Minimalist shoes are the hottest—most hotly contested—development in running these days. For every convert who swears that running “barefoot” (in zero-drop shoes with flexible soles and little or no arch support) has made them faster, more efficient, and less prone to injuries—and I’m one of them—there are just as many cautionary tales from runners sidelined with Achilles strains, calf problems, and stress fractures. A couple of my friends have gotten injured while transitioning to minimalist shoes in recent months, and the sheer volume of research they turned up is staggering, striking fear in the heart: Are minimalist shoes the Bad Idea Jeans of our generation? Or are they the best thing to happen to our feet since we were babies?
Now that some of the big names in barefoot technology are making mini minimalists, the debate has filtered down to the youngest generation: Are barefoot shoes good for kids?
You don’t need to be a scientist to know that, from birth, babies prefer to be barefoot. Have you ever tried to put a pair of tiny Chuck Taylors on a nine-month-old? Ridiculous. The shoes may be irresistibly cute to us, but not to the infant who hasn’t learned how to walk yet and is trying to rip them off. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no-skid, soft-sole shoes during the first year, enough coverage to protect the feet without inhibiting walking. Even as far back as 1991, long before barefoot was trendy, an article in the journal Pediatrics concluded that “optimum foot development occurs in the barefoot environment” and “stiff and compressive footwear may cause deformity, weakness, and loss of mobility.”
But the American Podiatric Medical Association sings a different tune: As soon as babies begin to toddle, it advises parents to wedge those chubby piggies into sturdy, supportive, well-fitting shoes with a “firm heel counter (stiff material on either side of the heel), adequate cushioning of the insole, and a built-in arch;” it should be “flexible enough to bend where the foot bends—at the ball of the foot, not in the middle of the shoe.”
With both our daughters, we ignored that advice. We relied almost exclusively on those little leather Robeez baby slippers, mostly because I was lazy and they were easy to put on and didn’t fall off at inopportune moments, like when you’re trying to extricate yourself and infant from the jaws of an economy-class seat and crap is flying everywhere. Not the Robeez. Let me tell you, those things stick. Our girls wore their slippers well into their second year, until they'd worn holes in the soles and toes. They had their whole lives to be slaves to shoes, so why start before they had to?
I grew up going barefoot. It was nurture and nature. My family spent a month each summer at our island cottage in Ontario, and we never wore shoes. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the back steps in my bathing suit, while my mother tried to coax a sliver out of my big toe with a sewing needle the size of a javelin. She never wore shoes either, and her feet were tough and tanned—the ultimate fashion statement, the ideal. I wanted feet just like hers.
We went barefoot to church and square dances, and we would do anything not to go to town for groceries because it meant putting on shoes and getting in the car—two of the greatest affronts to cottage life. We had to wear sneakers for sailing lessons, but my Tretorns—torn up the sides, with permanently flattened heels—were so ratty, they hardly counted. It was a point of pride to be able to say I went a whole month without wearing real shoes. Stubbed toes and splinters were a small price to pay: All too soon, we'd be back home, being sized for clunky, new back-to-school Stride-Rites at the shoe shop downtown.
A few years ago, I got married at the little church on the island sans shoes, and the morning after, my feet were shellacked in sticky pine sap and swollen from dancing: proof of a perfect wedding. So when the barefoot-running bandwagon rolled into town, I jumped on it. I’ve been wearing Vibram Five Fingers and multiple pairs of the now nearly extinct New Balance 101s for more than a year, and I do feel faster, stronger, straighter, and—this might sound weird—cleaner when I run.
Even though I’m clearly biased in favor of bare feet, when I heard about the new crop of minimalist shoes for kids, I was skeptical. I know the arguments—“barefoot” shoes don’t inhibit kids’ natural foot motion, like stiff, structured shoes do—but the idea of cramming wiggly piggies into a pair of microscopic Five Fingers sounded like my definition of hell. Great for older kids, but for a preschooler? Let’s talk in five years.
Until then, there’s the Barefoot Trail Glove, Merrell’s version of its adult barefoot runner, with easy-on Velcro closures, a sticky, bendy Vibram sole, and zero-drop from heel to toe. I got a pair of the Pure Gloves (styled like a Mary Jane, so they don't scream minimalist) for my three-year-old, and they’ve quickly edged out her Crocs to become her go-to kicks of the summer. They’re lightweight and flexible, can be worn with socks or without, and are perfect for hiking, biking, and even mucking about in the water. The water drains right out of them, and, as we discovered last week while playing alongside the not-so-mighty Santa Fe River, they double as buckets for making a "sand swimming pool." Good to know.
Better yet, minimalist shoes like the Merrell Pace reinforce the healthy running technique kids were born with: namely, striking the ground with the fore foot, not the heel. Watch a video of a toddler running and you’ll see they do this naturally. It’s only when we start wearing thick-soled, heavier shoes that we re-program ourselves to run differently; heel striking has been linked to knee, hip, and lower back pain.
“Heel striking changes the whole angle of the body, and how the body accepts the force,” says Marc Esposito, a nueromuscular therapist and ultra runner who works with Camp Marafiki, a group of elite Kenyan runners in Santa Fe. "If you saw me putting a thick glove on a child's hand that restricts the child's hand movement by even 10 percent, you'd think I was crazy. The feet are the same, and it's just beginning to come back into our consciousness. As older runners trying to transition to minimalist shoes, we're already behind the eight-ball, but if we can do this now for our kids, we'll be able to look back in 20 years and know we helped them run the way they were born to."
Are there risks? The trend’s so new that there’s scant data tracking kids who wear minimalist shoes (one study cited British shoe maker Vivobarefoot found that in kids ages 7-11 who wore barefoot shoes for two months showed up to 36 percent improvement in foot strength and range of movement). I’m not convinved it matters. Most kids under age eight aren’t running long miles each week. They’re playing kick ball at recess, hiking on the weekends, and walking to school, so they’re not exactly at risk for overuse. And they haven’t already been conditioned to run on their heels, so they don’t need to retrain and re-strengthen their calf muscles—the weak link for adult runners.
But the real question is, if we can encourage kids to run naturally, the way they already know how to, and to feel strong and grounded in their bodies and free in their feet, why wouldn’t we?
Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove and Pure Glove for kids, $60. www.merrell.com.