Friday, June 22, 2012

The Historic Moment the Blogosphere Missed

Runner’s World has been reviewing shoes for forty years now, and for nearly thirty of those years has been classifying shoes into one of four categories: motion-control, stability, neutral-cushioned, and performance-training. This is a paradigm that for years has been disputed, lamented, mocked, and cursed by those promoting natural running, and quietly but conclusively disproved by the scientific community. As lately as the December 2011 issue, shoes in the Winter Shoe Guide were categorized this way.  However, in their Spring Shoe Guide from the March 2012 issue, Runner's World abruptly abandoned this paradigm. 
In that issue the editor-in-chief writes that “in the late ‘70s … the age of the high-tech, built-up, expensive running shoe was upon us.  More was more.  Now the pendulum is swinging back. Every company has a ‘minimal’ or ‘barefoot’ shoe, and every race has at least one guy booking along in Vibram FiveFingers…. So it’s appropriate that the way we review shoes should change as well, and this issue we introduce the latest significant evolution, which moves away from shoehorning runners into the familiar categories that RW codified in the ‘70s.” In the preface to the shoe guide, the authors explain that “over time that model has grown outdated.” In place of the previous categories, the new guide places all shoes on “a continuum from ‘more shoe’ … to ‘less shoe.’”

To those of us who have been awaiting the coming revolution, this ought to be a significant piece of news. The basis for these categories is the idea that you are born broken, that non-corrective shoes are only for a small, discrete section of the running population and that everyone else needs shoes that prevents their aberrant feet from doing anything untoward. This doesn't just give people low foot-esteem, it encourages them to choose shoes which will weaken and possibly injure their feet and discourages those who already have problems from seeking options that would actually help them, such as improving their form or strengthening their feet (because hey, why work out when you can buy something to fix your problems?). The new approach isn't perfect, but it is much closer to the way barefoot/minimalist runners tend to view footwear.

Now, the party poopers and counterrevolutionaries among you may point out that this change doesn’t take a single shoe off the market since Runner's World doesn't make shoes, shoe companies do. 

Pictured: Shoe companies

True, but the reality is that while shoe companies are the ones who make the shoes, it has largely been Runner's World that has been selling them. Consider this: shoe companies often come up with gimmicks features that are supposed to improve performance, or reduce injury, or adjust to a wearer's menstrual cycle, but usually large groups of people don’t become convinced that they need the feature in order to safely perform the activity.  

Forget safety--I need these because they're awesome

So why do so many people believe they need pronation-controlling posts to run but no one believes they need Reebok Pumps to play basketball? It isn't because the runners were convinced by studies showing the benefits of motion-control shoes, because there aren't any.  It’s because two generations of runners have been told they need them by the only major source of independent shoe reviews.

There is another interesting detail to Runner’s World’s decision, and that is the order of events that brought about this change.  Remember that prior to the 1970’s, essentially all running shoes were what we would now refer to as minimalist shoes.  Shoe companies then began experimenting with added features—additional cushioning, stabilizing posts, etc. Runner’s World created categories for these new shoes and began telling people they needed them in order to avoid injury.  People believed what they had been told and began buying the shoes. So to summarize, the order was (1) shoe companies innovate, (2) Runner's World recommends, (3) runners obey.  

Now go back and reread the editor's rationale for the change. He gives two reasons: manufacturers are making more minimal shoes, and more runners are running in them. With a little digging we can clarify that timeline. Why are shoe companies creating so many minimalist offerings? Because Vibram has been making a fortune on their FiveFingers. And how did Vibram decide to make a minimalist running shoe? They didn't. The shoes weren't designed for running and the company was surprised when people started running in them--in fact, it was five years between when Vibram started selling FiveFingers and when they finally came out with a model designed for running. 

So to recap, the timeline was (1) people run barefoot; (2) barefoot runners commandeer FiveFingers; (3) Vibram notices, makes bajillion dollars; (4) other manufacturers notice, try to catch up; (5) Runner's World finally notices, changes shoe reviews. This is almost the opposite of what happened in the '70s. Instead of believing everything they hear and buying what they're told to, the latest generation of runners has taken the initiative, made up their own minds what they want and made the market give it to them. And, fortunately, it all happened without the shedding of blood. 
Not pictured: Saucony's CEO
So if runners are leading the revolution why does it matter what Runner's World says? Because minimalist runners are still the minority. There are still a huge number of runners who believe in the motion-control/stability paradigm and who as a result are too afraid to drive to the grocery store without supportive footwear, let along run barefoot. Runner's World isn't exactly telling these people to disregard the past three decades of misinformation, but they are no longer actively reinforcing the myth. In other words, although Runner's World isn't yet ready to become part of the solution, at least they have decided to no longer be part of the problem.  
The dinosaur is a metaphor for arch support


  1. Great post!

    Today I ran a half-marathon is those shoes:

    Zero drop and inexpensive.

    I would go barefoot if I had trained more.

    1. Thanks. Those shoes look like Chuck Taylors. How are the weight and flexibility?

    2. Well, here in Brazil Chuck Taylors are called All-Star

      The Topper Anderson Canvas (the shoes I used) are a little bit different from Chuck Taylors. But not much. Topper Anderson Canvas sole is kind of rugged (some waves). I am not sure that this (rugged) is the right word, but you can see the sole here:

      Chuck Taylors soles are a little bit different:

      But both are lightweight when compared to most running shoes sold in Brazil.

      The Topper Anderson Canvas is more flexible, because of the "waves" on the sole. You can see some pictures here (I removed the midsole):

      I am sure Chuck Taylors are not as flexible.

    3. Those do look pretty flexible. Removing the midsole was a good idea.

  2. Still, I sense in this new "barefoot/minimalist" phrase a clever plan to sneakily save barefooters from themselves. Barefoot isn't minimalist, and minimalist isn't barefoot. If we convined the whole world to begin running minimalist, and still zero ran barefoot, that would be an F for the barefoot movement. Would a minimalist movement still be good news, even if most of them are converts from the ranks of the barefoot? I think not.

    1. That is a common question among barefoot runners, which I discussed here: Basically, I think the most important point of the barefoot running is form--relearning to run gently and naturally. If everyone were doing that, even in shoes, I think it would be very good news.

  3. We feeling on this fresh "without shoes/smart" expression an inspired intend to surreptitiously help save barefooters through on their own. Without footwear is not minimal, as well as smart is not without shoes. In the event that all of us convined the world to begin with working minimal, but still absolutely no leaped without shoes, that might be a good Farreneheit for your without footwear movements. Might the smart motion be great news, even though a lot of them tend to be turns from your rates from the without shoes?

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