Back to Basics
IF IT SEEMS LIKE there are a lot more dudes chugging down the trail or sidewalk in those foot-glove thingies these days, well, it's because there are. Ever since the 2009 publication of Christopher McDougall's bestselling barefoot-running manifesto, Born to Run, which profiles the sandal-wearing runners of Mexico's Tarahumara tribe, the long-simmering barefoot (and nearly barefoot) running movement has exploded. This past year, Vibram sold $50 million worth of its barefootlike FiveFingers "shoes," a five-fold increase from 2009, and this spring nearly every major running-shoe company has a barefoot-inspired line coming to market. While these models account for just a sliver of the $2.4 billion running-shoe market, some retailers estimate that minimalist models could make up a quarter of all performance running shoes sold next year, and the once-groundbreaking notion that less shoe is better is driving the change.
"Without a question, it's the biggest revolution we've ever experienced," says Curt Munson, owner of Michigan-based Playmakers, one of the country's top running retailers. "The whole running industry is evolving." This is a good thing. New research suggests that by helping you mimic the way a barefoot runner strides—that is, gently landing on your forefoot or midfoot—minimally padded shoes can make you faster and more efficient, improve your form, and theoretically reduce injuries. But there's one big caveat: a sudden switch from thickly to barely padded shoes is a terrible idea. What's gone missing in the rush to run like our ancestors is the fact that our modern lifestyles have left our feet pampered and ill-prepared to go bounding down the trail in sandal-like shoes. Any transition has to be gradual, careful, and calculated.
One reason you can't change your shoes and your stride overnight is that we've become a nation of heel strikers. The thickly cushioned shoes that helped usher in the running boom of the 1980s still dominate the market, accounting for the vast majority of all shoes sold. While they're really comfortable and make jogging less painful for new and heavier runners, their built-up heel pads and steep ramp angles (the interior slope from the heel down to the toe) all but force you to land on your heel, an unnatural motion that increases the shock waves going up the leg (by as much as 50 percent, according to one study, compared with runners who don't land on their heels).
"Shoes with higher heels encourage heel striking because your brain thinks it's OK to land that way," says Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, founder of Shepherdstown, West Virginia's Two Rivers Treads, the country's first store dedicated to minimalist running shoes. But it's not OK. Between 37 and 60 percent of all runners suffer overuse injuries every year, a rate similar to that of the late 1980s, despite 20 years of advancements in shoe technology.
Don't chuck your traditional training shoes out the window, though. There's still no hard evidence that minimalist shoes—and the more natural stride they promote—will lower your risk of injury. And abruptly switching to featherweights, or even just models that are lower to the ground and less padded, will only increase the odds of injury. "If you transition too quickly, you'll probably get hurt," says biomechanist Iain Hunter, an associate professor of exercise science at Brigham Young University. Even so, if you're like most runners, there's a good chance you're wearing more shoe than you need—and easing into a more sparsely padded one will almost certainly help improve your form and make you a faster, more efficient runner.