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.
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.
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.