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.
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!