Barefoot Craze

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

Historians might look back on 2010 and find puzzlement in what has to be among the more unexpected recreational trends of our time. After decades of product development and marketing hype, footwear companies are doing 180s to drop features like gel pockets, air pumps, and arch support in favor of “barefoot-style” shoes.

It’s a bonafide craze in the running world, with a dozen or more major companies now embracing minimalist shoes and building big marketing campaigns to get new lines off the ground. Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run,” a bestselling book that gets deep into the barefoot theme via the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, has seriously ramped up interest in the trend as well.

barefoot running photo.jpg

Barefoot shoes by Vibram, Kigo and Merrell

To be sure, running barefoot — that is, sans shoes — was for many millennia the only way to get around. The human foot, a biomechanical masterpiece of muscles, tendons and 26 bones, evolved to absorb weight and spring bodies in stride. Historically, when shoes did come into play, they were most often minimal, the likes of hide sandals and moccasins made for protection and warmth.

Then Nike came along. “The phenomenon of cushioning in running shoes is a recent invention,” says Dr. Paul Langer, a podiatrist and marathon runner in Minneapolis. Langer says misinformation in the 1980s started a myth that cushioning in shoes is always better. “It became more about marketing and less about biomechanics,” he said.

All marketing and paleontology aside, I’ll admit to becoming smitten myself to the minimalist movement. Though I rarely run barefoot, my shoes in recent years have become more and more minimal, and many, if not all, of the shoes I run in now are “barefoot-style” or “barefoot-inspired” models. This includes shoes from Inov-8, Newton, Vibram, IceBug, and others.

Vibram FiveFingers Jaya 2010.jpg

Vibram FiveFingers Running Shoes, 2011 model

The attraction? For me, the minimal shoes result in a quicker stride cadence, less heel striking, less ankle movement, and a faster pace. I feel lighter on my feet, as these shoes often shave several ounces per foot compared to their traditional padded counterparts. I am also less prone to injury now with my new shoes and my new running style. The old heel-strike method of running — which I unwittingly practiced in big padded running shoes for years — was tough on my back, ankles and knees.

Today, I often put down 30+ miles a week on roads and trails running in barefoot-style shoes. Each year, I run marathons and long wilderness events in shoes from Inov-8 and Newton. I am in the best running shape of my life, and I am injury free. What can I say, I am a convert.

—A version of this article ran originally on VentureThere.com. Gear Junkie’s recent barefoot coverage includes stories on Vibram FiveFingers “foot gloves,” Kigo Minimalist Footwear, the $175 Newton shoes, Merrell’s barefoot-type shoe, “spy photos” of New Balance’s to-be-released barefoot shoes, and a controversy involving Inc. Magazine and a marathon Gear Junkie ran in barefoot-style shoes in 2007.

Posted by Honest Bros - 08/26/2010 10:04 AM

I’ve seen a lot about these in recent months and the comparison to indigenous people of x, y, and z is always brought up shortly after. The real question I have is how many of our ancestors spent time on concrete?

Posted by Josh - 08/26/2010 10:54 AM

What about people with biomechanic issues like over-pronating or flat feet. People that have to wear inserts made of hard plastic? Is barefoot running even a possibility?

Posted by Gear Junkie - 08/26/2010 11:09 AM

There are lots of limitations and lots of people not suited for barefoot-style shoes. For me, the Vibram FiveFingers, for example, are too thin for road running. I only use them on trails. But other minimal shoes are great for me on the road. Everyone needs to find their comfort zone.

Posted by Chris - 08/26/2010 04:19 PM

MY FiveFingers KSOs are just about falling apart. I’ve been wearing them for two years for hiking (nothing too serious), the occasional run and the gym. I’ve finally decided that they aren’t going to be replaced. Came to the conclusion last week while hiking a rocky trail with my 3 year old. I could feel all the rocks and could actually feel the heat of asphalt as we walked (I waked, he rode) back to the car. I like minimal, but not that minimal. My END Stumptowns and Nike Frees great.

Posted by STEVE - 08/26/2010 04:30 PM

And how many individuals in XYZ cultures experienced severe foot trauma? Check with foot care professionals. There are serious and frequent injuries occuring from barefoot running. Especially in the 40+ age bracket. I may be biased by being in the insole business but I’ll stick with a moderately cushioned shoe and a custom insole. Been foot pain free for all 55 years of life by following that strategy.

Posted by Dan Beach - 08/26/2010 05:17 PM

I always wondered how they would work for trail running, think they would work well for SUP’s and kayaking
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Posted by Rick - 08/26/2010 09:41 PM

The human foot did not evolve to run on asphalt. And our ancestors feet only had to last 20, maybe 30 years at most. If you want your ligaments and cartilage to last 70, 80 years, you must give nature some help. I also use these shoes, but only sparingly.

Posted by Summer Scott - 08/27/2010 06:18 PM

I have been using Vibram Classic for a quite now and I have to say I’m very impressed it. Well, at first it looks kind of odd for its design, but hey wanted to join see what the hype was all about. In terms of comfort and convenience I’d give a two thumbs up. By the way, I like this new model for 2011.

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Posted by kitty - 08/31/2010 09:31 PM

barefoot running is a fashion trend now.At first sight,i think the vibram fivefinger is weird shoes but then i fansnated with it .Soft ,flexible and comfortale during walking on the beach or in the park with my boyfriend.

Posted by Mario - 09/10/2010 05:51 PM

These shoes are a good concept to promote running on the balls of your feet. You could accomplish the same thing with normal running shoes and follow the same principals. Look up chi running and they offer the same concept but suggest certain technique to follow to help.

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