They look like gloves for the feet, with individual toe pockets and almost no padding. When you first see them, you wonder how anyone could even walk in them, let alone run. Yet these so-called barefoot or minimalist running shoes are the latest fad among distance runners.
It started in 2009, when Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book Born to Run was published. McDougall’s story focused on the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico, who seem to be able to run forever, barefoot or in the slightest of sandals, without injury. Minimalist running is one small step below going barefoot, encouraging athletes to wear extremely lightweight footwear that changes your foot’s angle while running and, in theory, encourages you to shorten your stride to a more “natural” length. You also land on the ball of your foot first, instead of the heel, which fans believe is more the way we ran in the prehistoric days — before Nike Airs.
Barefoot running enthusiasts also argue that minimalist kicks — made by a variety of manufacturers including Vibram, Nike, and New Balance and costing in the neighborhood of $100 — result in stronger feet and leg muscles, improved running posture, and a reduced risk of injury.
Local merchants can attest to the popularity of the minimalist trend. Frank Giannino, owner of Frank’s Custom Shoe Fitting in Middletown, attributes 30 percent of his recent sales to minimalist running shoes. “Fifteen percent of my overall sales are Vibram FiveFingers,” he says. And even when customers opt for a more traditional style, “there is an overall movement by manufacturers to make shoes light and flatter,” says Charles Woodruff of Fleet Feet Sports in Albany.
But not so fast, say some foot specialists — including Dr. Alan Berman, podiatrist with the Somers Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Group. Besides their extremely light weight and lack of padding, Dr. Berman is concerned with the shoes’ technical-sounding “heel-to-toe ramp angle.” The lower angle in minimalist shoes “allows the foot to sit almost level in the shoe,” he says. This gives the shoe “less stride-controlling structure, that is, they don’t correct for pronation, the inward roll of the foot with each step.” And that means greater risk for injury.
Naysayers like Dr. Berman point out that true barefoot runners — like the Tarahumara — have a different stride. “They land on the forefoot or the mid-foot before bringing down the heel,” he explains. “Runners here land on the rear of the foot, facilitated by the raised and cushioned heel of the modern running shoe.” Without learning to run in an entirely new way, the shoes “aren’t eliminating injuries, but just changing their location,” he says. As proof, he cites a study in which runners switched from traditional shoes to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes. Only half of them adjusted their form, as recommended, to a forefoot strike pattern. The other half kept the same form, landing first on their heels. Those who landed on the forefoot experienced lower-impact forces on the foot, but those who didn’t experienced impact forces that were nearly twice as high as in regular athletic shoes.
Anecdotally, Dr. Berman says he has seen more significant injuries caused by these shoes, including heel and metatarsal (foot bone) fractures. “You usually only see heel fractures from falls, not from running,” he says. “In New York one day I saw a woman twist her ankle just walking in them.
“Only really elite runners and superior athletes who train daily and get therapy might get away with” minimalist shoes, he says. “But 90 percent of people who are just using the high school track should not use them.”