

Shop- What for?  

ME- Because I want to run better and I want to go home now.  ( I DECIDED that even if he DECIDED I was allowed to buy new shoes I wouldn’t buy them from him)

You are going to have to take my word for it: his body language, tone and attitude is what has me on edge more than anything.

I have bought my running shoes at the same store for years now and have always relied on the advice of the sales person.  They usually start by asking me what type of runner I am, how long, how far, what surface and take a look at my current running shoe.  Chatty, friendly and helpful, usually.  So what’s different about minimalism?  One guy literally said “oh you are a vibram fan, we don’t support that here.”  I hear, we don’t support “you here”  It took me a while to come back, I did go to another local running store after that, got fitted incorrectly, twice.  They also said they didn’t support minimal running, but sold Nik her first pair of Newton’s, confused, yea, me too. 

Here is what I think, I think that over the last year retailers didn’t know what direction shoes were headed and what they could sell.  Typically minimal runners were on the fringe and not the majority.  I have never met anyone who worked in a running store who runs distance in a minimal shoe or who at least wants to talk about it. I have never met anyone who worked in a running store who wanted to talk about minimal running style, like Chi or even changing your running form.  I suspect its because it can be harmful, if not done correctly and running store employees just can’t take that risk. I would like to really know what is going on in their minds, when I say minimal, do they hear barefoot?  I get that it can be risky, but just ask me what my plans are, guess what? I am a fully educated, licensed ChiRunning Instructor who wants to buy shoes!  You might even like talking to me about it!

I know there are runners who will buy shoes simply because they think its the new cool shoe and hurt themselves, so that’s when the sales person job becomes really important. Dear sales person, why are you not embracing minimal running?  Don’t close up to this.  We still want and need your advice.  

I have not been asked any of the really important questions about purchasing a neutral shoe, and in case you are on the fence about this issue or really don’t know why I would want this shoe in the first place, there is a great article this months issue of RUNNING TIMES by B. Metzer.

Brian explains it like this , “the less shoe you run in the more your foot has the freedom to move naturally, as if you were running with bare feet- and allow you to run with the most efficient form possible.  But because running barefoot or in barely-there shoes like Vibram FiveFingers isn’t a practical option for most runners on a regular basis, the next best thing is finding a relatively minimally designed shoe that closely mimics that natural form while also offering a slight amount of under foot cushioning and protection.”

He goes on to say that shoe companies have finally taken “cues from recent academic studies and also used high-speed video stride analysis and advanced impact measuring devices to better understand how a foot moves naturally, both while running barefoot and inside a running shoe. ”  What that means is that we need to really be lower to the ground to get us closer to sensing the ground as our foot strikes and adjusting the body in the most efficient running position.   The new designed shoes are with a “slightly firmer sensation underfoot, which means it requires less muscular fore to achieve solid contact with the ground at the start of a new stride that it does to compress soft, thick midsole foams of traditional shoes. Most have slightly wider toe boxes to allow for the natural splaying of the toes that results from the flex of both the longitudinal arch and the transverse arch that encompass the metatarsal heads.”

Usually shoes are made with a  12 to 15 mm heel to toe drop, with the heel sitting above your toes, this was originally done to cushion our heels but research shows that it can “perpetuate inefficient, heel striking form, both because it continually  forces the body to re-balance in an unnatural position and because the built up heel is the first part of the shoe to strike the ground even if the foot approaches the ground in a horizontal position.”  Shoes are now being designed with less and less heel to toe drop.  the Saucony kinvara a favorite of Nik’s has a 4mm drop, I just bought the Saucony ProGrid Mirage with a 5.8mm drop.  I like the cushion for the road but still feel like I can control contact. For trail running I have just become a fan of the New Balance 101s, really great shoe for the trickiness of a trail with roots and rocks to run over.  

But getting back to the point, these new options come with new requirements.  Most people, and that pretty much means all of us, cannot just buy a pair of these shoes and keep up with our mileage.  We will need a transition period depending on your foot strength.  Nikhil Jain, product manger for Saucony says “some people will use these as training tools a couple of times a week to mix things up and create some muscle confusion as they strengthen the muscles in their feet.”  Running in these newer shoes does require a lot more foot, ankle, lower leg and core muscle groups.  Lastly Metzer advises us to consider “a runners weight, body comp. past injury patterns, fitness level and running goals” while transitioning from shoe to shoe.  

Ok, after all that I do want you to know that I want my running store back, I know what  a valuable irreplaceable resource it is.  ChiRunning is all about listening and communicating with my body at all times not just while running, so I will communicate this story to my store and listen to their responses.  I hope we are all shopping and running together again soon.