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Not All Shoe Manufacturers Are Created Equal (Cough, Cough, Brooks, Cough)

Posted by on Apr 4, 2011 | 10 Comments

I had always been skeptical of the shoe industry.  Like any business, their goal is to make money.  At some point, I got sick of the crappy high tech” running shoes” (and accompanying marketing) that made absurd marketing promises.  I decided to embrace the minimalist shoe market, promote it, and attempt to sway public opinion towards a minimalist approach.  This led to many conversations with both barefoot and minimalist shoe runners, lots of testing of minimalist shoes, and many conversations with industry insiders.

My goal was to educate people about the characteristics of a good minimalist shoe, how to fit them to you individual needs, and how to adapt running gait to run with more natural form.  The result of my efforts (and the efforts of my many awesome peers) has been the development of a renaissance of good running form.  Many manufacturers have not only started developing effective minimalist shoes, but also have embraced the fundamental philosophy of the barefoot/ minimalist shoe runner:

“Good running form makes a good runner, not the shoes a runner wears.  Shoes are tools that provide protection but still allow good form.”

My decision to help Merrell develop their educational materials was heavily influenced by their entire organization fully embracing this ideal.  Since they released the education stuff, other companies have followed suit.  Not only does this acceptance legitimize what many of us have been saying for years, but it also has the potential to REALLY create an entirely new wave of interest in running among the non-running public.  It will also shift the focus from selling shoes that are supposed to correct shitty form to teaching great form, then provide shoes that allow runners to maintain that great form.  <bias> While I think Merrell’s education stuff is the best, the materials from other companies like Vibram, Terra Plana, New Balance, Newton, Kigo, etc. is really good and will only help to spread this wave of teaching good running form.  </bias>

THAT EXCITES ME!

Sadly, not all companies seem to have embraced this ideal.  Some are still just jumping on the minimalist bandwagon to make a buck without actually embracing the ideal.  As I mentioned earlier, ALL companies exist to make money… that’s the nature of business.  Some companies, however, will also work towards a greater good.  In this case, it is easily identifiable by the press releases companies send out.  There are still some bad apples out there looking to exploit the minimalist shoe market.  Take a look at this post by Pete Larson over at Runblogger.com.

I’ve always been skeptical of Brooks despite the fact that they sponsor one of my heroes (Jurek.)  To me, it seems their CEO is clearly attempting to convince an unsuspecting public that Brooks’ new shoes are superior while still defending the status quo.  Their statements are filled with internally-contradictory statements.  They cite unpublished research.  They fully admit that marketing fueled the development of the shoes.  Their message has more red flags than a Bolshevik rally.  Pete sums up my thoughts perfectly with his last two paragraphs:

“At the end of all of this, what I really want to see is a more honest approach to the design and marketing of running shoes. I want companies to put science before marketing, and to publish the science that is done no matter what the result – after all, we are dealing with products that are designed to help people run safely. I want to know that marketing claims that are made are backed by sound data, and that they are not simply sound-bites that appeal to new runners lacking the experience to know any better. I want the shoe fitting process to be looked at in detail, and revised if what we are doing know is wrong (as recent science seems to suggest). I’ve singled Brooks out here in this post because I’m tired of reading the same-old rhetoric, but they are by no means unique in their approach. Industry-wide change and re-evaluation is needed. Injury rates are high and have not changed for decades – why is this? Is running just an inherently dangerous sport, or might shoes be part of the problem?

We need answers, and it’s time for shoe companies to take risks because it’s the right thing to do, to be truly innovative. Don’t settle for the status quo because it’s easy. Question dogma, do research, and publish it. We will all benefit as a result.”

I would encourage all of you to CAREFULLY evaluate any shoe company you decide to support. Some are making a genuine effort to redefine the way shoes are developed, manufactured, marketed, and used.  Others are just looking to make a quick buck off the hard work of others.  You know my opinions, but don’t automatically trust my analysis… go out and do your own investigations.  Before buying into the marketing hype, carefully evaluate the landscape.  Ask why this company is developing this shoe.  Look at the other stuff they are doing.  Do they internally contradict themselves?  Is their marketing filled with buzz-words with little substance?  Are they marketing to an educated audience, or are they hoping to take advantage of brand new runners that have not done their research? Are they trying to teach runners to run with better form?

It’s not too difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Be skeptical.  Do your own research.  Question marketing statements.  Draw your own conclusions.

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10 Comments

  1. Christof
    April 10, 2011

    Hi,

    I’m testing this Merrel True Glove… like barefoot? Sorry, no ground-contact at all. I’m not able to recognize something about barefoot…, ok there’s enough place for my toes but the sole is WAY to thick and unflexible.

    I’m prefering my selfmade shoes, they are like these Soft Star RunAmoc.

    Do it yourself! ;)

  2. kelly
    April 6, 2011

    I read the Brooks post that was linked on Pete’s blog. I think Brooks wants to be the running shoe company that provides the full spectrum of running shoes. There’s nothing wrong with that. I kinda like the “float or feel” axis system, even if it is just marketing. It’s a simple guide to their full line of shoes. Brooks recognizes that there are runners that want a minimal experience, but that there are still a majority of runners that desire comfort. Do whatever works for you I say. Have a great day!

  3. JohnYanzuk
    April 4, 2011

    I have seen an issue of Running Times magazine that has an article for minimalist running. Now that BFKenBob, Chris McDougall, Jason, and BFTed are starting to really penetrate the deep rooted “you need more cushioning” psyche that has been ingrained in runners, you will see more of the mainstream manufacturers trying to cash in on the new wave of running. Nike’s Free line was nothing more to me than a waste of time. I won a pair at a race and immediately threw them away. I look forward to the Merrell BFTrail and the NB Minimus Trail (the Road looks like NB kinda shot themselves in the foot) but still prefer the feel/fit/availability of the Vibram FF line. It is quite good to see that some manufacturers are starting to recognize the movement, but I agree with Jason: I do not want a suit and tie (marketing research firm) to tell me what shoe to wear. They exist to help companies advertise to the unsuspecting, and to help the ads provide more access to unsuspecting wallets and pocketbooks. If a manufacturer wants to impress me, do not DARE try to push, “technological advances help stabilize the foot for a more natural footstrike with the help of PTFFEREDFSWDF Stability Constructed Arch Doohickey and our newest tech, the QIWEUIEYRYWEIOUWIEURYOIWEURY Super Cushioning Major Advancement Thingamabob”. Just make a shoe that has less of everything: Less upper, less support straps, less insole/midsole, less outsole, less cost, and most importantly, less BS. The economy is forcing us to tighten our purse strings a bit, so don’t try to sell me less shoe for more money.

  4. Pure_sole
    April 4, 2011

    I hear what your saying Zak B, there are very few brands that can afford to be “high horsing” in the barefoot arena – the most obvious reason being that most major shoe brands that are “dipping their toes in” the barefoot/minimal market are hamstrung by the fact they currently generate way more profit/shareholder value from shoes built on conventional cushioned wisdom.

    So what’s the answer? For me I support Vivo because they’ve been championing this since long ago and because they make shoes in a very eco conscious way – something I think few other brands can claim to do. But as always, choice in the market can only be a good thing, and we always have the option of turning our back on any and all shoe manufacturers, such is the joy of barefoot!

    • Zak Branigan
      April 4, 2011

      I just ordered my first ever pair of Vivos for casual and work wear. Looking forward to getting them and having more work-appropriate minimal footwear in my closet.

  5. Zak Branigan
    April 4, 2011

    betsig250 – Of course, and thanks. They still make lots of traditional multi-sport shoes with lots of technology and stability, etc., though. So does New Balance, for instance. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a knock. I am a fan of what they are doing, just trying to be skeptical, do my own research, question marketing statements, and draw my own conclusions, as Jason suggests…including doing the same about Merrell as I will about New Balance and Saucony and Brooks and Nike, etc. And I think more and more about a full blown “shoes as tools approach” every day.

    • Jason
      April 4, 2011

      Zak, I know exactly what you mean. In a post in the near future, I’ll differentiate how I define various companies. The way I see it, there are three types of companies involved in the minimalist market:

      1. Companies that do ONLY minimalist footwear, like Stem, Altra, Kigo, etc. These companies obviously buy into the concept; it’s all they do.

      2. Companies that are moving toward an internalization of the minimalist shoe principles, like Merrell, Terra Plana (complicated case), Nike, Saucony, New Balance, etc. These companies have “traditional” markets that they will continue to serve as long as the market exists, but they are actively working to change the way we think about running (i.e.- educating about natural running.) I would expect these companies to move more and more towards minimalism in the coming years. These are the companies that have reached out to us barefoot and minimalist runners for input.

      3. Companies that jump on the bandwagon, but don’t really buy into the idea. This is where I place companies like Brooks. Their shoe design is done by marketing departments, not actual barefoot/minimalist runners. It’s a subtle but important difference.

      • Zak Branigan
        April 4, 2011

        Thanks a lot for the great reply, Jason. At any rate, I am really excited about all the new things coming around the bend these days for us. I found barefoot/minimalist running late last year and it has changed everything for me. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you at the Anton K. run, maybe next time. Keep up the good work.

  6. Zak Branigan
    April 4, 2011

    Jason- I don’t quite understand…Merrell is still making heavily cushioned, controlling, running and active and casual shoes. I mean, are they going to 100% make only the BF line? This isn’t a criticism of your post or anything, just trying to understand how New Balance and Merrell and any of the bigger manufacturers are different than Brooks. I personally like Brooks, and am a former ID member, but can’t wear any other their shoes anymore as I have spent the past year transitioning to no shoes and minimal shoes. In fact I am wearing the Trail Gloves as I write this and wore Minimus when I ran in the trail run at Robinette’s the other day (I wanted to introduce myself, but you were swarmed with folks). I just want to make an informed decision as you suggest, but I wonder, if I am being 100% honest with myself, if I can only support Vivo or small boutique companies like that. I do like that all these companies are providing us with options, whatever their motivation. I mean, New Balance and Merrell wouldn’t make these kinds of shoes if they lost money, right? The whole thing makes something that, to me, should be so simple and fun, and makes it complex and political. Maybe IA m over thinking it. Anyway, thanks for the great guidance and blog. Your advice and your book changed the way I run and made running a permanent part of my life.

    • betsig250
      April 4, 2011

      Merrell is an Outdoor Footwear Company. Barefoot is just one aspect of that.