Minimalist shoes and the boom/bust cycle
by on Thursday, May 16, 2013  (5 comments)


Earlier this week, it was reported sales of minimalist shoes "plummetted" by more than 10% in the first quarter of 2013. It's being reported that the "fad" is over. People are realizing that minimalist shoes are getting them injured and going back to stability and support shoes. So is this really what's happening?

I'd argue that, in a way, this is what's happening but it's more complex than just that. As with many things (low fat diets followed by low carb diets, for example) the pendulum swung. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the attitude toward shoes was the bigger the better. Those of us who didn't want a whole lot of foam and rubber between our feet and the ground were forced to choose from an ever-decreasing list of choices. Eventually, we were down to a handful of "lightweight trainers" or racing flats.

Then came Born to Run. I have some issues with the book (I have been thinking of tackling one big issue I have yet to find an answer to in a blog post but I always feel like I'd just be tilting at windmills when I think of typing something up). However, one benefit is that it swung the pendulum. People began thinking maybe bigger isn't always better. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the pendulum swung too far, too fast. People went from wearing Brooks Beasts and other similar shoes to Vibram FiveFingers without a proper transition down the line. As I've often stated, you can't go from having your shoe do all the work for you to having it do no work for you overnight without problems. It can take years to go from a fairly moderate traditional trainer to a fairly moderate "minimalist" shoe or racing flat. To go from one extreme to the other in days, weeks or even months is just asking for problems. Even if you don't need all that shoe, you can't just ditch it overnight after you've become used to it and, to some extent, dependent on it. Worse yet, the message for a while was that minimalism or even barefooting is right for everyone. It will cure every injury, it will make you more efficient and faster. There are no down sides, only benefits.

Not surprisingly, the correction came along. People got hurt, either because they tried to change too fast or because they simply aren't cut out to run in minimal shoes. People gave up on minimalism. Some people stuck to it because it worked for them but some left. This is what we're seeing now. Of course, in the marketplace, the manufacturers are usually behind on trends like this. Just like you couldn't get enough shoes labeled "minimal" a few years ago and they sold at outrageous prices, you're now seeing a wide selection and prices are dropping rapidly.

What do these market changes mean? Well, there are now more people wearing "minimal" shoes than there were several years ago. I think manufacturers will to some extent keep making shoes for this market. It may be a niche market but it's large enough that I don't think Nike, Saucony, Brooks and others want to ignore it. In the meantime, hopefully that pendulum swing will settle to a more reasonable middle ground. People who need more shoe shouldn't be shamed into getting less shoe than they need to stay healthy. At the same time, people who don't need so much shoe shouldn't be ridiculed for wearing racing flats or "minimal" shoes if that's what works for them.

I'd love to see people settle into a state of saying "I want to wear as much shoe as I need but no more, whatever that means". If you don't need the 17 ounce shoe, try the 15 ounce shoe. If that still seems like more than you need, try the 13 ounce shoe. Eventually, you'll find your sweet spot. That's where you want to be. More isn't always better but less also isn't always better. Some people will still be wearing the 17 ounce shoe because that is what they need. Others will keep wearing FiveFingers because that is the shoe that works for them.

In the meantime, I'll keep sticking with my roughly 7 ounce moderately cushioned shoes. In April, I even bought my first pair of "minimal" shoes (see the picture at the top of the post to see what I will be wearing as I head out to run today). They cost me less than the racing flats I usually get and, structurally, are extremely similar. I like the current market. The price points are very nice.

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I tested quite a few neutral lightweight shoes for Saucony in the last 6 months and I can attest that they are getting better and better and I think Saucony is expanding this category. I too like my shoes in the 6 or 7 ounce category. I do find that what I like seems to change a bit as sometimes my legs like cushy light weight and other times they like more of a racing flat.

I have not tried a truly minimal shoe but I consider the flats and light weight shoes to be enough shoe for me.

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Honestly, from the "minimal" shoes I now have (the Brooks Pure Connect pictured at the top of this post) I can't tell much of a difference between minimal and racing flats. My first reaction when I put them on my feet was thinking how much like the Asics Hyperspeed that has been my standard trainer they feel. It's been my observation that many of the minimal shoes are essentially racing flats that have been slightly tweaked and rebranded. Of course, if you're talking the "barefoot" category, that's a different story.

I think those of us who will be sticking with the "minimal" (or racing flats) lines are going to see some nice options and better pricing as the market settles. Less demand will mean prices will fall a bit, especially as manufacturers and retailers are overstocked. The broadening market will mean more options available. Combine those and you have more options at reasonable prices. I'm looking forward to the near term future.

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Andrew A.

No surprise, this could be seen coming for a while. The fact that Vibram, despite routinely selling out of their Fivefingers models, did not invest in expanding production more rapidly more or less predicted it; they did not over-leverage their company for what looked to be little more than a large spike in sales that would not be sustained for more than a few years. I have a similar perspective to Ryan's. I started out running in cushioned stability shoes in the '90s, from the original Kayano (and its predecessor) to the asics Exult and what it became, the DS Trainer, to more stripped-down shoes on a gradual basis. Yet I was not going to make myself uncomfortable just for the sake of a huge jump towards an arbitrary target of running in as little shoe as I could find. I would try a shoe and if I liked it, would stick with it for a couple of years. All the while, I would of course do faster workouts in racing shoes. That ideal is one that has been around far longer than the so-called minimalist movement: training in the shoes one plans to use for racing. That comparatively glacial style of change is what I believe has set me up to now be able to do a 20K trail run in something like the NB MT110 or Inov8 X-talon 212 with little issue at all.

I agree with Charlene, Saucony - along with New Balance - has done an impressive job of bringing good, stripped-down style shoes to the market that address the wants and needs of runners who have no interest or benefit in any of the various so-called barefoot shoes on the market. The Kinvara (old model on clearance at Running Warehouse, incidentally) and Virrata are two that immediately come to mind as shoes that I would be keen to use for training.

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I really like the Brooks Pure Flow right now. It's light enough and flexible (I hate stiff shoes), just enough cushion to buffer the pounding of pavement and the sole lasts a long time. I think I had somewhere around 700 miles on the first pair when I finally gave them up because they were pretty ripe. But the sole was still good. The Kinvara sole wears down to nothing in a less than 200 miles. For $100+ that's not worth the money for me no matter how much I like the shoe. I also like the bright colors. I'm really tired of baby blue, pink and other pastel colors for women's shoes. I want cool color shoes like they make for men. Black is always a good color.

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Since I've heard from you about the lack of Kinvara durability, I've heard this from a few others. Going off nearly 200 miles in the Pure Connect so far, I have been impressed with the durability. My best guess right now is that I'll easily surpass 500 miles with these shoes. There is some sign of sole wear but nothing too significant and the upper is showing no signs of wear. I'm becoming a Brooks fan with the help of this shoe.

As for colors, what happened to the simple colors? I liked my old white shoes with colored trim. The Pure Connect image I included above is the least flashy I could find (hence, my choice of that color). I'm not a fan of real flashy shoes. Just give me a basic, understated shoe and I'm happy. I guess I'm in a distinct minority.

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