One of the things I love best about running is that it is, at its essence, a simple sport, requiring very little gear. However, there is one piece of gear that I, and most runners, will spend good time and money pursuing, and that is the perfect running shoe.
There is a plethora of advice on running shoe selection, and most runners are told that they need to match their shoe choice to their running mechanics. We are taught about techniques ranging from the simple wet-foot test, to slightly more advanced tread-wear analysis, and on up to full-scale gait analysis, perhaps even involving videotaping on the treadmill. This then slates us into our shoe type by degree of “pronation,” or the manner in which the foot rolls when we contact the ground. There are “motion control shoes” for the severe overpronators, “stability” shoes for the (typical) slight overpronator, “neutral” shoes for the under- or non-pronator, and even “cushioned” shoes for certain underpronators with high arches. As many as 50% of runners have been stated as needing “motion control” shoes, and generally less than 30% are expected to find “neutral” shoes satisfactory.
The vast array of shoe companies serving the running segment of the market has been more than happy to feed customers a broad (some would say bewildering) range of offerings, with most companies offering several products at differing price points in each of the categories. While they attempt to differentiate in the manner in which they provide the cushioning or support called for by the stability and motion control categories (with elements like Gel from Asics, Air from Nike, and Wave from Mizuno), and there are minor differentiators like fit, cushioning, tread, weight, or lace design, there is often little to choose between shoe manufacturers. Most runners, while developing a preference, can switch pretty freely should a model or price change provide the impetus to do so. I am no different – while I have run seven marathons to date in Nike shoes, I have recently cycled through Asics, Mizuno, and Brooks offerings as well, and am considering some models from Saucony).
This has all started to change over the past decade. A seminal moment was the success of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen in which the author, through scientific argument and anecdotes from a remote tribe, makes the case that humans are designed to run barefoot. Therefore, in his view, the shoe industry has done everyone a disservice by putting more and more padding between foot and trail. And thus the barefoot or, owing to the realities of colder climes and harsh road surfaces, minimalist movement was born.
Obviously, barefoot running holds little appeal for shoe companies. Minimalist, at first glance, isn’t much better, as it runs against all engineering, marketing, sales, and production competencies in which the shoe companies have invested for years. In a classic case of innovative disruption, it has been a relative outsider to the industry, an Italian company named Vibrams who, by responded to an idea of another outsider and launching the revolutionary Vibrams Five Fingers glove-like shoe, has established themselves as the ones to follow (or, too frequently, counterfeit) in the expanding minimalist shoe market. The other shoe companies have been forced to respond to the surging interest in Vibrams’ shoes with “minimalist” offerings of their own, designed with a reduced heel-to-toe drop and lighter overall weight (Dr. Peter Larson offers a good summary of minimalist running shoes on Runblogger, if you are interested).
In addition to popular perception, science has started turning against the “more shoe” paradigm. It turns out the rules governing allocation of runners into shoe types by foot strike and stride mechanics was never backed by much thorough science in the first place. Now, a series of studies, also well summarized by Dr. Larson in a post on the crumbling of the motion control paradigm, has provided some evidence that stability shoes do more harm than good, even for the most severe overpronators. These studies have gained so much attention that the shoe companies have been forced to attention. With running shoes making up 25% of the athletic shoe market, and being the fastest-growing category, those that compete in the space can’t afford to ignore it.
The leader in the running shoe industry is, not too surprisingly, Nike. With over 55% of the running shoe market as recently as 2007, they win through a combination of “fashion” (where non-runners are often wearing running shoes) and “technology” (their shoes do, in general have good reputation for performance, though also a reputation for changing their model designs too frequently and radically). It is also interesting to note in the article cited how rapidly they gained share through the introduction of the Nike+ sensor for the iPod nano – this market is subject to wide share swings if a company wins (or loses) on either fashion or technology.
Facing the music on the science of running shoe design, Nike has reacted aggressively and not in all cases, as you might expect, defensively. If you review the Runblogger list, you will see several Nike minimalist options listed. In fact, the Nike Free line has been quite successful, and is now a top-10 selling shoe (I presume there are quite a few “fashion” buyers in that audience). And now, as Pete points out in another post, Nike is sponsoring research that is refuting the shoe stability technology they have spent years developing.
So what will Nike do next? As Pete comments, with greater resources available to them than any other company in the industry (with Adidas, the nearest in scale, not as significant of a player in the running shoe market), this may provide an opportunity to out-invest nagging competitors such as Brooks, Asics, New Balance, and Saucony. Or perhaps someone such as Nike will acquire Vibrams – though the position they have as a supplier of soles to many shoe companies may make this more challenging. There is the risk that Nike spreads its brand too thin, trying to be all things to all runners. But this has never been an issue for them in the past.
I suspect that, somehow, the company that introduced the Shox – the extreme of the padded / oversupported / turbocharged running shoe – will somehow end up doing well in the minimalist space too. Their history and culture of adopting quickly bodes well for their reaction speed as further research is made public. They have outpaced, to date, competitors you would expect to be more nimble and focused such as Brooks and New Balance who do not yet have true “minimalist” offerings. Granted, this is a marathon not a sprint (sorry, couldn’t resist) – so it will be fun to watch.