The smoke is clearing from the circa 2010 Born To Run disruption of what makes a good running shoe. When the running shoe industry took flight in the 1980s, it left behind simple, inherently minimalist designs like the 1973 Nike Boston. The following generations of shoes in what would become a multi-billion dollar industry were more known for how many widgets could be stuffed into the midsole, upper and outsole. The purpose of the widgets, as expressed through marketing, was to contain the movement of the foot in the interest of saving a runner from the likes of plantar fasciitis. But as Christopher McDougall pointed out in Born To Run, with a nod toward barefoot running, there was no research to support the core technologies of stability and motion control shoes. As he told Deadspin in 2014, “Nobody asks you to pre-purchase your feet. They come factory-installed. The big thing that needs to be justified is why we are buying this line of bullshit from the running shoe companies and from the running press, which are telling you stuff like, ‘First go to your specialty running store, where your gait will be assessed. There’s a particular type of shoe for your individual needs.’ It’s just complete horseshit. It’s complete make-believe. Yet we all buy it. When you start looking at the scientific evidence, you realize there is none.”
The implicit message of stability and motion control shoes to the perplexed triathlete or runner—facing a colorfully dizzying shoe wall at a running shop—was “‘You have a design flaw.’ That design flaw is going to keep you mired in injuries until you fix it with the right pair of corrective shoes. You might also need orthotics.
Born to Run dropped a bomb on that. It freed runners from the motion-control construct. The response was often impulsive and irrational. Too many runners burned all of their old shoes and either went barefoot (first time since they were kids) or went the Vibram route, without any reconditioning of the feet. They got injured and subsequently pissed. A class action lawsuit against Vibram was effectively won.
The smoke cleared, yet the awareness that shoes alone are not going to protect you from injury remains. Companies like Topo and Salming have actually based their product and messaging on this awareness. Salming, with their lightweight trainer, enRoute, and their superlight Race 5, based their engineering on a an American College of Sports Medicine guide, that declares:
A running shoe should protect the feet against injury, but should not do the work of the foot by providing excessive cushioning and lots of extra support in the arch. A shoe should complement a strong foot. With new companies and shoe options on the market, you can do a bit of research online to find the types of shoes that may interest you.
The same ACSM guide offers the following keys to the triathlete/runner shopping for a good shoe.
“Characteristics of a good, safe running shoe include:”
- Minimal heel-to-toe drop: This drop is the difference in the thickness of the heel cushion to the thickness in the forefoot cushion area. Shoes with no drop or a small drop 6mm or less are the best choice for allowing the foot to normally support loading during each gait cycle.
- Neutral: This means the shoe does not contain motion control or stability components. These extra components interfere with normal foot motion during weight bearing.
- Light in weight: (10 ounces or less for a men’s size 9; 8 ounces or less for women’s size 8)
I asked David Field, the CEO of Salming North America, about Salming’s approach.
“As far as the natural running philosophy, Salming strongly believes in improving run form versus putting a band-aid on issues with the different gimmicky stuff thrown into shoes these days,” Field said. “For the most part these perceived innovations are nothing more than marketing BS and do little if anything to help the runner improve.”
Field also noted that minimalism in running shoes, as first defined in the Born to Run boom, is not necessarily the same thing as running naturally.
“I think there is a big misunderstanding in that people interpret natural running for being minimalistic. And while we aren’t Hoka, I think you can tell from your runs in the enRoute that there is plenty of cushioning in the shoe itself.”
Indeed there is. But after first opening the box on a pair of enRoutes, I held it next to new pair of Hoka Clifton 4s just for the fun it if. Not really a scientific analysis, but visually the Hoka looks like it has a lot more foam. Not as much as I would have guessed, however. I measured about a quarter of an inch more in the rearfoot. But the two models had about the same in the forefoot.
What is initially striking about the enRoute is the weight. It’s a 9 oz shoe. Yet cushioning has not been skimped on. It also has a unique feel to it. I sense it’s a combination of three properties: a springy midsole, a 6mm heel-to-toe drop, and a wide toe box.
Here’s the nice thing about a wide toe box: They allow the toes to spread. Ideally, this will enable restoration of mobility and strength in the toes. You may love or hate Vibrams for whatever reason, but Vibrams brought this issue to light. That for optimal running (not to mention health) a tight, narrow shoe that mummifies the toes is doing you a disservice. Properly conditioned and working toes are going to help make for a properly conditioned foot, lower leg complex and so on.
The first time I tried a shoe on with this design thinking in mind it was pair of Topo’s at the Boston Marathon Expo in 2016. It felt odd to me at first. But after a few days it I didn’t feel weird to me at all.
I noticed the first time I tried on the enRoute it had this same kind of spaciousness. And again, the overall feel of the shoe is dynamic. I asked myself what word came to mind in my first run in them. I thought: Spiderman. Spiderman would like these.
So this is the design manifesto that Salmon uses to produce the kind of feeling you get in the enRoute and Racer 5:
#1 LIGHT: Improves running efficiency with approximately 2-3% per 100 g reduction in shoe weight. Lightweight shoes will cut minutes away from your PB on a half marathon.
#2 FLEXIBLE: Flexibility should imitate the foot flexibility in order to facilitate a natural running technique. You will improve training of biological structures with a flexible forefoot shoe design.
#3 FLAT: Low Heel to Toe Drop facilitates correct foot landing at the ball of the foot. In addition you become more naturally balanced with gravity without adjusting body position. The arch area of the shoe should not be pushed up too much as it prevents the arch’s natural cushioning and spring function.
#4 THIN: Improves sensory feedback from feet to brain. The foot automatically senses information from the ground contact with each and every step. With this data, your brain responds accordingly. If the midsole is too thick the sensory feedback gets distorted – it would be equivalent to put ski gloves on the hands when typing on a keyboard. We use a dual density midsole to provide the sensory feedback to the forefoot while offering a more cushioned feel in the heel.
Salming is a Swedish company. Visit their site and you won’t just find shoes but you’ll also find the Salming Academy, an assortment of instructional videos. The subjects include running technique, downhill/uphill running, strengthening, stretching, and interestingly enough, barefoot running. “There is no faking it when running barefoot,” says triathlon’s Jonas Colting, host of the Academy. “Actually the bare feet will use sensory input and make you run technically perfect.” There’s a lot to be gained, he adds, in running on sand and grass.
But to the point of having running shoes at all, Dr. Jack Daniels, famed American running coach, once told me in an interview that barefoot running has a lot of merit. “I just don’t want my runners stepping on broken glass.” Fair point. Shoes designed to mimic barefoot running, like Salming shoes, can be a welcome compromise.