November 7, 2011

Footwear and the Middle Ground

During the buildup to last week's NYC Marathon, Born to Run author Chris McDougal wrote an article for the NY Times called The Once and Future Way to Run. In the piece he describes a basic form drill that most high school coaches have all of their runners do as some new "breakthrough" to faster running. Its a nice story, but taken way out of context... just like many of the quotes and stories in Born to Run were taken out of context.

I wrote some of my comments on this latest article on my fast running blog, and got some excellent responses and discussion from other members of the FRB community. If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend that you read these blog posts from Alex Hutchinson and Pete Larson. These guys do an excellent job of presenting the case for the "middle ground," which is where the vast majority of us can be found.

I'm by no means anti-minimalism. I just think its crazy that McDougal accuses the running shoe companies of conspiring to get us hurt via their supposed "one size fits all, everyone needs super cushioned anti-pronation shoes" marketing... but then he essentially advocates barefoot or ultra-minimal running as the "cure" for all running injuries. Isn't he essentially doing the same thing (ie. prescribing a one size fits all solution)?

I think trying to learn to run with good form is important for all runners. But that being said, we are all unique and will find different things that work for us. For a lot of recreational runners, its not necessarily the shoes that are causing the problem, lack or proper recovery between workouts, lack of strength in their stabilizing muscles, or even something simple like packing an extra ten pounds around the midsection that might actually be the culprit.

I'm admittedly not a fan of McDougal and I shudder when I see people running barefoot on the sidewalks, but I will say that I am very happy that he wrote the book. The fallout (due to its popularity) was that many of the major running shoe companies began to think more about the products they were making, and how to make them better. They innovated and cut some of the fat out of their shoes. Saucony introduced models like the Kinvara, and slightly altered the geometry of some of their flagship models. These were major improvements that many runners are very happy about, myself included, and I love running in lightweight, flexible shoes. There are a lot of benefits (in my opinion) to this new generation of minimalist-inspired running shoes. They encourage midfoot striking, which is a more efficient and less abusive (on the joints) method of running. As a somewhat natural midfoot striker, shoes like the Kinvara feel very natural on my feet. For someone like Andrea, they have helped her convert to being more of a midfoot runner over the past year.

Its funny, but of course not surprising, to me that all the media attention goes to the extreme and radical ideas, out on the fringes... the barefoot runners, or on the other end of the spectrum - the "Hoka" crowd with their super-cushioned cloud running shoes. There is no doubt that for certain folks, Vibrams or Hokas are exactly what they need to run healthy. But for the vast majority of us, who live somewhere in between those two worlds, this is actually a really exciting time to be a runner as the shoe companies have come out lots of new options for fast, light, flexible footwear that still some cushion and the support many of us want (and need).

One end of the spectrum... monkey feet!...
The other end of the spectrum... running on a cloud!
The Saucony Kinvara is my favorite day-to-day trainer.
I think its the perfect introduction to minimalism for most runners.


  1. Thanks Jake. What do you think about Altras? Those were the only shoes that felt good on my feet at the running store the other day. All of the above makes perfect sense to me. I am going to try on the kinvaras as they have been recommended to me by AmberG, Josse, and NOW you. JulieC.

  2. Julie - I haven't worn the Altras but the thing to keep in mind is that they have zero heel to toe drop. That is a big departure from what you are probably used to. Personally, I would try something "in-between" first. But that being said, a lot of people seem to really like them.

  3. I've become a huge fan of the Saucony Kinvara as well. Although it does need to be switched with regular trainers to help not put too much pressure on your feet.

  4. Jake,

    Dave from the running blog (rockness18)- I really appreciate your thoughts and ability to see good come out of perceived biases- thanks!

  5. Hi Jake, I'm a local runner and I definitely agree with your shoes views. For racing flats I've always gone with adidas but my girlfriend wears the same shoes as you and she absolutely loves the kinvaras, her blog-->
    Good luck in Philadelphia!