Runner’s World published an article recently saying the barefoot fad is over, saying that the sales of barefoot and minimalist shoes have dropped significantly (13-14%) and shock absorbing or motion control shoes sales have increased by 25%. Actually they used the word “plummet” but I’m not sure that 13% is a “plummet.” Others are wondering the same thing: The Science of Sport (Sportsscientists.com) has an article published today that discusses this claim and the characteristics of barefoot/minimal shoe running. It seems to me that the drop in sales may just be a return to the mean since minimalist shoes were the biggest growing running shoe segment a year ago.
Shoe statistics aside, it is interesting to ask how runners are doing with minimalist/barefoot shoes?
A bit of history. The barefoot movement started in my memory with Zola Budd who competed in the women’s 3000M in the Olympics running barefoot in the 1980’s. She trained and raced barefoot almost exclusively. The barefoot trend became over-hyped with the popularity of the book “Born to Run.” At that time I was running in Brooks shoes, doing 5K an 10K races, running about 50 miles per week. I had no interest or knowledge of minimalist shoes. They reminded me of the spikes I ran with in high school and the way my knees hurt after an extremely hard workout (which was all we did at that time).
My experience with barefoot and barefoot shoes started back in 2003 when I was running with my kid’s high school cross-country team during the summer to help the athletes get a good base in for the fall’s cross-country season. We would run on the football and soccer fields in the early morning, eventually building up to 1 to 2 hours of barefoot running. No, I didn’t start out running 2 hours barefoot immediately, I see entries in my log that say 12 minutes, 20 minutes, etc. barefoot in the beginning, either at the start or end of a run. By the summer of 2004 I was running more than 60 minutes barefoot (8 miles or so) and enjoying the cool grass on my feet in the morning. There was the occasional sharp stone or bee-sting, but for the most part my feet were strong, uninjured and just a bit calloused. I attributed much of my running ability at that time to the long barefoot runs. Unlike Zola, my feet could not handle the coarse track surface or running roads barefoot, so I started buying barefoot shoes to wear on the rougher surfaces. I had the original Nike Frees when they came out and have worn most of the versions (the minimal ones) ever since. I wore them training and racing, although for racing I sometimes wore Nike’s “Mayflys” which was a minimal racing flat that was designed to last about 40 miles. They weighed about 4 oz. and didn’t last much more than 40 miles. Still have a pair in my collection, though I don’t race in them these days. The photo above shows the shoes that are sitting on my shelf, guess which ones I use most.
Recently I bought a pair of Vibram’s FiveFingers shoes to try. These are probably the epitome of barefoot shoes having separate toe pockets and protection on the soles. Somewhat like toe-socks with tougher soles. The challenge is to get them on quickly. I’ve been wearing them for short periods indoors to get used to them. No running in them yet, but will start in a few days with short runs (treadmill first, then outside on smooth surfaces). So far I find (to my surprise) that they are very comfortable.
So do I think barefoot/minimal shoes work? From my experience, yes. But you have to look at the mechanics of my stride also. I am a forefoot strike runner, so the flat shoes allow my feet, achilles and calves to work efficiently at storing and transferring energy from the foot strike to the push-off. I had very little knee, ankle or foot issues since starting barefoot running in 2003. In the 1980’s running in motion control shoes (which I broke down quickly due to pronation) I had lots of sprained ankles and sore knees. I could and did sprain my ankles on flat pavement. Hard to compare the two eras, but I ran just as hard and trained just as many miles in the 2000’s with less knee issues and almost never spraining my ankles.
The Science of Sport article discusses the difference between heel-strike and forefoot strike runners when it comes to minimalist shoes. They observe that not every runner changes to a forefoot strike when running barefoot, and for those that continue to heel strike, the impact loads on the feet and legs are 4x what the forefoot strike runners experience running barefoot. When they return to the shock absorbing shoes, both have the same impact numbers. This may explain some of the reasons why runners have tried these shoes and gone back. Not everyone can change their foot-strike. Some who are successful in changing their foot strike find that that they get injuries after some time that may be attributed to the new foot strike. Some runner’s experience with these shoes and changing their running stride mechanics resulting in injuries can be found here.
Another reason also discussed was the typical runner’s impatience with taking it slow, some have bought the minimalist shoes and tried to continue to do the same mileage immediately, with the expected result. Sore joints, stress fractures in the feet and other injuries. Our bodies are amazingly adaptive, but the process is slow. The Science of Sport article says it best:
“Ultimately, injuries will be caused by exceeding a threshold of adaptation, and footwear, biomechanics and factors like flexibility and muscle strength may contribute to this threshold. It can be shifted, higher or lower, but not in a manner that is yet predictable or formulaic, because it’s too complex to link A to B. “
So what is the answer to the question of whether or not the barefoot/minimalist shoe is a fad that is over? I say maybe, maybe not. We all have to do what works for us and not let marketing hype push us into something inappropriate. These shoes work for some, but not all. My personal sense of the debate is that less shoe is better, but it may not be for everyone. Drastic changes to shoes or running mechanics require long periods of adjustment that most runners do not want to wait for. So listen to all the information, but do what works best for you in the long run.
Strange question, you ask? If you are a runner, it is a question that you should be asking yourself, as the big toe is a very BIG part of your running mechanics. You can’t run efficiently without involving the big toe and the mechanics of the foot in general. As a proponent of minimal shoes and even barefoot training, I learned many years ago that my feet make me an efficient runner. I started running barefoot on the grass around 2004 and found soon after that my running strength and efficiency improved greatly. I had less foot issues and stronger ankles — I have since my high school cross-country days always turned my ankles (seemingly for no reason, even on flat pavement). The next few years I had some of my best racing numbers ever.
But that is a tangent…. back to the big toe. Why does the big toe affect your running? See the following article by running coach, triathlete, and physical therapists Chis Johnston and Bruce Wilk entitled: “Understanding the Great Toe for Great Running.”
They present some exercises for manipulating the big toe and the plantar fascia to make it more flexible and thus more efficient. Your feet are an amazing mechanism. Take care of them and you’ll enjoy better and easier runs!
The Science of Sport published a very nice series of articles on running shoes, barefoot running, foot-strike technique and the running shoe industry. The entire series of articles can be found here. As a runner who has run in everything from pronation-control shoes to barefoot, and who has preferred the minimalist or barefoot shoes (or just plain barefoot) for many years, this series hits home. One quote:
“For example, it came up in the first post on our series on the Pose Running technique, where it was pointed out that ever since the “boom” in the running shoe industry about 30 years ago, the percentage of runners who get injured each year has remained pretty much the same.”
Let’s see…. that 30 year boom in running just about equates to my road racing history and experience. Running is a very stressful activity on your body — you will be injured from time to time. My injuries were unrelated to the type of shoes that I wore. I have had sprained ankles, plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee, pulled muscles, etc. over my running career. I have experienced less ankle sprains since I switched to barefoot/minimalist shoes (due to stronger feet?). That’s my unscientific analysis. Sadly, age seems to be a bigger determinant of frequency of injury and time to recover in my case.
But the more capable scientists have also made no connection between shoes and frequency of injury. It appears that injuries caused by over-training, stress, and accidents are more common. And they also found that the cost of the shoe didn’t matter. Read the articles and make your own decisions. Don’t believe the marketing hype that is everywhere. Find what works for you and stick with it.