It might seem as if the idea of running barefoot was conceived in the last decade, but distance runners were kicking off their shoes for runs on soft surfaces long before the modern minimalist trend kicked in. Even more notable is the fact that many cultures, both modern and historical, hardly use shoes in the first place. So, from a historical and anthropological perspective, observing how the recent explosion of minimalism transformed minimalist running from an understated training technique into a highly polarized issue is fascinating. Supporters purport minimalism as the truest form of running while detractors dismiss it as a complete fad. We are now at the point where opinions overshadow the actual science that helped initiate the craze. Fortunately, researchers like Daniel Lieberman and brands like Merrell have done their best to avoid conjecture and continue their work to better understand the relationships between footwear, running mechanics, and staying healthy.
At a basic level, running barefoot or in minimalist shoes promotes landing on the forefoot rather than heel striking. This style has been shown to better dissipate the impact of landing, which decreases stress on the skeleton. Additionally, forefoot striking generally leads runners to lean forward slightly and may improve the efficiency with which they glide from one stride to the next.
With findings like that, making the switch to minimalism seems like something we should all pursue. But, switching shoes does not guarantee a change in foot-strike, and a change in foot-strike does not guarantee that you will be injury free. Research on the subject is ongoing, and the issue of foot-strike patterns is highly complex.* The simple truth is that minimalism is great for some and bad for others, particularly those with a history of foot injuries. For most people though, minimalist running is just a useful training tool and nothing more.
If you are considering testing out or adopting minimalist running, it is important to keep in mind how much prior experience you have. The mechanics of a person who has used cushioned running shoes for their entire life will be significantly different from those of a person who has been running barefoot. Like a hot bath, minimalism is something that you ease yourself into.
One of the brands that has done a particularly good job of facilitating minimalism is Merrell. Despite the dramatic shifts in public opinion, Merrell has remained steadfast in offering diverse running shoes and continues to update and improve their minimalist models. For runners who want an almost barefoot experience with enough cushioning for protection from rocks and broken glass, the Merrell Vapor Glove 3 is a highly popular option.** Just a step up from the Vapor Glove with regards to cushioning and traction is the Merrell Trail Glove 4, which is designed for use on trails where more underfoot hazards; such as boulders, thorns, and errant porcupines; are present.
By continuing to question the need for excessive cushioning, Merrell and other brands add to the diversity of ideas and technologies in the running industry. With further research and ingenuity, the evolution of running shoes should continue to create better and better products for all types of runners.
*For a more detailed summary of the research being done on different foot-strike patterns, see Competitor’s article here.
**The Merrell Vapor Glove 2 reached 16th on our men’s bestselling shoe list in the second quarter of 2016, and other models continue to sell well.
Will has been running competitively since high school, and is currently running with the HOKA Aggies, a post-collegiate club here on the central coast of California. With a preference for the humorous and the verbose, he enjoys playing the wordsmith almost as much as his daily runs.