In the wake of the 2009 best-selling book, Born to Run, minimalist footwear became a hot topic of conversation in running circles. According to SportsOneSource, a sports industry research firm, barefoot-inspired shoe sales reached nearly $400 million in the U.S. in 2012, a 30-percent uptick from the previous year. Even the major players in the market, like New Balance, Saucony, and Brooks got in on the action by designing minimalist options to compete with Vibram FiveFingers’ impressive sales numbers.
As many trends play out, it seems that 2011-2012 was the peak of popularity for minimalist running shoes. Indeed, in the first quarter of 2013, sales declined by 13 percent. By May of this year, Matt Powell, an industry analyst with SportsOneSource, reported that such footwear only made up about 4 percent of the total running market.
To be sure, minimalist running shoes are a valuable solution for some runners, but the numbers suggest that many are gravitating back to more traditional models. Additionally, the industry is seeing an influx of soft, thick-midsoled shoes dubbed “maximal,” “fat,” and “high cushioned” that are appealing to runners of every ilk.
While it may seem counterintuitive, the designs of these supremely cushioned shoes are not antithetical to those of the barefoot models, but rather showcase the melding of construction philosophies, all with a goal of keeping runners training longer and healthier. The concept, which first appeared in Hoka One One footwear in 2010, features taller stack heights to provide smoother rides. Think fat tires on mountain bikes that allow you to navigate rocky and rutted terrain or wide skis that almost float on top of the snow.
Despite the fact that these maximal shoes have a greater amount of cushioning, their heel-to-toe differential is still generally less than many traditional running kicks (which often feature as much as a 12mm drop from heel to forefoot). It was the barefoot movement that first brought to light the benefits of a decreased differential. Despite their design, the new maximal shoes also turn out to be surprisingly lightweight. Maximalist converts point to the added comfort that accompanies extra cushioning, but also to the fact that they feel less fatigued, even through long training days.
Perhaps the greatest take-away from the minimalist movement is that runners have begun to rethink cushioning, prompting brands to offer a little something for everyone. Consider taking one of these new models for a spin in 2014. Fat shoes may just be the perfect solution for your miles.