As a general rule, even the most dedicated barefoot runners aren’t completely barefoot people. Most of them aren’t even completely barefoot runners.
Alluring as the idea of living every single moment of our lives barefoot and carefree might be, life in the modern world is a far different reality. We have jobs, or go to churches, or attend formal gatherings where showing up barefoot is considered inappropriate. We eat in restaurants or shop in stores that have strict policies requiring footwear. Or we live in climates where exposing our toes to cold winter weather puts us at risk of frostbite.
Runners who embrace the concept face even more challenges and potential problems; although we extol the virtues of barefoot running, the process isn’t nearly as simple as just throwing away your shoes. You have to build up a tolerance of the activity very slowly, and there are about 100 different ways to injure yourself by progressing recklessly. And even if you do everything correctly and become a proficient barefoot runner, there will still be occasions when you would rather have something on your feet for the sake of comfort or protection.
In other words, even the most hardcore barefoot runners wear something on their feet sometimes, either while running or in everyday life. (It’s worth noting that for all the mystique of the Tarahumara runners who helped inspire the recent barefoot craze, even they strap on a thin rubber outsole for most of their running.) So it would be great if there were some sort of compromise: footwear that allows the foot to function as if it’s still bare, while providing just enough fashion and/or insulation on top for us to assimilate with the rest of society.
Five or ten years ago, our best option would have been a thin pair of flip-flops, which aren’t exactly the height of either formality or warmth. Fortunately, the landscape is different today, with several companies offering exactly the type of products that barefoot practitioners are looking for. The growth of this market has drawn an interesting mix of companies into competition with each other; some are longstanding industry giants, others are small family-owned enterprises. Some of the giants have created small offshoot companies specifically for the barefoot market, and some of the tiny family businesses have grown into major players.
Additional factors complicate the mixture even further: there are actually two separate categories of footwear aimed at the barefoot consumer; one is referred to as “minimalist”, and the other is called “natural” or “transitional” footwear. Sometimes the companies who make minimalist shoes refer to them as “natural footwear”, and most of the companies who make natural footwear call them “barefoot” shoes. Confused yet?
So what’s the difference between minimalist footwear and natural footwear? Who are the major players in the industry? Which kind should you use? That’s why I’m here to help. The following information will give you a basic overview, and I’ll have specific reviews of all of these products in the weeks to come.
As you might guess, minimalist footwear means just what the name implies: the absolute minimal covering you can get by with short of leaving your feet naked. Typically, the underside of this style of shoe is very thin and flexible, made of some kind of fabricated (and usually puncture-resistant) rubber just a few millimeters thick. There’s no heel, no midfoot cushioning, no arch support, and nothing to give the shoes structure; in fact, most shoes of this variety can be rolled upon themselves like a sleeping bag.
There’s a lot of variation in this category of footwear, however, with some models designed for running, and others for everyday use. Some of the more prominent players are:
Vivo Barefoot: A small subdivision of Terra Plana, which is itself an eco-friendly offshoot of the very successful Clark brand footwear. They emphasize socially responsible manufacturing and have the most extensive product line among minimalist shoemakers. Some of their styles are formal enough to be worn to church or at the office, while others are perfect for casual get-togethers. They don’t have a running-specific model yet, but are developing a line of performance shoes scheduled for release in spring of 2010.
Vibram: I won’t take up much space with this, as I’ve already written extensively about Vibram. They’re a good example of a family business that hit the big time, and the FiveFingers is the industry standard for minimalist footwear for runners.
Feelmax: This small Finnish company is just beginning to make inroads among American consumers. Their styles have a casual athletic-shoe look to them, including one model (the Osma, pictured) that could easily pass as a traditional running shoe. Like a good pair of sneakers, they can be used for exercise or casual wear.
Feelmax went above and beyond the call of product reviews, providing me two different shoe models - the Niesa in addition to the Osma - and two pairs of socks. And since I’ve really liked their products so far, I’ll just get this joke out of my system now so I’m not tempted to say it during one of their review posts: Feelmax sounds like the name of a condom company to me.
(There, I feel much better. We can move on now.)
Soft Star: A classic Mom-and-Pop business from the Pacific Northwest who have been making moccasin-style footwear for 20 years, and found themselves sucked into the barefoot vortex thanks to their philosophy of allowing the foot to function naturally. Although their moccasins were originally intended for casual indoor/outdoor use, many barefooters have used them for running, especially in cold climates.
Sanuk: There's absolutely nothing dressy or performance-oriented about these shoes. Sanuks are made for one simple reason: to make you feel like you're just chillin' at the beach. They channel your inner hippie/surfer soul while allowing your feet to tread upon the Earth naturally, dude. I figured that any brand whose name translates to "happiness" was worth a closer look.
Natural footwear is the terminology most commonly used to describe traditional shoes that have been modified to more closely replicate the biomechanics of the bare foot, while still providing most aspects of normal shoe construction (like cushioning) that consumers have come to expect.
It’s this category of footwear that has attracted the heavy hitters of the shoe industry, although it must be a kind of balancing act for many of them. Think of it this way: if you’re a shoe company, it doesn’t make much business sense to tell people they’d be better off barefoot. Nor does it help your credibility if you say that all those years of technological innovation really haven’t helped decrease injury rates or improve performance very much.
Consequently, the companies have entered this category in search of two primary groups of runners:
1) Those who regularly run barefoot or minimalist, but on some days would prefer a traditional shoe that enables them to maintain the biomechanics of barefoot running.
2) Those who have used traditional running shoes for years, and want to progress towards barefoot running gradually. For this reason, you’ll sometimes hear this category described as “transitional” footwear.
That last group is particularly important, given the tendency of new barefoot runners to get injured by doing too much too soon, when their legs aren’t ready to make such rapid and dramatic adaptations to the barefoot running form. Compared to traditional running shoes, natural footwear has a lower heel angle, less midfoot cushioning, and more forefoot flexibility. They represent a great intermediate step for someone looking to safely shift towards minimalist or barefoot running.
With that in mind, here are some key players:
Nike: You’ve heard of this company, right? They’re a little hole-in-the-wall outfit from someplace in Oregon, I think. Nike has actually been experimenting with the “barefoot shoe” concept for more than 15 years, beginning with the Air Huarache shoes of the early 1990s. It’s ironic that the company who almost singlehandedly kicked off the running shoe boom is now focusing so much effort on restoring the feel of natural running, but that’s exactly what’s happened. There are now several different lines of Nike Free footwear; the one I’ll be reviewing next week is the Free Everyday 2.0.
Newton: A relative newcomer to the athletic shoe market, Newton courts the high-performance athlete with its Gravity shoe (pictured). They’ve made a significant impact on the triathlon community, and corralled several professional triathletes into their stable. They even provide instructional videos on their website explaining midfoot running form.
ECCO: Better known for their high-end dress shoes, ECCO is making a strong push in the natural running market with its BIOM Project performance shoes. They offer two different models representing increasing degrees of transition towards minimalist running, and their production process is unique in several noteworthy ways. Like everything else ECCO makes, the BIOM is a first-class shoe born from an extensive background of research and expertise.
MBT: Short for Masai Barefoot Technology. Self-described as the “Anti-Shoe”, MBT is something of a wildcard in this category. The shoes are heavy, and bulky, and purposely designed to keep you unstable. MBT primarily makes dress shoes, as well as a few athletic models that are, per the company’s own instructions, not intended for running. They seem to be the polar opposite of what barefooters are looking for, but many people swear by their positive effect on injury prevention and overall health.
Plain Ol’ Naked
Of course, hardcore barefooters will tell you that none of these shoes are the same as running with naked feet – and they’re right. As much as shoes will try to replicate the form, function, and feel of the human foot, they’ll never make a product fully comparable to the original. (Which is probably a good thing.) And for an extremely small percentage of the running community, that’s all that needs to be said.
For the rest of us, the worlds of minimal and natural footwear are definitely worth exploring, especially as they continue to expand and evolve in response to the growing demand. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be doing precisely that kind of exploration.