The Shame of the Non-Minimalist Runner

I have a confession to make. It’s a big one, and it might not be very popular.

I can’t run in minimalist shoes. In fact, I hate them.

Vibram fivefingers? No. New Balance Minimus? No. 4mm heel-toe differential? Screw that.

The running community these days is all aflutter with the idea of minimalist shoes – that is, shoes that have limited cushioning and mimic the “natural movements” of our bare feet. In theory, the logic behind it makes reasonable sense – our ancestors ran barefoot for great distances, so why shouldn’t we? Do we really need all of that extra cushioning and stability? Should we be correcting overpronation? After all, those are the natural movements of our feet right? REI has a great explanation of the basics behind the idea, which I won’t pretend to be knowledgeable enough about to bore you with here. Essentially, the idea is that running shoes as we know them today are causing us to land unnaturally and ultimately causing more injury and pain than we would have if we were running barefoot while chasing mastodons, like our ancestors did.

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Ok, now THIS is a man who takes his race costume seriously.

The idea sounds really great in theory. Natural! Minimalist! Getting back to our true state of being! Other things hippies would say! So, the problem? Well, it might not be for everybody. It’s definitely not for me. It’s not for lack of trying, and it’s not even because I think most of the shoes are ugly! They just really make my legs hurt, and I’m sick of being made to feel bad about that. I’m not talking about the people I know who run in these shoes – in fact, I have quite a few friends who wear these hideous creations (sorry Halbert, I love you, but it’s true) and even one who runs completely barefoot – I’m talking about the companies, media outlets, and organizations who are trying to shame runners into running the “right” way, all the while forgetting that we aren’t all the same.

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The guy on the right is my friend Halbert. I like him despite his elitist footwear.

Last spring and summer when I was having so many problems with my back, one of my doctors suggested that I try running in minimalist shoes to see if that would fix the problem. When acclimating to these types of shoes, you’re supposed to build up your mileage base VERY slowly, since your feet and legs need time to adjust to the new ways you’ll be using your muscles. I decided it was worth a try and ordered some shiny new Saucony Kinvaras, which are billed a minimalist shoe with just 4mm difference between the height of your heel and the height of your toe (studies suggested that large heel-toe differentials cause runners to land on their heel first, known as heel-striking, which can lead to impact injuries) but are supposed to have plenty of cushioning for long runs. I began running in them for very short distances (we’re talking a mile, then two miles, etc) with a goal of transitioning to run a marathon in them over the course of a year. Reasonable, right?

Well, as time went on, my back wasn’t feeling any better and my legs were feeling progressively worse. Every time I ran, I got horrible shin splints or would experience extreme pressure in my calves that made me feel like they were going to explode. The strange part? It never happened during marathons, which eventually were the only times I was wearing my old extra-cushioned, big heel-differentialed Mizunos. I finally put the pieces together and realized that I wasn’t having the leg pain in my “bad” running shoes but WAS having it in my natural, “good” running shoes. What the hell?!

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My luck is the worst. My hair is the best.

I felt like a failure. Why couldn’t I run in the cool hippie shoes? How much longer did I have to run before my aggressive heel-striking (thanks to the huge heel-toe differential) caught up with me and I exploded into a million tiny pieces (which seemed to be the only possible option if I did not start wearing minimalist shoes right now)? The thing is, it seems sometimes like the minimalist running community implies that if you heel-strike when you run, you’re basically going to die. You are inches from death. It is the worst thing that can happen to your body/life, and it is the ONLY thing that can happen if you are wearing the evil, bulky, non-minimalist shoes.

My friend Otter is in agreement on this and helped me dig up evidence of minimalist condescension. Take, for example, this excerpt from Altra Running’s website: “Altra Zero Drop Footwear places your heel and forefoot the same distance from the ground for less impact, more stability, and proper running technique.”

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In this clip, Altra is the girl in red and I am the girl in white with the luxurious hair.

Excuse me, proper running technique? Have these people ever watched a marathon? There are as many different strides as their are different runners because everyone is different. Running on one of the popular paths in my community, I can tell from a solid half a mile away if any of my friends are approaching, because all of our strides are so unique and distinct. I realize that last sentence may have sounded extremely creepy and a little stalker-esque, but sorry I’m not sorry. Anyway, the point is that even elite athletes have different strides. If the same type of shoes worked for everyone in the world, we’d all be wearing exactly one brand and model of shoe.

Somehow, some way, despite the fact that I wear those big, heavy, giant-heel-toe-differential, evolution-hating Mizunos, I’m not a heel striker. Do you hear that, minimalist elitists? I land on my midfoot, where I’m “supposed” to land, just fine without those shoes. In fact, the only thing that happens when I wear minimalist shoes (and I’ve tried multiple models, by the way), is pain. Lots and lots of pain. But if I did land on my heel, so what? If I’m not chronically injured and not in pain when I run, does it really matter how I do it? According to some companies, it does, and I don’t appreciate that implication. It’s hard enough just to get out the door and run without worrying about whether or not I’m doing it the “right” way, dammit!

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So THERE

Does that mean mimalist shoes are bad shoes? Not at all! In fact, they’re probably really great for some people. It just means they aren’t right for me. Does it mean I wouldn’t recommend them? No! Give them a try if you want. People ask me all the time what kind of shoes they should buy when they start running, and my answer is always the same – go to a real running store and get fitted for a shoe that works for you. You might hate the shoes that I wear, and that’s ok. You have bad taste in footwear, but I accept you and love you anyway.

I guess my point is that if you’re running regularly and you’re not in pain, you’re doing something right. You’re just fine. If you are in pain, then that’s one thing, but don’t change what you’re doing just because a company, magazine, or blogger (yes, even me) tells you that you should. I’m literally terrified that this minimalist trend is going to become so popular that they’ll stop making “normal” running shoes, and I will be forced to stop running in this post-apocalyptic era. This fear is really not helping my tendency to hoard my running shoes, of which I currently have eight, yes EIGHT, pairs sitting in my closet. And no, I do not think that comparing the end of running shoe production as we know it to the apocalypse is inappropriate, thankyouverymuch. 

TELL ME: What kind of shoes are you rocking during your runs right now? Do you run in minimalist shoes or are you biomechanical failure/crybaby like me?

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