air max nuevas Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants
TODD BYERS was among more than 20,000 people running the San Francisco Marathon last month. Dressed in shorts and a T shirt, he might have blended in with the other runners, except for one glaring difference: he was barefoot.
Even in anything goes San Francisco, his lack of footwear prompted curious stares. His photo was snapped, and he heard one runner grumble, “I just don’t want the guy without shoes to beat me.”
Mr. Byers, 46, a running coach and event manager from Long Beach, Calif., who clocked in at 4 hours 48 minutes, has run 75 marathons since 2004 in bare feet. “People are kind of weird about it,” he shrugs.
Maybe they shouldn’t be. Recent research suggests that for all their high tech features, modern running shoes may not actually do much to improve a runner’s performance or prevent injuries. Some runners are convinced that they are better off with shoes that are little more than thin gloves for the feet or with no shoes at all.
It has also inspired some innovative footwear. Upstart companies like Vibram, Feelmax and Terra Plana are challenging the running shoe status quo with thin sole designs meant to combine the benefits of going barefoot with a layer of protection. This move toward minimalism could have a significant impact on not only running shoes but also on the broader $17 billion sports shoe market.
The shoe industry giants defend their products, saying they help athletes perform better and protect feet from stress and strain not to mention the modern world’s concrete and broken glass.
But for all the technological advances promoted by the industry the roll bars, the computer chips and the memory foam experts say the injury rate among runners is virtually unchanged since the 1970s, when the modern running shoe was introduced. Some ailments, like those involving the knee and Achilles’ tendon, have increased.
“There’s not a lot of evidence that running shoes have made people better off,” said Daniel E. Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, who has researched the role of running in human evolution.
Makers of athletic shoes have grown and prospered by selling a steady stream of new and improved models designed to cushion, coddle and correct the feet.
In October, for example, the Japanese athletic shoe maker Asics will introduce the latest version of its Gel Kinsei, a $180 marvel of engineering that boasts its “Impact Guidance System” and a heel unit with multiple shock absorbers. Already offered by Adidas is the Porsche Design Sport Bounce:S running shoe, with metallic springs inspired by a car’s suspension system. It costs as much as $500.
Other experts say that there is little research showing that the minimalist approach is any better, and some say it can be flat out dangerous.
“In 95 percent of the population or higher, running barefoot will land you in my office,” said Dr. Lewis G. Maharam, medical director for the New York Road Runners, the group that organizes the New York City Marathon. “A very small number of people are biomechanically perfect,” he said, so most need some sort of supportive or corrective footwear.
Nevertheless, a growing number of people now believe in running as nature intended and if not barefoot, then as close to it as possible. They remain a tiny segment of the population some would say fringe. But popular training methods like ChiRunning and the Pose Method that promote a more “natural” gait, as well as “Born to Run,” a best selling new book about long distance running by Christopher McDougall, have helped spur interest.
Proponents of this approach contend that naked feet are perfectly capable of running long distances, and that encasing them in the fortress of modern footwear weakens foot muscles and ligaments and blocks vital sensory input about terrain.
“The shoe arguably got in the way of evolution,” said Galahad Clark, a seventh generation shoemaker and chief executive of the shoemaker Terra Plana, based in London. “They’re like little foot coffins that stopped the foot from working the way it’s supposed to work.”
The big shoe companies are clearly paying attention to the trend. Nike was first to market with the Nike Free,
a flexible shoe for “barefootlike running” with less padding than the company’s typical offerings. It was introduced in 2005 after Nike representatives discovered that a prominent track coach to whom they supplied shoes had his team train barefoot.
But some in the industry are critical of the barefoot push. Simon Bartold, an international research consultant for Asics, said advocates of barefoot running “are propagating a campaign of misinformation.”
SPEND some time in Concord, Mass., and you might catch a glimpse of a fit 51 year old man in a pair of funny looking socks running down the bucolic streets. of Vibram USA, on a lunchtime run. And those socks? They’re actually thin rubber “shoes” with individual toe pockets. Called Vibram FiveFingers, they’ve been selling briskly to runners and athletes looking to strengthen their feet and sharpen their game.
When Vibram, an Italian company known for its rugged rubber soles, designed the FiveFingers a few years ago, company officials figured that they would appeal to boaters, kayakers and yogis. Instead, the shoes, which sell for $75 to $85, caught on with runners, fitness buffs and even professional athletes: David Diehl, the New York Giants tackle, trains in them.
Mr. Post, a shoe industry veteran, said he believed that the business was poised for a shakeup. “It used to be all about adding more,” he said. “Now, we’re trying to strip a lot of that away.”
Strange as they look, the FiveFingers shoes hark back to a simpler time. Humans have long run barefoot or in flat soles. Professor Lieberman’s research suggests that two million years ago, our ancestors’ ability to run long distances helped them outlast their prey, providing a steady diet of protein long before spears and arrows. More recently, at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian runner, caused a stir when he ran the marathon barefoot and won.
Things changed in the early 1970s, when Bill Bowerman, a track coach turned entrepreneur, created a cushioned running shoe that allowed runners to take longer strides and land on their heels, rather than a more natural mid or forefoot strike. Mr. Bowerman and his business partner, Phil Knight, marketed the new shoes under the Nike brand, and the rest is history.
At the same time, millions of Americans began taking up running as a pastime. Those twin trends ushered in a golden age of biomechanics research. “There was a lot of concern about injuries because of the boom,” said Trampas TenBroek, manager of sports research at New Balance. The logic, he said, was that “if you build a heel lift and make it thicker, you take stress off the Achilles’ tendon.”
Newsletter Sign Up
Continue reading the main story
Walk into a sports store today and you’ll see the results: shoes with inch thick heels and orthotics designed to correct overpronation, supination and a host of other ills.
Mr. “People are buying it thinking it’s going to do something for them, and it’s not,” he said.
Mr. McDougall’s book is centered on the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico,
known for epic 100 mile runs with nothing on their feet but strips of rubber. The book has become something of a manifesto for barefoot runners.