In a previous post, I discussed the merits of minimalist/barefoot shoes and reviewed a couple of budget shoes to get people started. I also cautioned against literally running before you can walk with regards to minimalist footwear.
I strongly feel that most people would benefit in some way from including more actual barefootedness, or at least minimalist footwear into their day to day living.
The problems occur when people get overconfident in this new found foot freedom and push themselves too far, too quickly.
I know this because it is exactly what I did myself. I discovered running as an activity. I eventually actually enjoyed the activity. I pushed myself further, faster, harder. I got injured. I was sold ‘corrective’ running shoes to counter my overpronating gait. I started running again. I repeated this cycle of improvement, injury, and shoe buying.
It was only after several revolutions of this cycle that I started hearing the whispered, underground murmurings about the ‘new’ barefoot and minimalist running scene.
Always gravitating to other oddballs, I sought out these pioneering foot loons to get the deep dive on this counter intuitive notion of having less cushioning under my feet, not more.
The stories were all the same. They struggled with injuries, be they foot, knee, hip or back; they spent a fortune on various shoes to correct their gait; and on ditching the big foam cushioning, everything changed for the better.
I wanted a piece of this light-cushioned action. So, armed with some cheap, knock-off copies of Vibram Five Fingers, I started to tentatively run again.
And tentative is the key here. During the heyday of the American frontiersman the term ‘tenderfoot’ was coined. This term has come to refer to “a newcomer or novice, especially a person unaccustomed to hardship”. But it’s origin is in the earliest of minimalist shoe industries – the traditional buckskin moccasin. It was noted by the gnarly old pioneers that those new to wearing moccasins would struggle; their feet were just not strong enough to cope with the rigours of the soft, thin footwear. Hence ‘tenderfoot’.
Well, this is perhaps even more relevant today. The shoe choices of the masses today are even further away from barefoot than they were then, and if ever there was a risk of being a tenderfoot, it is now.
As my confidence grew in my newfound toe emancipation, I again pushed harder, faster, and further. The first issue I found was aching calves. You only have to run a very short distance without shoes to know that heel striking, where your heel hits the ground first, is no longer an option. This is not a bad thing. When we land heel first we do so with our foot in front of us taking the full whack of impact. Add to this the fact that our leg is locked out and this impact is transferred through the skeletal structure and up into the hip and back. Not great.
When we run barefoot we are forced to shorten our stride length, land on our mid or forefoot, and our toes, ankle, knee and hip are all in a flexed state, thereby acting as a natural shock absorber.
The mistake I was making was not allowing my heel to touch the ground at all, ie only running on my forefoot. This is wrong and eventually very painful. The heel needs to gently ‘kiss’ the ground at the end of each footfall to allow the Achilles tendon a momentary respite.
There were various other barefoot speed bumps along the way that would have never been an issue if I had taken it slower in my progress and/or sorted out some barefoot running style coaching. The work of Lee Saxby is a good starting point
It is for this reason I suggest using minimalist footwear for living, rather than running. At least at first.
But what about the runners out there? For those really wanting to include minimalist footwear in their running practice, my suggestion is to take it slow.
Generally, this is a pointless conversation with most runners, whereby the general notion of taking it slow means turning the volume of their Ipod down slightly.
So the next option would be a transition shoe. This is a shoe that has many of the characteristics of a minimalist/barefoot shoe whilst still keeping some of the cushioning of a conventional shoe.
The characteristics I am looking for are:
- Zero drop – no difference in stack height between the heel and toes, ie the foot sits flat, no heel elevation.
- Foot shaped – a good wide toe box with plenty of room for the toes to splay.
One shoe brand that ticks these boxes whilst offering plenty of support and sole thickness is Altra. An american brand started by Golden Harper (that’s his actual name, cool) who recognised the merits of a flat soled shoe and so cut up a load of trainers, removed the unnecessary padding and stuck them back together with a toaster. Genius. Altra, from the Latin ‘altera’ meaning ‘to mend something that is broken’, was born. And, they were the first to coin the term ‘zero drop’.
They no longer rely on a toaster to make them and they are pretty damn good. Much loved by many in the Ultra endurance race scene due to the natural foot positioning, ample room for swollen feet, and more cushioning than a minimalist shoe, they are also pretty good as a transition shoe.
They offer a whole host of different styles from light, low cushioned trail, to fluffy, fat road shoes and everything in between.
My first pair of Altras were an early model of the Lone Peak. Super comfy, and super wide to accommodate my Hobbitses feets. The down side, depending what you’re into, was that they had the ‘Clown Shoe’ look about them. You know, comically long and wide. Wear them with some running tights and it only accentuates the look. Lining up at the start line of a race meant many confused downward glances. The green curly wig and white gloves probably didn’t help.
Altra King MT1.5- £79.99 from northernrunner.com
As with many American brands of trail shoe, they are best suited to hard packed trails and gravel paths rather than the semi-liquid mountains that we have here in Britain and Ireland. So I was hugely excited when Altra brought out the King MT.
The King MT is the closest thing to a full blown fell running shoe that Altra do.
They have a pretty aggressive Vibram sole with 6mm lugs that feels stable on most of the god-awful mountain conditions I’ve run in.
The stack height (sole thickness) is 19mm. This feels super cushioned for me, but if you are new to this style of shoe you may want to opt for a slightly thicker model. Either way it is masses of sole in comparison with the 3-4mm thickness of a Vibram Five Finger. The mid-sole also contains a slightly harder plate that acts as a ‘stone guard’ to reduce painful encounters with sharp rocks, again making it far from minimalist.
The ground feel in these shoes is definitely better than most conventional running shoes but nothing compared to a true minimalist one.
The upper is made from a breathable, ripstop material which is strong, light and keeps your feet from overheating. More importantly, is it’s ability to let water drain out. When running fells or in the Irish mountains, trying to keep water from entering your shoes is like trying to bail out a sinking ship with a sieve. We are at peace with water getting into our shoes, but it must be able to get out again. These shoes do a pretty good job.
They have a lovely wide, foot shaped toe box but still manage to avoid the circus clown effect. There is a tough toe band at the front to give a little protection from accidental kicks. My odd simian-like feet sometimes require even more room, so my little hack is to re-lace them omitting the bottom holes. And I appreciate the length of the laces. I cannot bear excessively long laces, and these seem just right.
Now to the controversial part – the velcro strap. This one little feature seems to really divide Altra wearers. What is the point? I honestly have no idea what the theory is for including it. Altra never seem to even mention it in their marketing. But I love it!
I like the extra bit of snugness I can get over the mid foot, and the ability to slacken this off if I need to. I also trap the end of my laces in it and to date I have never had a lace come undone, even on a 10 hour mountain run.
The icing on the velcro strap cake is the way it makes me feel like an 8 year old again. I remember seeing Spiderman shoes with a velcro strap in my local shoe shop when I was a kid. Despite my desperate yearning I never got a pair. The Altra King MT 1.5 feels like retribution to my younger self. And I am so pleased to see that they have included the strap in the next iteration of the shoe, the 2.0.
The quirkiest feature of the King MT is the ‘shark skin’ heel. This is a material that feels smooth in one direction (when your foot slips in) but rough in the opposite direction (when your foot pulls out), like a shark’s skin. This is intended to secure the foot position and reduce heel lift within the shoe. It’s odd but quite cool. I only run with socks on so have no idea what this would feel like in bare feet.
The other feature that is common with Altra trail shoes is the ‘gaiter trap’. This is a velcro fastening low down on the heel to attach Altra running gaiters to. I don’t use Altra gaiters so can’t really comment on this feature, and I’m not sure if any other brands of running gaiters are compatible.
I have used the Altra King MT 1.5 for a couple of years now and they have become my favourite mountain running shoe. In fact, I have just bought another pair in preparation for my 4x4x48 running challenge in 2 weeks time. They are total overkill for the trails that I’ll be running, but I love and trust them a great deal. Trust counts for a lot at 4 am after having run 40 miles.
Altra currently have the newer version out, The 2.0. They do this a lot, make a little tweak, generally an improvement, and release an new ‘half’ model. You can usually buy the older models for quite a while, which is great as they are usually cheaper.
I get my Altra from northernrunner.com. Great service and prices. If you are local to me, I recommend paying a visit to Darren at dacrunning.co.uk, he’ll sort you out too.
All in all I am a complete Altra convert. No they are not perfect and depending on where I am running I may well wear something else. But they are a good shoe that ticks a lot of the boxes I want ticking. I think this brand is ideal as a transition shoe for many who’d like to move to a more minimalist approach to their footwear. There is a huge range of styles and sole thickness to suit many applications.
Let me know in the comments what your favourite minimalist or foot shaped, zero drop shoe is.