Where are You on the Running Shoe Spectrum

In the real world there is no set standard or definition of what category a running shoe belongs to.

It has been left to each manufacturer to create their own standards and definitions of what constitutes barefoot, minimalist, transition, traditional or motion control, which means there is no standard.

Which is confusing as hell for us consumers.

That is why in my post last week I decided to develop my own definitions that are independent of all the different labels, definitions, marketing hype and hyperbole that each running shoe manufacturer has created for their shoe lines.

My system gives me a starting place of where on the running shoe continuum, a particular shoe is, and gives me a common set of standards to compare different shoes to. Even when running shoes cut across more than one classification (which many do) – I still have an idea of where I would place it based on its stats.

This week I want to talk about my experiences with each of the categories and where I am now on the running shoe/style spectrum, especially since I am training for the Marine Corps Marathon in October. The lighter print is my definition.

Barefoot – “nothing between your foot and the ground”.

I have tried barefoot running and to be honest I don’t enjoy it, especially during winter up heah in Maine ;-).  Running barefoot just isn’t my thing, I don’t enjoy running on tar, cement or the gravel roads down-back that way.

However, I have and plan to continue to do drills and strides barefoot to help strengthen my feet and improve my form when I am at the track or have the opportunity to run on a beach.

  • Not for me category – just occasionally or for fun

Minimalist – “From extremely thin sandals to 4MM drop, stack height 15MM or less and lightweight – under 8 ounces running shoes”.

Skora Base (free media samples)

I haven’t tried running in “running sandals” yet and like barefoot running, I don’t see it becoming my primary running shoe style.

I like light-weight, but I definitely don’t have perfect running form, so running shoes that have very little cushioning (Vibram 5 Fingers, Vivo Barefoot, Skora, New Balance Minimus, Merrell Barefoot, etc.) on the minimalist shoe spectrum don’t provide the cushioning I prefer and I don’t enjoy running in them, especially for longer distances.

To be quite honest, the biggest problem is that I don’t want to take the time out of my present training to properly transition to them – maybe someday.

Mizuno Ekidon (personal purchase)

At the upper-end of the minimalist scale are racing flats and other running shoes, that are low drop, are light-weight and have low stack heights that I have successfully run in, up to middle distances.

However, I have found that I need a little more protection from myself, due to my poor form issues when I get fatigued (but that is a different issue).

My legs feel too beat-up when I have used them as my primary training shoes, especially for runs that are over 6.0 miles.

  • Not all the time or as my primary daily trainer – more for specific purposes i.e. racing or strengthening.

Light-Weight Trainer/Transitional – From 5MM to 9MM drop, stack height 16 to 25MM and that weigh under 11 ounces.

Altra Instinct 1.5 (free media sample)

I hate the term transitional, it makes it sound as if these shoes, are not quite good enough and that you are looking for something else. The light-weight training shoe label fits this category much better in my world.

After a lot of experimenting I have found that I love the lighter weight, lower drop shoes that have a bit of cushioning between me and the road. Even though many of the shoes I have run in might have a Zero to 10MM drop (a larger range than the category).

I consider the Nike Free’s, Saucony Kinvara’s, Altra Instinct’s, Mizuno Ronin’s and other similar shoes to be light-weight trainers (more because of their light weight, flexibility and stack heights, than just drop).

Even though others don’t agree with me, I notice that when I am running in a light-weight trainers with a drop of less 5MM, it is easier for me to maintain a midfoot landing, than it is with higher drop shoes in this or other categories. Lower drop shoes do not force me or make me run with better form, it is more like they remind me when my form is deteriorating, by my not being as smooth in the gait cycle.

I still like to make believe that I am fast and this style of shoe helps me feel that way, which in turn makes running feel more fun and satisfying to me :-).

  • My personal sweet spot – I have run a lot of miles in similarly styled shoes over the years and found that this style of shoe works best for me as my daily trainer.

Traditional – 10MM or more drop, stack height greater than 25MM that weigh over 10 ounces,

Adidas Adizero Sonic 3 (personal purchase)

These are the so-called “normal” running shoes that Adidas, Nike, Asics, Mizuno and other major brands have primarily been selling over the last 10 or so years. Higher heeled, well cushioned running shoes that are fairly heavy.

They are typically heavier running shoes, which tend to promote heel striking for those of us with less than perfect form. When I run in these higher drop shoes with higher ramp angles, I have a more difficult time running with a midfoot landing style.

It seems as though the shoe automatically wants me to run heel first and once I stop focusing on form, I go back to that heel first landing style of running.

I find that am running less and less in this style of running shoe as I attempt to keep moving towards a midfoot landing style of running. However, I don’t plan to stop using them completely, I think that for recovery after particularly hard or long runs, when my legs are tired/beat up, that these are a good option for me.

  • Specific use shoes, for recovery or when I am not working on my form, but not my primary trainers.

Motion Control – 12MM or more drop that weigh over 12 ounces and have specific devices or design features to control pronation or supination.

For many years, whenever I would go to a specialty running store to get “fitted” for a pair of running shoes, this is what I would walk (run) out with. According to the “experts” I pronate too much and need to have a lot of support to stop it.

I have run in the heavy duty, high-end motion control trainers from Mizuno, Saucony, Nike, Brooks and Asics and always seemed to have a lot of nagging injuries that never seemed to go away when I did.

These style shoes always felt heavy and made me feel as though I was running with weights on. However, they were what the “experts” recommended for me and so I felt as though I should be running in them based on those recommendations, even if they did make running more of a chore and not as much fun.

These shoes might work for some runners, but after my experiences in them and comparing it to how I feel when running in light-weight trainers or the higher-end of my spectrum minimalist running shoe definition, I don’t plan on going back to these heavy-weight running shoes.

  • Not for me category.

The reality is that our experiences and preferences in running shoes are all different. What works for me, might be a bad choice for you or your needs. I have had to run in a lot of different running shoes styles over the years to finally figure out which category works best for me. Often that is how we learn what works for us – through the school of hard knocks and experimenting with all the different running shoe style choices.

Also don’t get me wrong, I still believe that specialty running stores are the still the best place to buy running shoes, especially when you are first starting out, but it is also up to each of us to research running shoes before we go in and if we have been running for a while, what works for us and what doesn’t. The sales people are motivated to sell you running shoes, it is up to you to decide which one best meets your individual needs based on their recommendations, your own research and most of how the shoe fits and feels on your foot.

Finding the right shoe style for you can be intimidating, time-consuming and yes expensive, but in the long-run (pun intended) when you find that style of running shoe that fits how you run, you will be a happier runner, who enjoys going out the door for your run.

The purpose of my categories is not to pigeon-hole a running shoe, but to get past the all the hype and hoopla that there is about there about this or that running shoe and put together a definitions to help me figure out the style of running shoes that work best for me.

So the next time that I go looking for a new running shoe, I will start by looking at shoes that meet my light-weight trainer category definition (with a preference for shoes that have a 4MM drop or less), since those are the ones that have worked the best for me over the last year.

However, I think what Pete Larson said in his book “Tread Lightly” said sums it up best – “Use what works best for you.”

I do find it amusing that the shoes that I am running best in now, are eerily similar to the shoes that I ran a lot in back in the late 70’s and early 80’s – light weight, low to the ground, flexible with a little bit of cushioning. Sometimes it just seems to work that way.