Minimalist Versus Support Shoes – In My Humble Opinion

From Rhod:

I have been wearing minimalist shoes, namely the Vibram 5 fingers and more recently the New Balance Minimus for close to 3 years and have used them for a variety of different endeavors ranging from gym work, running (trails not pavement), kayaking, Stand Up Paddling and lounging in the living room to name a few.  Until recently I never had a problem with the associated complaints/injuries associated with this type of footwear, namely plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, overuse of the calf muscles (soleus and gastroc), stress fracture and peroneal tendon tears or overuse. Recently I developed the dreaded plantar fasciitis and was unable to fully weight bear the affected foot for the better part of two weeks and this got me thinking. Is it time for a change??

When researching any topic these days you can find valid points for and/or against to help validate your point of view or theories. Usually I find that the truth is somewhere in-between both points of view and so it goes for me with the minimalist versus support/cushioning debate.

One of my favorite things about the minimalist shoe is the amount of biofeedback I get from my feet to brain and back again. For me, it’s like comparing wearing a nitrile glove to a boxing glove. I just feel so nimble when I wear them – and being nimble when running the rocky Front Range trails is something that you must have in your repertoire if you don’t want your feet to get injured. The downside though is that one misplaced step going downhill at full speed is likely to put you out of the game for a while. I also like the solid platform feel I get from the minimalist shoe when wearing them for a functional strength session.

We are all aware of the potential benefits of minimalism (my reasoning was the strengthening of the connective tissue) but after my bout with plantar fasciitis I wondered how much was too much? After my rehab I decided to get a new pair of trail shoes. After trying on the entire range of footwear in the store and not finding that perfect feel I decided to try the HOKA ONE ONE brand – also known to my friends and colleagues as moon shoes, shape ups and club foot shoes. Highly skeptical I put them on and ran on the treadmill. One word describes them for me – phenomenal. The original designers from Salomon started this brand to provide mid foot strikers (the shoe has zero degree heel to toe drop) a maximum cushioned ride – and they did it perfectly in my opinion. It fits like a glove and the next day I ran 20 blister free miles feeling like I was running on sphagnum moss the entire time. Do I wear them for functional strength sessions – absolutely not, but if I’m going to run 5 or more miles, these shoes are on my feet. Anything less than 5 miles I will wear my minimalist shoes. I feel that the short distance is not going to accumulatively beat up my connective tissue and put me out of action for another 2 weeks. Instead, it will help maintain strength in the muscles, tendons and ligaments of my lower limbs while keeping my proprioception sharp.

In short, both shoes are advantageous in a training regimen when used appropriately. The minimalist shoe is good for the points noted above.  The support/cushioning shoe for longevity and preventing overuse/misuse problems especially when running greater distances.

Here are a few things to bear in mind when it comes to your workout footwear:

  1. If you are converting to a minimalist shoe do so slowly. Start walking in them first, then slowly build your mileage from week to week. I do not advise running on pavement in minimal footwear- it is just too hard on the body overall.
  2. If you are running 5 miles or more, do yourself a favor and wear a cushioned/support shoe that compliments your foot strike pattern (pronation or supination). It is the wise thing to do from a longevity standpoint. Besides the cushion/support trail shoe is way more forgiving on those sharp rocks so they allow you to absolutely bomb downhill. This saves the workload on the quadricep muscles that have to act like brakes the entire time when heading downhill on a thin piece of rubber.
  3. When you buy a new pair of shoes, go to a specific dealer who can get you in the right shoe. Don’t go to Sports Authority and pick the shoe that you love the color or look of. Footwear is for function, not for fashion
  4. Your shoe should fit like a glove in the store. There is no such thing as “I’ll break them in” – your feet will lose that battle and you won’t be able to return them to the store, as they will be covered in your blood.
  5. Don’t go for the cheapest shoe. If you do, you‘ll end up spending way more money on physical therapists that will have to fix the issue of cheap footwear in the first place.

 

Let us know if you are minimalist or maximalist (if that’s a real word) and why..

4 comments

  1. Hey Jon, great article. I just stepped down from a bulkier Mizuno to one of their less supportive Wave Riders, which are nowhere near a minimal shoe, but a small step in that direction. Much better road feel, but I’m already feeling some issues with my Achilles. I’m an old fart, and I’ve been running the same way my entire life, pretty much injury free. While I certainly appreciate the potential benefits and love the feel of minimalist shoes, I’m in the game to play, and don’t want to be sidelined by an injury, so I’m sticking with what’s worked. By the way, I love the Solomon’s for trail.

    • Great response Mike! We appreciate the feedback and thanks for the recommendations! BTW, Rhod wrote the article..

  2. Stephen

    Hey Rhodri, great article. My opinion is biased towards the minimalist shoe sense I have wore nothing else sense becoming more active in trail running. I currently wear the NB 110 and have been now for about 4 months. They are by far the most comfortable fitting shoe that I have ever worn. The “biofeedback” as you put it, can not be overstated when describing the benefits to wearing my NB’s. The feel of the trail, the lightness in my feet supersedes any discomfort I may feel from the occasional rock. I think the key for me was slowly breaking myself in, starting off at 2-3 miles at a time and then slowly working up to 10-12 miles. I had the tight calf’s in the beginning like most people experience but with routine stretching that eventually subsided. As I have mentioned, it has only been 4 months wearing NB’s so give me a year and I might be singing a different tune. For now I’ll be sticking with the minimalist approach.

  3. Nice article, Rhod. I switched to VFFs earlier this year, having been a lifelong Asics runner. Started slowly, adjusting my heel-strike style to a fore/mid-strike, and now happily run up to 6k in them, on all surfaces including road. I’ve noticed significant benefits with energy use and muscle balance, particular on longer runs (I’m still using my regular shoes for longer distances, but benefits are carrying over). For anyone considering switching, taking it slowly is crucial to avoid injury, and people may want to get professional advice or gait analysis from a coach before they start.

    Totally agree with you that footwear is both functional, and very personal! Whilst VFFs work well for me across shorter distances (and are awesome for business travel – so much less to pack!), I do need to find a zero-drop shoe that will suit my adjusted running style, but will provide a little more protection on longer distances & rougher terrain. The hunt continues… 🙂

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