Jane Brodsky desperately wanted to run again. But whenever the D.C. resident attempted to jog, the osteoarthritis in her left leg complained. She was hoping she’d finally found her solution one year ago when she bought a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, the sock-like shoe with articulated toes that’s developed a reputation for helping users mimic running barefoot. The brand’s fans convinced her that with a more natural stride, the pain would subside.
That didn’t happen. But her shoes are still getting a workout. “I don’t use sneakers at all now,” says the 33-year-old who wears her FiveFingers everywhere — around town, at her apartment’s gym and hiking on a recent trip to Cinque Terra, Italy. She sometimes sports them while manning the front desk at Red Bow, her boutique exercise studio that offers Pilates and ballet barre classes, both of which are taught sans shoes and emphasize the benefits of foot strength.
It was Morton’s neuroma, an excruciating nerve condition, that had stopped Susan-Marie Stedman of Burtonsville, Md., in her tracks. The 52-year-old marine biologist couldn’t manage to hike without hurting, no matter what shoes she’d tried. Until she bought Vibram FiveFingers a year ago.
Now Stedman can’t imagine wearing anything other than her “freaky feet,” her pet name for the odd-looking (some might even say ugly) shoes. She owns three pairs, which she wears when she’s stretching, on the elliptical and even hang-gliding. “Once you’ve made the commitment to this type of footwear, you can’t go back,” she says. “Disco dancing and bike riding are the two things I won’t do in them now.”
It is customers like Brodsky and Stedman who’ve made the footwear industry realize there’s a market beyond runners for nontraditional shoes. The speedsters are the ones who flipped for FiveFingers ($85 to $110) after reading Christopher McDougall’s anti-shoe bible “Born to Run” in 2009, so companies quickly tried to cater to their needs, says Doug Smiley, the footwear buyer for City Sports. “Now it’s evolving from running into other kinds of fitness,” he says.
For the past few years, minimalism has been the fastest-growing category in running. This year, Smiley says, it’s become the fastest-growing category in training, too. There is a particular interest in wooing serious gymgoers who are drawn to the idea of working out every muscle in their body, including the ones in their feet. Vibram FiveFingers, which launched in 2006 (not specifically as a running shoe), has always advocated for its products being used for a variety of activities, but it was only this year that the company released the KomodoSport, engineered to appeal to athletes who want to perform multi-directional movements.
Those same folks may also be intrigued by New Balance’s Minimus MX20, a cross-trainer that hit shelves July 1 with a number of features that make minimal shoe lovers drool — an anatomical shape, a wide toe box that lets you really splay and a teensy 4mm drop from heel to toe to keeps you feeling stable on the ground. The upper part of the shoe differs from a lot of the running shoes on the market, however, because it still offers support, which is more comfortable when you’re stopping, starting and changing direction, explains product manager Kevin Fitzpatrick. There’s another reason it has a leg up on the running shoes in the Minimus line, he adds. “When it comes to running, people can be hesitant about going minimal right away,” he says. “People have less hesitation in the gym.”
Adidas is certainly hoping so. The company just unveiled the Adipure Trainer, another articulated toe option that’s scheduled to arrive in stores in November. It’s billed as “the first barefoot training shoe designed specifically for the gym.”
If shoppers are less concerned about how their barefoot-style shoes will handle lateral leaps and deadlifts, there’s also Fila’s new Skele-Toes line, which looks nearly identical to Vibram FiveFingers. (The major aesthetic difference: There are four digits instead of five because the two smallest toes share a single pouch.) As Mark Eggert, Fila’s director of design for footwear, emphasizes, “These aren’t for performance per se.” Instead, they’re marketed as shoes for just kicking around in — running errands rather than running.
The trend sounds smart to Mark Cucuzzella, a 44-year-old physician in Sheperdstown, W.Va., who’s become one of the leading proponents of barefoot-style living. “Who can run in Vibram FiveFingers off the bat? Not many people,” says Cucuzzella, who spent years preparing his feet for the switch from traditional shoes to minimalist ones for running. “But you can start walking in a lower drop shoe immediately. Walking is the perfect transition.”
In 2010, he opened Two River Treads, the first minimalist running and walking shoe store in the country. This year, he helped launch the Natural Running Center, a Web site bringing together shoe reviews, discussion forums, training tips and a library of scientific articles.
Altogether, it makes a pretty convincing argument that we’ve been going about building shoes the wrong way — elevating our heels, immobilizing our arches, adding so much cushioning that we can’t feel the ground. Barefoot advocates claim that this has weakened our feet, impaired our proprioception, or body awareness, and generally messed with our posture and alignment, creating a host of injuries.
“If shoes are so bad for me when I run, the next logical question is are they bad for me when I walk and sit and are they just bad generally,” says Daniel Howell, who also goes by the nickname “The Barefoot Professor.” Just about the only time the 41-year-old deigns to wear shoes is when he’s teaching human anatomy and physiology at Lynchburg, Va.’s Liberty University, which enforces footwear in the classroom. The lesson of his treatise “The Barefoot Book,” which was released last year, is that we’d be healthier if we all kicked off our shoes more.
He means that literally. As vice president of the Primalfoot Alliance, a new group Howell describes as “the PETA of being barefoot,” he supports going totally bare. But he understands that minimalist shoes do have their uses. “They help us transition psychologically. I don’t think we need them physically,” Howell says.
Maybe that’s because he hasn’t been working out at D.C.’s Balance Gym. That’s where David Shaw saw a number of personal trainers encourage clients to lose their shoes for certain exercises. So three years ago, he decided to attempt his workouts totally barefoot, and got rubbed the wrong way. “It wasn’t the most comfortable thing to do or the most sanitary,” says the 31-year-old, who never warmed up to Vibram FiveFingers either.
These days, you’ll find Shaw exercising in Converse Chuck Taylors, which some folks deem to be the original minimalist shoe. “You’re not pitched forward,” he says. “It’s more comfortable to lift heavy weights when you can stay balanced.” But he’s still searching for something more versatile and durable.
I know a few shoe companies he should talk to.