If you were to ask me how I would define “minimalist” when it comes to running footwear, I would say that there are four factors that are most critical:
1. A minimalist shoe should be lightweight – in fact, the lighter, the better. My personal rule of thumb is to look for shoes that weigh 10oz or less each, and many of my shoes now weigh in at under 8oz.
2. A minimalist shoe should not have a lot of structure to the upper – a layer of fabric/mesh sufficient to hold it on your foot is all that’s needed (the original Nike Free 3.0 is a great example of this).
3. A minimalist shoe should not have a thick, heavily cushioned heel. The best example of this is the Vibram Fivefingers, which have virtually no cushioning in the heel, and no heel-forefoot drop.
4. A minimalist shoe should be as flexible as possible to let the foot move and flex naturally. Again, both the Nike Free 3.0 and Vibram Fivefingers accomplish this well.
A fifth, and more practical rule that I believe in is that a minimalist shoe should never cost more than $100. The word minimalist in and of itself implies less of a shoe, and for that reason I can’t understand how any “stripped-down” shoe should cost more than one that is loaded with the supposedly “latest and greatest” shoe technology. Given that many people are interested in trying minimalist running, but are not necessarily ready to shell out the bucks for a pair of shoes that they might not wind up wearing very often, what options are out there?
I would argue that in many ways, almost every major shoe company already makes minimalist footwear in the form of spikeless cross-country racing flats. Of the four criteria I list above, XC flats fulfill the first 3 almost perfectly. They tend to be very lightweight, they have very minimal structure in the upper, and they tend to have only a very small amount of cushioning in the heel. I own two pairs of XC flats – the Saucony Kilkenny 3 spikeless and the Brooks Mach 11 spikeless, and in both cases the heel is very thin. In the Brooks Mach 11 it appears to the naked eye that the heel might actually be slightly thinner than the forefoot, and while walking and running in them I get a distinct sense that my forefoot is being emphasized when it comes to ground contact (it’s a difficult sensation to describe unless you try it, it feels similar to the way Newton shoes feel). Where the XC flats don’t exactly measure up to my minimalist criteria is in their flexibility – they tend to have a fairly rigid sole (certainly more rigid than the Vibrams or Free’s), but hardly moreso than most more typical running shoes.
Perhaps the best thing about cross country flats is that they’re really cheap as shoes go. Most of the major shoe manufacturers make them, and in most cases you can buy a pair for under $60. If you’re considering giving them a try, sizing can be an issue – they tend to run small and on the narrow side. That being said, I by no means have narrow feet, and both the Saucony Kilkenny 3 and Brooks Mach 11 fit my foot well. I wear a size 10 in running shoes, and I had to order 1/2 size up in the Saucony’s. The Brooks Mach 11 fits true to size for me, and is a very comfy shoe (I’ll be doing a full review of the Brooks Mach 11 in the near future).
As with any other more minimalist shoe, you’ll probably want to give yourself a break-in period if you decide to try a pair of XC flats. The minimal amount of cushioning is noticeable and can lead to a greater sensation of impact until your stride adjusts, and the low heel means that you’ll probably deal with some calf soreness after your first few runs in them. However, if you use caution and common sense, I see no reason why you can’t incorporate a cross country racing flat into regular training – in fact, I know of a few runners who use them almost exclusively.
So, if you’re looking for a minimalist running shoe and don’t want to spend a bundle to try it out, I’d highly recommend giving an XC flat a try – just make sure you get the spikeless version or else you wont be doing much running on asphalt or concrete!.