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Toe Spring in Minimalist Shoes: I Call Bullshit

Posted by on Aug 8, 2011 | 19 Comments

Earlier today, I had a lengthy conversation with Jesse Scott as we climbed up  to Devil’s Thumb outside Nederland, CO.  We had three pairs of minimalist shoes we were testing out, so one of the topics centered around shoes.

Specifically, we were discussing the various characteristics that make a great minimalist shoe.  Jesse has long served as my sounding board for all issues related to minimalist shoes.  We have similar needs (long-distance running on rugged trails), but much different personal preferences.  He has his favorites, I have mine.

Over the years, our stance on what makes a great minimalist shoe has evolved.  Both of us had a fairly rigid set of criteria that were “musts.”  That point of view has softened based on our own experiences and observations of others.

One of the characteristics we talked about was toe spring, or the upward curvature of the end of the toe box of a shoe.  In a traditional rigid-soled running shoe, the toe spring creates a “rocker” effect that helps facilitate a heel strike.  The rigidity of the sole would keep the toes in a dorsiflexion position, which makes a natural running gait very difficult.  Because of this, barefoot and minimalist shoe runners rightfully vilified toe spring.

In a minimalist shoe, toe spring is more or less unnecessary.  Still, many minimalist shoes still have a toe spring.  The major difference- minimalist shoes usually have a flexible sole, which allows the toes to flatten the up-curved toe during foot landing.  In effect, the toe spring is eliminated and does not affect gait.

I noticed this quite some time ago.  The amount of toe spring wasn’t nearly as important as other features like a minimal or zero-dropped heel or a wide toe box.  I have also noticed toe spring does not seem to affect the gait of other minimalist shoe runners, even if they are especially weary of the feature.  As a result, I stopped counting toe spring as a negative feature.

I have been getting a fair number of questions from people asking about the toe spring of some of the new minimalist shoes hitting the market.  It seems some barefoot practitioners are still considering toe spring to be a negative feature that adversely affects shoe function.  I wonder if these practitioners have ever tried a minimalist shoe with a toe spring.  If they had, surely they would have come to a similar conclusion- the toe spring flattens out due to the flexibility of the sole.

In the past, I vilified toe spring.  I like to keep an open mind, though.  If I receive contradictory evidence, I rarely have a problem modifying my point of view.  As a teacher, I feel it is my responsibility to always present the best possible information I can.  Sometimes that means admitting I was wrong.

In the case of toe spring and minimalist shoes, I think I was wrong.  The flexibility of the sole of the shoe negates the potential negative effects of any degree of toe spring.  Could toe spring just a red herring?

What do you think?


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  1. Toe Spring in Minimalist Shoes– Good or Bad? | Natural Running Center
    August 12, 2011

    […] This essay originally appeared on Barefoot Running University. […]

  2. Nick Pang
    August 12, 2011

    Toe spring on minimal shoes are not a problem for running. I only notice them when standing and a little when walking. You want your toes to fully touch the ground as much as possible when standing straight. With a noticeable toe spring, I lose some balance.

    So what you are using your minimal shoes for is more important than a negative effect from a raised toe spring. For any kind of running, the toe spring does not matter. For other activities where you’re required to stand flat or plant your feet firmly, get rid of the toe spring!

  3. Brant
    August 11, 2011

    Based on my anatomy, neurophysiolgy, and biomechanics classes in my graduate school, I believe that the position in which the foot is in before footstrike affects footstrike. So, if the toes are dorsiflexed (even passively by the shoe)the natural gait cycle will be thrown off. It will be a minor change that can translate in to a major change with hundreds and thousands of cycles that can lead to injury.

  4. DGL47
    August 9, 2011

    I’ve been in the Merrell Barefoot trail shoes since they came out and I agree with you: I notice no toe-spring that affects my gait. The flexibility of the shoe makes it a non-issue. If you want to quell the silliness from the people who say it is an issue, just eliminate it in the next version of the shoes.

  5. Angie Bee
    August 9, 2011

    I find that the downside to not having a toespring is that the crease across the toes when the foot flexes is much more pronounced than when the shoe has a toe spring.
    I prefer a flat shoe for roads but its not as important (from what I have found so far) for trail shoes.

  6. Nathan Matthews
    August 9, 2011

    I wear my Merrells as my daily shoe and the toe spring is kind of annoying, but I am able to take them off enough throughout the day that it doesn’t become a big problem (I drive barefoot, work at my desk barefoot, etc. – I’ve got them tied very loose for daily wear and can slip them on an off very easily). Running: I like the Merrell toe spring because when I get tired I sometimes scrape the top of my toes. My VFFs have holes in two of the toe tops. Also, I agree with Corey S that the wrinkle created in the top of the toe area in shoes without toe spring always rubs the tops of my toes and that is unbearable.

  7. briderdt
    August 9, 2011

    Well, toe spring and midsole rocker are two different things. I note that my Saucony Kinvaras have a decent rocker built into the midsole, but the actual footbed is very flat — no, or very little, toe spring. The Merrell Trail Gloves, however, do have significant toe spring, which is built into the last. Though not an issue when running (for me), I do notice it when not running.

    I remember back when I wore a lot of Nike shoes in the past, and like the Kinvara, the rocker was built into the midsole, and there was very little toe spring. Asics, though, seems to have a lot of toe spring, as well as having the midsole rocker.

  8. Jeff M
    August 9, 2011

    FYI, over time my Original Luna Sandals developed toe spring just by naturally forming to my feet. And they don’t come any flatter than Luna’s. I measured it and it was 0.75 inches off the ground! Red herring indeed.

  9. Corey S
    August 9, 2011

    I think there’s a comfort/function aspect to “toe spring” that’s often overlooked. If a shoe has a completely flat toe area, there is has to be more material in the upper to cover the distance from the lace area to the tip of the toes. What happens as a result then is when you dorsiflex your toes as you do when rolling off your back foot during running, that material has to go somewhere as the toe area folds. Invariably it folds up and impinges on the toe box and can rub against the top of the toes or the foot. I own both Evo IIs and Trail Gloves and I can’t wear the EvoII sockless because the toe box upper material wears on the tops of my toes and the metatarsal area behind my toes. I don’t have the same problem with my Trail Gloves and often wear them sockless. I think that it is possible to build a “spring-less” shoe that wouldn’t rub but would require a large toebox height and perhaps some structural overlays, and would produce a more “clown shoe” aesthetic which I can understand manufacturer’s wanting to avoid. Having a shoe with toespring allows the manufacturer to shorten up the upper material so there is less to encroach on the toe pocket during toe off, while still leaving enough(or typically it’s a stretchy/flexible enough material) to allow the toes to plantarflex during the stance phase without much resistance. Just my $0.02, but I prefer ultraminimal shoes to have toespring, and think they’re necessary, absent perfect function-oriented product design which I’m not usually going to bet on, because of its functional attributes. I’m fine toughening up the bottoms of my feet, but I don’t think I should have to develop callouses on the tops of my feet too.

    Now, I will say that I think that the thicker and less flexible the sole stack becomes as you move through the spectrum of shoes, the more important it is to have no toe spring. I probably wouldn’t like my Altra Instincts as much as I do if they had toe spring because it would interfere with my form.

  10. corey
    August 9, 2011

    I find it very difficult to get my toes to touch flat on the ground when running or walking in my trail gloves. The toe spring on them is far too rigid.

    If this minimalist running thing is about natural running form, then toes should touch down flat without forces opposing that movement.

    • Jim B
      August 9, 2011

      I have to agree with Corey a little bit, the toe box, while flexible, could be a bit moreflexible. I also run in my trail gloves and love them. I do not think the toe spring negatively affects my gait, however, it does cause some slight discomfort on the tops of my toe nails after a few miles (the 4-8 range) before I stop noticing it. If the last on the TG’s was just a bit more relaxed/flexible/loose/whatever, then they would be the perfect shoe. I do trails in my TG’s and roads either BF or in my trusty old KSO’s…happy running everyone!

    • Jim B
      August 9, 2011

      I have to agree with Corey a little bit, the toe box, while flexible, could be a bit more flexible. I also run in my trail gloves and love them. I do not think the toe spring negatively affects my gait, however, it does cause some slight discomfort on the tops of my toe nails after a few miles (the 4-8 range) before I stop noticing it. If the last on the TG’s was just a bit more relaxed/flexible/loose/whatever, then they would be the perfect shoe. I do trails in my TG’s and roads either BF or in my trusty old KSO’s…happy running everyone!

  11. Troy
    August 9, 2011

    I agree that for the most part while running the toe spring isn’t a huge issue (sometimes I notice it, sometimes I don’t). Where I run into issues is walking, sitting and standing. Doing these 3 things the toe spring of the shoe pulls my toes up and I can feel it.

    When barefoot doing these things, my toes lie flat on the ground/floor. It can get uncomfortable and at the end of the day when I finally take the shoes off I can tell that my toes have been held in a weird position all day (something I never noticed before going bare).

    I used to chalk this up to using the shoe for unintended uses (trail gloves at the office?!), but after seeing some of the models designed for casual wear that still have the toe spring I am less inclined to blame myself and more inclined to blame the shoes.

    I don’t necessarily feel the toe spring is a deal breaker, but it is an area that I feel could be improved upon.

  12. Rob Thompson
    August 9, 2011

    If you lift your foot off the floor and completely relax it, the forefoot will drop (extend) and the toes will dorsiflex. This facilitates the natural stride. Otherwise we would be stubbing our toes all the time when running barefoot.

  13. Kittyk
    August 8, 2011

    Okay, 2 glasses of wine, so I apologise for my opinion.

    Toe spring is a factor dependant on what you are attempting to do (in my opinion).

    For a good example, the Merrells; The toe spring and rock plate. For a road run, it is pretty horrible. I feel it and it drives me nuts. On technical trail especially on incline/declines I don’t notice it and it’s not an issue. I love the shoes for other factors that outweigh the issues mentioned above.

    My landing is different on different terrain and gradient. It may just be me – as runners we are all different. I run like a duck so I don’t expect other people to have the same experiences. However, for me, on a road or non-technical trail, my landing is a lot further back more mid-foot. In the Merrells, this makes the toe spring and foot plate more apparent. In fact it changes my whole gait and it hurts. On technical trail, my landing is more towards my toes and as such I don’t notice the toe spring and welcome the foot plate.

    So it depends on you and what you are trying to do; where you run. You are not me and I won’t comment on which shoe is best (a reason I have against writing reviews).

    Personally, if I was looking at a minimalist road/easy trail shoe, then I would go with NO toe spring; in fact nothing but a flexible bit of rubber. If I was running on semi to technical trail, then the toe spring would not be an issue and I would consider protection with secure fitting and probably drainage as more important. I have very narrow feet so toe-box size has never been much of an issue.

    The point is – it’s up to you if it’s an issue, but you need to able to develop a criteria based on YOUR running form before you take the word of others.

    Drunken rant over, I will now disappear into general mumblings :D

  14. HeatherW
    August 8, 2011

    I ran for two winters in the Teva Proton (current model = “Sling King”). Since it is a kayaking shoe, it doesn’t have “toe spring”. The toebox has always felt “floppy” to me, as if it was going to slide underneath the rest of the shoe.

  15. Chris Moffett
    August 8, 2011

    I think you are right to put it to the test. One of the things I would consider is not just whether the sole flattens, but what is the sensation that it creates on the bottom of the foot. The sole in effect is a stand-in-earth, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a subtle but significant effect created by having to override that sensation, even if it takes minimally force. It’s not that we can’t, but what does it do to our sensory appreciation of pressure and timing? These would all be things to feel out. Granted, I’m talking about a level of subtlety that most folks aren’t even aware of, but all the more reason to make sure the shoes are as optimal as possible. In other words, you may be right that we can’t readily distinguish, and we might still want to refine things.
    On the other hand, my guess is that toe spring IS a red herring to the extent that we prefer to talk about features rather than actual sensation and movement.

  16. kai keliikuli
    August 8, 2011

    toe spring in minimalist shoes has never been an issue for me. I don’t notice it.

  17. Steve Schneider
    August 8, 2011

    I agree with you that the toe-spring designed into minimal shoes tends to not effect gait significantly… if at all. My problem with it pertains to comfort and the fact that an external force is still exherted (did I spell that right?) on my toes. For me… it’s a comfort thing. Toe spring is uncomfortable.

    that is all. Carry on. Happy Trails and safe travels, Jason.