Since the beginning of our minimalist shoe journey, I have had difficulty explaining what a normal shoe actually does for us aside from added cushioning. I mean, there has to be a purpose for all of these different styles of shoes, right? Well, turns out there is a purpose, and it is much more involved than you might think.
Before I run down the list of all the different styles of shoes, I would like to stress just how important it is that you purchase shoes from people who know what they are doing. In short, don’t purchase from a big box sporting goods store. I recognize that this probably seems obvious for most accomplished runners, but unfortunately there is a large part of the market that purchases their shoes based off of aesthetics and comfort, rather than their specific needs. Most quality running shops will go out of their way to make sure you not only have the right size and color, but the best type of shoe for you. When was the last time a Dick’s Sporting Goods salesman put you on a treadmill and recorded your foot strike? Not to mention the fact that most employees at sporting goods stores are likely just people who need a job and aren’t necessarily people who have an active lifestyle.
Anyway, back to my original point, traditional shoes actually do serve a purpose and our friend Rolando (an accomplished minimalist ultra-marthoner) from our favorite running store in Madison, Berkeley Running Company, took the time to set up the picture above and to explain each shoe’s specific purpose. The photo, which I think is a very striking image illustrating just how different minimalist and barefoot shoes are from traditional running shoes, shows the progression from a full motion control shoe to a barefoot-style shoe.
The motion control shoe is for the severe over-pronators of the world, which tends to be caused by having little to no arch. Those who over-pronate can also be victims of plantar fasciitis or knee injuries. The motion control shoe works by adding extra cushioning to the midsole and internal support structures designed to reduce pronation.
The stability shoe is designed specifically for those with a medium or “normal” arch. Basically, this is the foot that shoe companies have deemed as “normal”. The stability shoe is less about correcting and more about perfecting. The individuals with “normal” feet are lucky in that although there is some light pronation for everyone, the amount of pronation for this foot type does not cause the same issues as an over or under-pronator. Some of the corrective tools of the motion control shoe may be present in a stability shoe, and they may also show some resemblance to the cushioned shoe, but in direct comparison, the stability shoes are much less effective in mediating the motion of the foot.
The cushioned shoe is designed for those with high arches and for under-pronators (supinators). Since all runners have a natural pronation, there are issues with those who under-pronate. An under-pronator is a runner who rarely uses the entire foot. After their heel strikes the ground, the weight rolls onto the mid-foot and then the push off comes from the small toes. This is a problem because of the injuries that could be caused from not correctly distributing the weight across the entire foot. The cushioned shoe provides more cushioning along the outside of the foot in order to relieve stress.
The transitional shoe is designed for the traditional runner who wants to transition into a more natural running form. The idea being that instead of removing all of the cushioning from the shoe, like the minimalist or barefoot styles, they instead lower the heel to toe drop to somewhere between a 4 to 9mm to begin forcing the runner to a mid- or forefoot strike.
There are a few shoes out there that are hybrids. The major player in this arena right now is the Adidas Adizero. The Adizero has a lower heel to toe drop, a lower stack height, and is extremely low weight. This type of shoe tends to be a good option for the traditional marathoner looking for a little less shoe. It is arguable as to whether or not this shoe be considered a minimalist, transitional, or just another traditional shoe with a little less meat. That said, don’t underestimate this style–the Adizero is quite similar to the Puma that Olympic runner Usain Bolt runs in. Plus, the Adizero has been worn in multiple Olympic marathons.
The minimalist shoe market is currently exploding in the shoe world. New brands are popping up everywhere and manufacturers of more traditional running shoes are beginning to cash in on the trend, as well. The hard part here, of course, is nailing down just what a minimalist shoe really is. I would argue that while every barefoot shoe is a minimalist shoe, not every minimalist shoe is a barefoot shoe. The minimalist shoe normally has a much lower heel to toe drop somewhere in the range of 0 to 4mm. It also usually sports a wide toe box or individual toe pockets that allows the toes to naturally splay out and better assist and stabilize you during a run. Lastly, the minimalist shoe is normally much lighter and more flexible than any other shoe and are designed to help runners adopt a natural mid- or forefoot strike.
The barefoot shoe is a newer term that can easily be defined by the obvious: it has to make you feel like you’re barefoot! Barefoot shoes are designed so that your foot is as close to barefoot as possible while still wearing a shoe. Normally, barefoot shoes possess all of the minimalist shoe traits but also have a very short stack height, are even lighter, more flexible, and provide for loads of ground feedback. The idea is that the runner not only runs more naturally, with a fore or mid-foot strike, but is less likely to put too much force into a foot strike, something that is easy to do in the presence of lots of cushioning. This results in the runner being much lighter on their feet.
What the heck is a pronate?
For those of you unfamiliar with the term “pronate”, here’s a video from RunnersWorld.com that should provide you with some answers.