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Friday, January 6, 2012

It's 2012. Time to Embrace Cushioning?

You heard me.  I said cushioning.  Is cushioning a swear word to you?  Well before you click off this post in disgust, let me explain.

2011 was the year of the minimalist shoe.  It was one of the top 10 sports trends of the year.  You know what I think 2012 is?  The year of the reduced shoe (or transitional shoe, or whatever made up name you want to give it). 

I see a lot of things on the horizon that tell me that the barefoot running landscape is going to change, and change rapidly in 2012.  The biggest sign?  Several different companies are introducing lines of zero-drop or low-drop, cushioned shoes this year (google Merrell Mix Master or Bare Access, and New Balance Minimus Amp to start).

"Transitional" and "reduced" shoes are a bit of a niche right now, but mark my words...they are going to be the hottest selling shoes of 2012. 

You can fight it if you want to.  You can get angry at the fact that there's no such thing as a barefoot shoe.  Or at folks saying they are barefoot running while wearing a Nike Free.  You can look at these new shoes and grumble something with the words minimal and groundfeel in it.  Go be a weird barefoot hermit in a cave for all I care. 

I'm not going to fight it.  I'm going to embrace it.  I'm embracing the cushioning.  At least for now.  Mmmmm....squishy...

I'm not saying that I'm going to go out and buy a pair of cushioned trainers.  But I think in 2012...it's time for us to re-examine our beliefs a bit.  And when I do that, it tells me that we need to lighten up and get over ourselves a little. 

Some background

The more I get involved in the world of health and fitness, the more I notice a trend.  When it comes to what is best for our bodies, we tend to overreact.  If you're a barefoot runner, you've probably done it a few times.  How quickly after you came over to minimalist or barefoot running did you go from a typical shod runner eating a standard American diet to a paleo/vegan kilt-wearer that wears only sandals (if anything), doesn't stretch, only eats every 16 hours, and won't do anything that gets your heart rate up above 145 bpm?

Let me guess.  You've also done at least one set of 100-Ups too? 



Wow, a burn that includes barefoot runners, two diets, stretching, a questionable running fashion trend, the Maffetone Method, AND a ridiculous cure-all exercise?  Yes, I am just...that...good. 

Side note: I wouldn't want to be standing in front of the guy wearing Brooks Infiniti 3 shorts when he starts doing 100-Ups.  Think about it...

When a trend comes out in the health and fitness world, the approach that forms around it in the short-term  is usually a bit severe.  We rapidly embrace it wholehardedly, despite the fact that it's not fully fleshed out.  And it's generally full of holes.  Big ones.  A good example of this is in the whole paleo versus vegan debate (which I won't describe in detail, but rather point you to a blog post Jason did on the subject a while back). 

Then what happens is that we learn more, and thus the pendulum starts to come back to some kind of middle ground, but doesn't quite get there.  Usually because people invested in the original idea (financially or otherwise) won't concede everything.  So the theory usually stops in some kind of ridiculous grey area with a bunch of ridiculous rules that make even less sense than the original ones.  As fitness guru Alwyn Cosgrove is fond of saying, "In the field of strength and conditioning the pendulum always swings. We over-react in the short term and under-react in the long term." 

With the paleo diet, we ended up in the hands of folks like Mark Sisson, who advocates an 80/20 rule where you can cheat and have non-paleo foods 20% of the time...but doesn't really give any reason why that is desirable or even healthy...except that grains are yummy.  With stretching, it means that static stretching is out because it's "unnatural", but the oh-so natural act of squishing your body against a long tube of foam is in.



Just as nature intended.  Though from this angle I do see some benefits to foam rolling...

The truth tends to be somewhere further away from where we land.  We're just not willing to go there and compromise what we perceive to be our principles. 

As applied to barefoot running

Why do I bring all this up?  Because in the world of barefoot running, I think the pendulum has already swung into to the ridiculous grey area. 

Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in how we classify shoes.  There currently isn't a widely accepted definition of the term "minimal shoe".  I think we all loosely define whether a shoe is minimal according to something like Pete Larson's definition: "A shoe that comes as close to the barefoot condition as possible."  So we all agree that the Brooks Beast is not minimal. 

But when we reach the fuzzy edges, we've all developed a set of completely arbitrary lines in the sand at which point a shoe should no longer be considered "minimal"...which has in turn spawned an ever more complex series of arbitrary lines describing so-called "barefoot shoes", "transitional shoes", "reduced shoes" and so on.  We're even having arguments about what meaningless term to give our shoes, whether it's "minimal shoes", or "barefoot shoes", or "bareshoes". 



This is what everyone else thinks about our little word game by the way.

Side note: The only term you will never catch me using is "barefoot shoes".  That's a marketing term invented by Vibram and others to sell more shoes.  If you use it as a blogger, you're obviously only concerned with google search results and are therefore an internet fame whore.  "Hello pot...this is kettle..."

In my opinion, what we've done is to create a whole series of complicated rules whereby we judge certain shoes to be "good" and others to be "bad" based solely on their features.  Specifically, we consider "minimal shoes" to be good, and all other shoes with bad.  A shoe that is not "minimal" enough means that it is not "barefoot enough".  Therefore...it's bad on its face.  I suggest to you that the answer is more complicated. 

Are reduced shoes bad?

If you've read my rants for long enough, you know that I've been moving away from arguing that shoes are the enemy towards an argument that bad form is the enemy (here's the full argument).  Going barefoot is certainly the best way to quickly develop and maintain good form.  And shoes certainly can interfere with our form.  There's way more to it than just barefoot versus shoes though.

For one, shoes aren't always the cause of bad form.  Ever seen a barefooter heel strike?  I have. 



Now you have too.  Running form is not dependant shoe choice.  It's just negatively influenced by it.  Barefoot running just has the least amount of negative influence. 

Nor is form the only consideration.  A shoe a wide variety of benefits.  It offers protection from the elements and terrain.  They allow you to run further and sometimes faster than you otherwise would, go places you otherwise wouldn't go, and do things that you otherwise wouldn't do.  The list goes on.  Those are good things.

Whether a shoe is good or bad is therefore a balancing act.  A shoe can be good or bad for you, whether or not it's minimal.  The concept of putting a shoe on a scale from minimal to maximal is helpful in making that assessment, but not determinative.  I would say a shoe becomes bad when the benefits received from the shoe are outweighed by it detriments.

What's good about these reduced shoes?  I think most importantly, these shoes are going to cause whole new crop of folks to be turned on running and fitness, just like they did with the Merrell Trail Glove.  And they are going to encourage people to think critically about traditional footwear.  Those are huge pluses in my book.

Are some people going to run with bad form in these shoes, or do too much too soon?  Yes.  But some will in minimal shoes as well (or while barefoot for that matter).  On the other hand, these shoes will also help some people to run with good, or at least better form.

Seems like a positive to me.  I don't know...we'll have to see.  But I'm certainly not immediately writing them off because of a little cushioning.  I'm even starting to think cushioning isn't all bad (that's another post).

I know that barefoot and minimalist running is best for me, and maybe for you too.  That doesn't mean when these reduced shoes come on the market that you need to beat your chest and maybe even do a few "Hail Ken Bob's" to rid yourself of the demons. 



Or maybe just stroke his beard for luck?

I would have done the same thing a year ago.  But I also think that what's more important is that we constantly re-examine our believes in the face of new information.  This new crop of shoes presents us with a perfect opportunity.    

Cheers to 2012!  I think it's going to get a little crazy up in this joint!

23 comments:

  1. I haven't witnessed a bf'r hit the heel first. I've seen the whole foot come down at the same time. I for one have tried to be in a minimalist cushioned shoe and it still proved to be disasterous for me. :( Each person is different.

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  2. If you watch the video, the person at around 0:27 is barefoot and heel striking.

    My point is that our current categories are too confusing and a bit too simplistic.

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  3. Christian, I'm disappointed in your inability to choose a running philosophy and stick with it, facts and evidence be damned.

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  4. I know right? I'm so reasonable and open-minded. Horrible traits in a lawyer...

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  5. Ok how the hell could he do that and not feel it???? Maybe he's new to BFing? That hurts just watching

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  6. I just got my Merrell Mix Masters, but find myself fighting a weird sort of guilt about buying such a built-up show. It's almost like I'm cheating on my huarches, Trail Gloves and EVO. Fact is though, there are conditions and races where I'll be happy to have a bit more cushioning. I'll just have to get over myself though - it's a pretty sweet shoe for the gnarly stuff.

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  7. A short story to illustrate your point: My husband has no interest whatsoever in minimalist shoes or barefoot running. He badly needed new shoes so I told him how our local running store had the ProGrid Kinvara 2 on sale. I said nothing about "transitional" or "minimalist", he wouldn't have liked that.

    He bought them, complained for a few days of odd calf and lower back pain (Iprobably the shoes) and they're now his favorite pair of running shoes ever.

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  8. should read: (I didn't tell him it was probably the shoes).

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  9. Great post,, alot to think on,, I read it in two sittings...lol
    Buddy in the video must have been hurting afterwards.
    Im sure to some peoplebarefoot running is just a fad but others that have seen the results will keep it up.
    kenny

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  10. Not a bad heel strike at all in that vid. Knee is still bent and it appears he is loading the whole foot at the peak of the impact. If it hurt, I don't think he would have been doing it (wasn't that vid taken after a few miles of running?).

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  11. Jaymon is absolutely a barefoot running heel striker! He has been doing it for years now and totally not injured. He lands light and smooth but definitely a heel striker.

    It is not common but can be done and in his case can be done well.

    I am all about adapting and moving with the world. Go with the flow and try and change the current from within.

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  12. shoes arent the enemy. shoe companies are. selling shoes that they say prevent injury which actually cause more injury.

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  13. I don't necessarily think heel striking is always bad. If you're interested, read some of the research by Jay DiCherry over at the Natural Running Center. Very interesting stuff. It talks about heel striking not really being much of a determining factor in impact force.

    I'll have a post nerding out with all of that stuff soon.

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  14. You bring up some good points. The only reason most of us started barefoot and/or minimalist running was for the fact it promoted natural form. So why should we go bat-shit nuts about all of these not so minimalist shoes if it will bring more people to natural form exercise? Not everyone needs to be barefoot or as close to it as possible. People with leg length discrepancy come to mind. Good on you for the positive outlook.

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  15. The barefoot gods are going to cut your brake lines for this post. Trust me on this one. ;-)

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  16. Christian, I really like this post and can relate to much of it (laughed out loud at the bit about trying paleo diet, Maffetone, etc). I only run barefoot occassionally and have tried lots of minimalist/reduced shoes in the past year. My two favourite shoes are those that have a bit of cushioning - the Altra Instinct and the NB Minimus MR00. Do these shoes replicate barefoot running? Of course not, no shoe does. Have these shoes helped me enjoy my running more, improve my form, reduce my injuries etc? Absolutely. Surely that's all that matters. Great blog, paul.

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  17. Im unashamedly a little competitive with my running, I like to beat other people in races.... they are races after all thats the whole point.

    I could try and run all my training volume barefoot...id give myself at most 4-5 days before i couldnt even walk anymore. Instead i like to mix in barefoot running, with running in cushioned low heel drop shoes, and yep even the occasional run in shoes with a full heel... each is a tool that i use to achieve my goals in running.

    Im sure weve all heard the annecdot about only having one tool in your toolbox....

    More power to you MGBG.

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  18. What about sit-stand workstation?
    But seriously, I think your point is totally valid and fits, without any contradiction, into the 'shoes-r-tools' paradigm. Adding to 'temps' and 'terrain' as parameters within which shoddedness is justifiable, we can now add 'training regimes' and 'individual biomechanics.' The default barefoot setting is then: short-to-medium distances on smooth asphalt in moderate temps 3-5 times a week. Anything top-bottom, left-or-right of that and the shoes-r-tools paradigm kicks in.

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  19. Very good post for a lawyer! How could you be so brutally honest?

    I am a big fan of Vivobarefoot. It's too bad that they use the term "barefoot" shoes since there is no such thing on planet earth.

    I think if you want to make a fashion statement with your barefoot running, walk into a bucket of fast drying latex paint. When I paint my home, I usually do it barefoot so I can notice when I step into paint and not walk all over the fricken house before I wipe it off. When I used to paint with my shoes on, I would track paint all over the house.

    Back to my point. Let the paint dry and you will have lightest pair of "barefoot" shoes. I would not advocate spray painting your feet because it's permanent. Latex will peel off. I have done it by accident.

    If you plan on running a trail marathon like the Western States 100, then you can always get a bucket of drive-way or roof sealer at Home Depot and dip your feet into it.

    Cheers to minimalist shoes! I had to go back from barefoot running to Merrell Trail Gloves and custom orthodics because a very stubborn case of plantar fasciitis. I got into barefoot running stricktly to improve my form and stop heel striking. My pf is nearly gone. I do my Beach Body Insanity workout routine 5-6 days a week in the trail gloves.

    When I ran track and cross country at Minnetonka Sr. High School, our coach had us running barefoot back in the '70's! He said it was good for our form. We all embraced it. I have never stopped.

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  20. Why should cushioning be considered bad, anyway? The most pleasurable running shoe for everyone -- including Paleo man -- is grass. Why shouldn't you want to recreate that feeling when running on concrete or harder surfaces? And how is running on concrete with a cushioned shoe so much different than just running on grass? Something doesn't quite add up with this whole barefoot running thing.

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  21. Oops, I meant ..."pleasurable running EXPERIENCE...." Sorry for the typo.

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