Excessively long titles aside, I just took my first serious run in my new Merrell Trail Gloves, and I think it’s time to put some of my initial reactions out there. If you’re reading this and have some experience one way or the other, feel free to join the peanut gallery below…
NOTE: Although I’ve only had more-than-passing experience with these particular shoes, it’s very likely that I’m about to make some serious generalizations about minimalist shoes as a class below. Keep in mind that I’m just making assumptions, or just replace “minimalist shoes” with “this specific pair of Merrell Trail Gloves after running this particular mileage through downtown Cleveland” if you’re feeling really picky.
Less is More: Arguing FOR minimalist shoes, I’d say it’s kinda nice having less material on my feet. These shoes feel a bit like track flats, actually, meaning they are significantly lighter than traditional trainers (especially the ASICS Gel Foundations that I spent the vast majority of my competitive running life wearing), and they allow your feet to move a lot more like when you’re barefoot (dur…). Of note, I’ve heard that virtually all minimalist and barefoot-style running shoes are much wider in the toe than traditional shoes, which allows your toes to spread on impact as they would naturally. This particular factor can be both a blessing and a curse.
Then again, More is also More: Arguing AGAINST minimalist shoes is mostly the fact that traditional running shoes are just so gosh darn comfortable. Most proponents of natural running claim that this is a problem, since it allows you to run with a form (specifically, heel-striking with excessive and unnecessary impact forces) that your body is not meant for, leading to chronic overuse injuries in the knees and hips. As it turns out, I don’t think I’ve ever had an overuse injury from running, and back in the day, I ran a LOT. I firmly believe that if you run properly and keep your head about you, you can most certainly run in traditional running shoes without fear of an inevitable stress fracture or premature osteoarthritis. Furthermore, most people have been heel-striking practically since birth – it feels natural by this point, and I think the case can be made for not messing with a good thing.
Road Running: The clincher here is obviously the impact factor – concrete is hard, and pounding out miles on the road was never something I looked forward to. The beauty of traditional shoes is that they cushion the blow, but the upswing of “natural” running is that you run with the intent of using your body’s built-in method of lessening impact forces – by landing on your toes, you allow your spring and transverse metatarsal ligaments to take a good portion of the blow, and your calves to take the rest. This greatly reduces the impact forces on the knees and hips, as noted in this seminal paper, but as the authors note, such a method of running can lead to other injuries, including calf and Achilles sprains (not very much fun either). I suppose where you come down on this question depends on your own personal strengths and weaknesses. If you have a long history of knee pain, but strong calves, I would definitely try out some Merrells or Vibrams. If, on the other hand, you’ve never had a problem with overuse injuries and you like your puny little calves just the way they are, feel free to stick with your bulky heel-strikers.
Trail Running: OK, even though I grew into my first pair of running shoes on the wooded trails of Rhode Island, I can’t say I’ve had the occasion to try out the new Merrells on the trails on which they were meant to be used. Therefore, I base this next statement on the 30 seconds I spent running in the grass on the side of the road the other day – it felt f***ing amazing. Maybe I’ve just been deprived of dirt for too long, but I like the sensation of running minimalist on an already low-impact surface. Since I can’t really speak on this subject, though, I plan to take a few runs on the nearby toepath, and I’ll update this post when I do.
Run for the Hills: Anyone without some practice running hill workouts will probably find it delightful to discover how much sense it makes to pop up on your toes when you take an incline. It really is the best way to run a hill. The benefit of going minimalist is that you’re already in that position, which makes hills seem super easy. However, running downhill becomes pretty brutal, especially when you consider that you’re stopping your foot with even more force on the toes, which makes for some truly unpleasant blisters, as I recently found out. Thus, I’m kinda equivocal on this point.
The Need for Speed: This is a really tough one to judge. I initially thought that I was running so much faster with my new shoes. However, I could probably chalk the instant burst of speed to a number of things: (1) my first few runs didn’t exceed 1 mile; (2) running on your toes naturally puts you in a “sprinting” stance, which may have just had me running at my already-set faster pace (and tiring me out faster than usual as well); or (3) I could have just been running faster. Having said all that, my speed boost did in fact carry over to my recent 4.5 mile run, so I guess we’ll have to just wait and see how it all pans out.
Having a bit of experience with my new minimalist shoes, I haven’t really been swung strongly in either direction of the “great debate”. On the upside, minimalist shoes are lightweight and demand a particular running style that has both pros and cons itself. On the other hand, most of us have very significant experience with traditional shoes, which lends them a certain degree of comfort and reassurance. If you haven’t had any real problems with them, I don’t really see a hugely compelling reason to switch. If, however, you do wish to make the transition, I would potentially recommend starting with a “transitional” shoe, like those made by Newton, which allow you to get used to a more forward-leaning style and to build calf strength before going full-minimalist.
All told, I think I’ll continue my Barefoot Adventures for the time being. Obviously, I’m thrilled to have you all along for the ride.
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