Earlier this year, while I was trying on a pair of “barefoot shoes” at a Tacoma sporting goods store, the peppy saleswoman offered me this pitch: “You weren’t born with shoes on, you know.”
“I wasn’t born with pants on either,” I replied. “But I find them quite useful.”
My response didn’t have the desired impact (spare me the hyperbole and give me a good reason to shell out $85 for shoes that are supposed to make me feel like I’m not wearing them). Instead, she gave me a “Hey, that was kinda creepy” look and decided to let the shoes sell themselves.
I ended up buying the Vibram FiveFinger shoes and found them to provide an enjoyable, protected barefoot feeling. I’ve used them stand-up paddle boarding, cliff jumping and boogie boarding in Hawaii; on short walks with my wife; doing yoga; and playing with the kids at Wild Waves, among other activities.
They also proved to be a great conversation starter. But when it came to running, the shoes were disappointing.
While barefoot and minimalist shoes are the rage in the running world right now (and I do have several friends who love running in the Vibrams), it’s not like you can buy a pair of these things and head out for a five-mile run. You have to start slow – “maybe a mile,” the saleswoman suggested – and slowly work your way back to your regular distances. Go too far too fast and your feet are going to hurt.
This “training in” period is pretty standard, but a Washington running shoe company hopes to change that starting this month.
Bothell, Wash.-based Brooks Sports recently launched what it calls the PureProject, a line of lightweight barefoot shoes.
“What’s unique is that we’ve done this in a way that is healthy for the runner,” said Carson Caprara, a Brooks manager. “They aren’t simply lightweight. They help align the body so you can use them for all your training right away. … If you run 20 miles a week in a traditional shoe right now, you can do that right away in these shoes.”
Caprara says Brooks spent 11/2 years developing the PureProject line, which went on sale Oct. 1.
The shoes don’t have the distinctive foot-glove look of Vibram’s shoes. In fact, they look an awful lot like standard shoes.
The differences from traditional shoes are more subtle. A split toe allows the big toe to move independently. Brooks claims the anatomical shape and an elastic strap over the instep give a precise fit. The 4-millimeter sole gives you a barefoot feel without totally removing the cushioning. And the narrow heel is designed to align your center of gravity for a healthier stride.
“So many casual runners overstride because that’s how so many of us were taught to run as kids,” Caprara said. “This [not over striding] can greatly reduce injuries.”
PureProject shoes weigh as little as 6.5 ounces for women and 7.2 ounces for men and sell for $90-$120 at brooksrunning.com.
Caprara admits that barefoot shoes are not the future of the sport. Most of us still want a nice pair of cushy running shoes for longer runs.
But, Caprara says, it’s a popular “macrotrend” among runners and might be bringing more people into the sport (running participation increased by 12.6 percent in 2010, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association).
“It’s a primal feeling when you run,” Caprara said. “You feel like you are connecting. You feel your body and you feel your training. It allows you to be more in the moment. It’s an awakening feeling.”