The shoe store model is broken

You all know that I am a proponent of natural running. I try not to get preachy on you about it because I know that for some people, traditional shoes and the gait they create works. But sometimes, I get really frustrated with traditional shoe stores and their old school thinking on the need for correction via shoes.

This is all spurred on by an anecdote related to me by a friend recently. She had taken her teenage son into a shoe store to buy some running shoes. After the store’s “analysis” of his foot and running form, they immediately wanted to steer him into a stability shoe and inserts. Here’s where my hackles go up when I hear something like this:

  • The “analysis” a shoe store does is just a completely irrelevant model. Walking in your bare feet, doing a “wet test” to check out your arch height, and even running on a treadmill for a few minutes tells a shoe store employee nothing of value. First, you walk completely differently than you run. Second, your arch height does not mean you’ll land a certain way or that you need to compensate for that with a certain shoe type. Third, a short stint on a treadmill under the supervision of a shoe store employee cannot possibly give enough feedback on how you run for them to prescribe a certain type of shoe for you.
  • Shoes designed for stability and motion control indicate that there’s something “wrong” with your natural gait that needs correction. I’m sorry, but in all but the rarest of rare cases, that’s just not the case. Our feet are designed to manage pronation while running all by themselves. Our bodies are designed to run. There is yet to be a study that demonstrates correcting “problems” with one’s natural gait will reduce injuries. Don’t buy into it.
  • Everyone likes to think that they are special, and shoe stores know this. They love to tell you how your unusually high arches mean you need a certain type of shoe, or that your flat feet mean you need “arch support.” You don’t. Period.

Here’s the thing, though. I know most of you come from a background of these “corrective” shoes (I certainly did). I’m not suggesting you pitch them and plunge right into a Vibram Five Finger or New Balance Minimus. You’d get hurt. All I’m suggesting is that you consider the nonsense that so many shoe companies want to feed you. They want to sell you a shoe. They’ve been working off this model of selling for many, many years and it will take some time before they start to come around (some probably never will). I’m just suggesting that you ask yourself, or the shoe sales person, “why” when considering this type of shoe. Why do you need all that heel elevation? Why do you need gait control? Why do you need all that cushioning?

Pitching the orthotics was step number one in the right direction.

I can tell you that I used to be in a stability shoe, as well as orthotics, because I had a podiatrist tell me I should not even walk in my bare feet, much less run in them. And all that extra control did one thing–got me injured repeatedly. Since throwing the orthotics out and making the switch in form and shoes, my body has never felt better.

Like I said at the beginning, if you’ve been in traditional shoes for a long time and you are NOT getting injured, then why fix what isn’t broken? Your body has adapted to this way of running and it works for you. But if you are or have been injured and you’re in a “corrective” shoe, consider that it might throw your natural gait off enough that it leads to injury (barring your own obvious training mistakes).

If I can’t convince you, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, one of the pioneers of natural running in our country, writes about all this from a far more educated standpoint than mine–take a minute and see what he has to say on the matter.

What do you think? Do most shoe stores hurt or help the runner with their approach?

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  1. says

    I like the idea of a minimalist shoes but when I tried to go from a supportive shoe to one with a little less support I had some injuries pop up. Do you have suggestions on how to transition effectively?
    Amanda recently posted..Need More TimeMy Profile

  2. Paul says

    Couldn’t agree more. I do not use minimalist shoes but many of the ‘rules’ about approriate shoes are total nonsense. In my case I’m as neutral as it’s possible to be when I run, as gait analysis shows – but I’m as flat flooted physically as it’s possible to be, have hardly any arch elevation, and the wet foot test would have me in metal reinforced control shoes!
    SInce I started running I’ve went through the front half of a pair of Saucony Jazz 15’s (netutral) but since I wasn’t wearing the heels i.e being a natural mid/front foot striker I decided to go more mininmal and am currently using Asics Hyperspeed 5’s for all my training and racing – which have 6mm heel drop and much lower build up in general. I can see myself going more minimalist in the future.

    All in all – ignore the wet foot test it is nonsense, ignore the shape of your arch – these things on there own tell very little, other than may match in with some statistical average.

  3. says

    I agree with you but I must say here in SA we have some very good running stores. The Comrades Marathon is the reason for this. SA runners are ultra crazies and the shoe market keeps in touch with trends and technology very well. Most store employees are multiple Comrades finishers. Good post Miss Zipp!
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  4. says

    You know I couldn’t agree more! 😀

    I cringe whenever new runners tell me their shoe store sold them a stability shoe, or their ortho prescribed inserts. I always, always, always smile and suggest they visit TRT for a second opinion.
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  5. says

    Love this post. I’ve been given such different advice so many times, that I’ve been thoroughly confused about what shoe I should be in and why…I had to let go of my image of running store employees as the ones with all the answers. There is such a wide range- some are so knowledgeable (and open to natural running), and others much less so. I mentioned before that my first attempt in a more natural shoe didn’t work out so well. Maybe with marathon training done for now, I can try again this spring.
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  6. says

    Great post! I feel lucky to have a great running store with employees I really trust but I do think a lot of places are just trying to sell you things. I’m in a mild support shoe but I’ve factored in one that’s lighter and has less of a drop. I think I’m going to go back and get fitted again as it’s been awhile and I’ll definitely keep this in mind.
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  7. says

    I never really thought of it like that, but that could be because since Mike started running barefoot, I’ve been way more educated on shoes, gait, etc., so I could make shoe choices on my own. You definitely make a good point, though. It’s like going to the doctor and asking questions instead of just taking a prescription and leaving the office.
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  8. says

    I took my 5 year old in to a New Balance store and they tried to tell me that she needed support shoes because of her slight overpronation. I ended up getting her a pair of minumus’ instead. My thought was that if I start her out early on low to no cushion shoes, she will build up the strength she needs in her foot and ankle.

    Personally, I’m still in a support shoe. I’ve tried to make the switch unsuccessfully, but I’ve found that this particular pair of shoes works really well for me…no pain, no injury. If it ain’t broke…
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  9. says

    Great post. I had a foot doc tell me the same thing about walking barefoot. I have orthodics and have had shin splints, bursitis and a stress fracture. I’m about to transition over to Brooks PureCadence. Fingers crossed for positive results!!

  10. says

    Sat here nodding my head as i read this. When i tried to make the switch from a very cushioned ASICS shoe to something with less of a drop (Brooks Pure line) I was aggressively detoured by several different running stores. It was annoying because 1. I didn’t even ask for their opinions and 2. Each one had an unsupported, absurd opinion as to what I ‘needed to do’ for my specific injury.

    I now avoid running stores at all costs.
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  11. says

    This is a great post!! I have found that when I have gone to different stores like this they have put me in completely different shoes! One place said I needed stability while the other gave me something completely different. Something that was good is that I was able to bring back the WAY wrong shoe even a month later….I really wanted to make sure I tried to break them in! In the end I went with what I have always run in!!
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  12. says

    Of course, you don’t have to sell me!! :)

    I think the vast majority of running stores are just uneducated. The turnover is so high in some of those stores too and they just don’t have the patience nor the knowledge to keep their employees informed. There are minimalist shoe stores around, but not so common and they’re for the runner who already knows what he wants/needs.

    I love that our xc coaches give the copy of ‘Born to Run’ to every kiddo at the beginning of the season! Get the kids educated early!
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  13. says

    I really like my local running store and they do a lot with running groups, community events and races. Lately though (6+ months), they’ve gotten on this kick where they only really recommend one brand, Newtons. I have a pair that I bought from there and I wear them for short runs, but when I recently went in (a couple separate times) to look for a replacement for my Nike frees, it seemed like every single employee was on a Newton kick. I shouldn’t but new shoes, I should continue on my current Newtons till the lugs wore down or get the distance Newtons. It made me wonder if everyone in the store jumped on this Newton thing of their own volition or due to some sort of sponsorship.
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  14. says

    I’m so happy every time I hear that someone has solved their personal running shoe mystery! I really fell like that’s what finding shoes is: a personal adventure.

    I’ll be the first to admit I’m one of those super rare cases, but I actually ran injury-free for years until a well-meaning running store convinced me to ditch my orthotics for a more minimal shoe, even with my excessive over-pronation. Now I’ve been grounded for months and have uncovered a much more serious biomechanics issue than just flat feet.

    I actually feel like the running stores in my area have done the opposite of what you’ve experienced. They treat minimal shoes as the magic cure for all runners. My impression is that running shoe companies aren’t so much about sticking to established models as the are about capitalizing on whatever’s “hot”. I know that’s just good business for them, but maybe the sad truth is that we now need multiple expert opinions to really find the right shoe for any one person?

    Or maybe it’s just process of elimination. Try something, if it doesn’t work, try something else. Oh, and beg those shoe companies to stop “updating” your favorite shoe every 6 months! :)
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  15. says

    While I am no expert on shoes, I do believe that my running has improved since switching to minimalist style running shoe, however, it is still for over pronators. I have run in the neutrals and I am instantly hit with knee pain. As far as the store model being flawed, I think it depends on the shoe store you go into. I have been into some and instantly turned around and walked out. I think it is a gamble, you can walk into a store and find the one person who knows something and the next day some teenager is working there, who thinks they know everything and clearly they do not. Great article Amanda… you’ve got us thinking, nice job!
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  16. says

    There are good running stores, then there are running stores that only think about there bottom line and it is very apparent that they work off of commission. From reading of what your friend went through and was told, I think it was a large nationally chain that I do not goto anymore. I can tell them EXACTLY what I am looking for, they dont listen, they bring out very top of the line shoe, followed by the next top of the line shoe in another brand. Then say I need inserts (custom at that, not superfeet), these specific $20 a pair socks and I can save xx% in the future if I buy this in store program. I stopped going there, even though it is a mile from my house. Finding a good running store is hard, but I have and making the extra time to drive is worth it
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  17. says

    Funny. I dreamed I was running in my TKD shoes last night thinking…wait, I can’t run in these, they aren’t meant for running! Weird.

    I had a pair of runners when I first started running that left me injured. I did get fitted for a shoe after that and, that particular pain didn’t come back. That said, I’ve any many other injuries … sigh!
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  18. says

    I like your approach to this. I’ve tried neutral and stability shoes for running, and I haven’t noticed much difference in my performance. I did get an injury last year, but looking back, I don’t think my shoe swap had much to do with it. Most likely form, increasing mileage too quickly, and an overzealous track session.
    My qualm with stability shoes is how heavy they are. I’d like to work myself down to a lighter more minimalist type shoe but haven’t quite figured out a plan to start. Should I get a pair and run short distances in them, but wear my regular shoes other wise, slowly increase over time? Will that confuse my feet/gait too much?
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  19. Jeff Irvin says

    This is a tough one as I have found opinions vary from employees within a single store. Always take a buyers beware approach.

  20. says

    I was wondering what your opinion on my specific situation might be: 3 years ago I had ITB problems, saw an PT, and got orthotics that took the pain away. 1 years ago, I made the switch the Altra Intuitions (zero drop) and ditched the orthotics in the process. 6 months ago, I started experiencing hip and ITB discomfort again, so I threw the orthotics back in… haven’t had an ounce of pain since. So it makes me wonder, I need to orthotics to avoid the problems, but I don’t want to be dependent of them forever… should I try a different pair of Altras?
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  21. says

    Working at a running store, my #1 issue is and always will be those damn inserts and orthotics. I know that I’m not a doctor, but honestly I never will understand why people think they need them. Like you said, our bodies are smart and know how to correct stabilization in the shoe where all the orthotic does is mask the problem and never allow the body to self correct. But it gets really tricky when you are a shoes sales person who is not a doctor to explain this to a runner who isn’t familiar with biomechanics.

    There are a lot of shoes stores out there, one in particular that I will refrain from naming, that tries to put EVERY runner into some type of molded insert when fitting them. The arch to me isn’t as important as the level of inward pronation that is occurring at the heel and ankle. Most people don’t need a stability shoe, but they are put in them regardless because the sales person most likely isn’t confident enough sending them off without that medial support. When a person needs a stability shoe, it’s pretty obvious and it doesn’t have to be a permanent thing like people think it is because our gait can change from year to year.

    Such a tricky topic because a lot of people think that they have the right answer, and the problem is that there isn’t one.
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  22. says

    Running stores kill me! I really love the one that ALWAYS tries to upsell you on inserts cause you know your $110 shoe just isn’t enough for your special feet. :-)
    I have seen one case in where a stability really helped but if the time was taken to work more on core and form could that person run minimalist?
    I run in traditional running shoes(because I was scared to train in a low shoe for Ironman) but I want to get back to working on my form and technique and get into a more minimalist shoe. I think God made me to run so I’m sticking with his original design 😉
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  23. says

    But…..wait….you mean ALL that advertising and that billion $$$$ shoe industry is spinning us a………yarn?! Just to get our hard earned? WHOT?! Ha, well said! I think these shoe shops and their experts ought to come with a small warning ‘a little knowledge….’ 😉

  24. says

    It must have been so weird to be told you shouldn’t even walk barefoot!

    I used my downtime and slow return to running last year to go from “stability” shoes to minimalist shoes (Brooks PureFlows) and have had no problems. I’d like to go even more minimal, but as someone who runs on concrete a lot (at least for the moment), I really like the cushioning of the PureFlows. A lot of minimalist shoes look and feel too much like track flats. I agree with you that we were meant to run barefoot, but I don’t agree with running barefoot on concrete (and my back doesn’t like it either). Any recommendations for other cushioned minimalist models with wide toe boxes would be appreciated!
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  25. says

    Well informed article, Miss Zip. Dr. C has educated you well, and you do everyone a favor by linking to him here. You are such an adept runner and coach, so your council is well made.

    I would add a couple sideline points. I am both a runner and a footwear industry vet who has a deep, working knowledge of minimalist shoe design (via kigo footwear).

    1. You’re right that we don’t walk and run the same way. That said, running in a minimalist shoe can only forgive some sins – if you walk around in hard-soled, high-heeded shoes all the time, you’re doing damage to your feet and it is possible that trying to run in minimalist shoes could exacerbate issues you’re creating with your walking shoe options. Barefoot and minimalist is best – always – not just for running. The more you can allow your feet to do what they’re meant to do, the stronger and more limber they’ll be, and the healthier and stronger you’ll be as a runner. Period.

    2. There are some really excellent minimalist options on the market today that have a little extra cush. Runners seeking a minimalist / natural ride don’t necessarily have to default to a 2mm Five Fingers (or kigo, for that matter). Great flexibility throughout the entire sole, low to zero drop, and an unrestrictive toebox can allow for superb natural motion of the foot. If a little extra EVA is added to the outsole to absorb some of the impact for those who need it or are somewhat prone to SFX, it’s really okay.

    Honestly, this issues is as simple as doing the research and then TRYING OUT (not just trying on) THE SHOES. Ideally, do it without the pressure from a running store employee trying to make you feel special – I’ll sometimes go to one of the big box running stores to put on and try out shoes because I am pretty sure the employees will leave me alone, and then I’ll go buy the pair from our independent run store so I can support them and maybe even chat with them a bit more – seems that most of them actually get really excited about an actual conversation with someone who understands things like drop, durometer, anatomical shaping, etc. :)

    To that end, I’d argue that isn’t really an issue with the running store model, as much as it is an encouragement to people to go into the store educated – about their own biomechanics (IMO, that is at the heart of ‘natural’ running), different running shoe models available, and about their priorities. Know thyself, try your options (they are wide and ranging!) and if you don’t get the sense that a running store employee is doing anything more than giving you a templated sales pitch – run away…and pay attention to how the shoes work and feel as you do.
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  26. says

    I find this all fascinating. yes, I’ve been in traditional shoes and yes, I’ve been injured. I think that there’s a part of me that’s scared to move to minimalist shoes maybe because of all the tales I’ve been told by the traditional shoe companies. I’m definitely intrigued and I may have to give it a try.
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  27. says

    Well said. I especially love your last bullet. I wore orthotics for years before been told by an athletic therapist that I didn’t need them. I tentatively took them out and had zero issues.
    Now, I’m just transitioning into a shoes with 4mm drop and have a natural running clinic next week. Hopefully this is part of the solution to my knee issues!
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  28. says

    Whether the subject is running or something else, it takes awhile for old ideals and beliefs to fade and new methods and such to take hold, even when there is scientific proof. Remember, the world has been flat much longer than it has been round.
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  29. says

    I recently moved from a stability with orthotics shoe to a neutral with orthotics. I’m hoping to get rid of the orthotic at some point as well. I don’t wear in my trail shoes but still wear in my road shoes. I had no injuries in the stability/orthotic for 3 years and then I got PF and decided to make the switch. I can’t see me going to minimal at this time, but who knows. I think the longer we run the more things likely to change.
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  30. says

    I am big shoe stability type. My arches are “collapsing” so i have been told (sounds so dramatic!). But realistically I think the padding aids my biggish frame.

    On the other hand, i do see the minimalist midfoot types and admire the form. For me though it is running from, not derived from shoe form. I understand that minimalist shoes can force form change, but all things being equal I would rather develop the form and let the shoe follow. And I haven’t had time/energy/mental focus, to change running form.

    I did see a Chi video on YouTube that made all kinds of sense, though, and made me wish I was a midfootie.
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  31. says

    90% of running shoe stores do preach stability shoes and it drives me crazy! The only store I am aware of that doesn’t is Fleet Feet in Spokane. I think that employees that work in these stores should be better trained on how to properly fit someone for a shoe. I had a co-worker go into a running store in Spokane (my least favorite store ever) and they just pushed a certain brand on her. She finally had to ask them to let her try on Brooks & New Balance. She ended up getting Brooks and loves them.

    I used to wear stability shoes, but I am now on my 2nd pair of Brooks Ghosts and love them. My body feels much more happier running in them! All of your points are well said.
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  32. says

    I’ve always thought that orthotics were a bunch of hooey. If you find the shoe that does its job, you shouldn’t ever need them. Experimenting was key for me. And as I became a more experienced and efficient runner, my needs changed. Bottom line, everyone should run in the least shoe that they can get away with :)
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  33. says

    I agree on some points. I have a normal arch and I supinate which is said to be for those with high arches. But I also do not think minimal shoes are for everyone. I think it’s trial and error to be honest as we all are different. Finding the right shoe is not always easy. There are shoe salesmen that know what they are talking about and definitely ones that do not.
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  34. says

    Oh man… I wear stability shoes and used to have inserts in them. Inserts are now gone and I just run in Kayano’s for long distances. I can rock non-stability shoes for shorter distances and feel fine. Anything longer, than say 7, I start to feel wonky in my knees, IT, etc. I’m trying to stay attentive to the way my feet land. I can “feel it” when my support shoes are close to the end of their life.

    I know the science, I know what I should be running in… it is just getting there. I’m getting closer. I’m going to be you in the future. :)
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  35. says

    I am really hoping that I can finally transition into a more minimalist shoe this year now that my mileage is down and I will be focusing on other things. I may buy the new Brooks PureDrifts and see how they go. I loved my Altra’s (minus the sciatica they caused after a weekend of working in them.) but have to stick with Brooks so am hoping the PureDrifts will be a good option.
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  36. says

    What if it is broken but you don’t feel yet that it is broken???
    When you feel the pain, it may be too late.
    Dr. Cucuzzella said that in a Trail Runner Nation podcast.

  37. says

    It’s pretty interesting to me that most of the comments here are so heavily “pro-natural”. In fact, I’d venture to say that they are considerably more pro-natural than is average for the running community (based on my informal polling). Even though you don’t often blog about the subject, it seems you have a pretty strong “natural” following! As someone who loves data and numbers as they pertain to behavior, I find this fascinating. :)

    I’m still exploring the idea for myself, honestly. I’ve run with lots of luck for many years in a mild stability shoe, with SuperFeet if my mileage creeps up faster than my foot/arch strength. All was well for 10+ years, but recently I’ve been battling some IT band twitchies and am considering a slow transition into something a bit more neutral/natural. [I do wear FiveFingers for hiking and daily activity; just not running.] I’m interesting in making myself the guinea pig.

    But there are a few elements of the natural running movement that worry me a bit – and these aren’t the parts that involve serious, careful runners making an informed decision: First, that many individuals don’t have the knowledge of how to make the switch, and/or the patience to do it properly. I don’t know what the answer to that is, really.

    Second, I’m very keen to hear how you (and others) approach the subject with new runners, especially those who don’t have much awareness of their bodies (yet). I’ve worked with lots of new runners, following a conservative training plan, and most battle common start-up pains, usually shin splints and achy feet. Those who refuse to get properly fitted into “good” (supportive) sneakers seem to suffer more acutely and for a longer time (sometimes to the point where they cannot continue with the program). Unfortunately, I never turned this into a formal study with data – but this comes after working with ~1,000+ new runners in group training,. Thoughts? Suggestions?
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  38. says

    I haven’t been running very long at all, but I have a pair of Brooks GTS 12 that I thought at Jack Rabbit in NYC and I wore them for a few weeks on their own, but my right ankle kept giving me issues. It felt like it was collapsing in on itself, while my left ankle was just fine and dandy running along. I went into a local running store and explained my problem, and they gave me some Superfeet inserts and the problem has been much better. I just feel like it helps keep my foot upright. Yes, I could keep my ankle from collapsing by mentally focusing on it, but it’s such a drag running like that. If I let it go natural, it hurt. A lot.

    So what I think is that it just depends on the person, your foot, your gait / stride / whatever, and if you need them or don’t need them, as long as you are performing well and not in pain, that’s what matters.
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  39. says

    I agree we all have to be skeptical of the sales pitch – I recently had to relearn this, but this time the salesperson insisted I could rock a neutral shoe and suggested I go up a size. I know I do best in a snugger fitting light stability shoe. It’s what I like. In neutral shoes I have problems with feet and calves. I think we should all be skeptical of fads, as well. I feel like the low heel drop and minimalist shoe thing is a fad, just as the giant 90’s bricks were a fad. It might work great for some people, but it’s not something for everyone. There rarely is a perfect solution that works universally, for all people. The answer for most of us usually lies somewhere in the middle of extremes. We have to do our best to figure out what works for us and go with it no matter what the “experts” say :)
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  40. says

    I 100% agree! I hear from so many of my friends that they have a “special situation” with their feet requiring all kinds of contraptions and devices in order to walk or run. I’m often skeptical. I am a believer now in the lower heel-to-toe drop. It just makes logical sense – why run in a high heel? Folks don’t have to lose their comfort of cushion to at least lose the high heel.
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  41. Holly says

    I completely agree. Our local running store is great but no one there can have a conversation about neutral + minimalist shoes. They have their spiel – and granted it is one they have perfected – and they stick to it. I always leave feeling frustrated. Luckily I visited a shoe store a few hours away and left with a fantastic shoe that has promoted better form for me. I have been uninjured for a year with these, along with the form changes. Based on the store’s recommendation, I would still be in the heavy, heeled stability shoe and I believe I would still be injured.

  42. says

    I love shopping locally, but there is one guy at my local running shoe store who seems to be a shill for Brooks and keeps trying to fit me into a pair of Pure Connects, even when I ask for specific shoes and models. It makes me want to skip the hassle of arguing with this guy and just buy online. He did the same thing to my wife, convincing her to get the Brooks, which she now hates. (Now, I wish I would have had to her wait so I could have gone with her.) The other sales people are great, but this one guy (a manager?) is there all too often.
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  43. says

    Amen and Amen. Seriously. I came from a background of inserts and cushion galore. I have five fingers which are not suited for me but I am a very happy minimalist shoe runner. I have crappy built feet and a crappy built body but my natural gait is best in a minimalist shoe. You’re right about show stores too. Many are just looking at the bottom line and the inserts aren’t cheap.
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  44. says

    You have articulated my thoughts very well. I totally agree and have gone through a similar process to get to more simple running shoes. I will be sharing this post.

  45. says

    You are so right! My brother gets shin splints from his Brooks that, in his words, feel like clouds, meaning they are super cushioned. I told him to revert to a more minimalist shoe, but every time he goes into the running store, they keep selling him super padded shoes!
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  46. Elle says

    I’m interested in the merrel vapor glove, cause it has the vibram kso stack, but looks like a normal shoe, but I bought my most recent pair of shoes only 1 and 1/2 months ago…

  47. says

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