Thursday, 14 October 2010

Is less more?

Is Less More?

From the November 2010 issue of Runner's World;

Fueled by the barefoot-running craze and the success of the FiveFingers, a new crop of "minimalist" shoes has emerged, heating up the debate over what we should wear on our feet—and what the running shoe of the future will look like. 
By Bob Parks, Image by Dan Winters 

Call them what you like, toe shoes, foot gloves, gorilla feet. Call them strange-looking, weird, ugly if you're so inclined. Just understand that the funky, almost barefoot look of the FiveFingers hides from no one. The ultralight, increasingly chic shoe has made appearances this year at the Emmy Awards, on talk shows, and on the feet of everyone from Matthew McConaughey to former NFL star Eddie George. Whether actor Channing Tatum is rocking them on the streets of New York City or Google founder Sergey Brin is chatting up investors in them at corporate press conferences, the FiveFingers announce "I'm a free thinker" (though fashionista haters have charged that on ordinary mortals they cry out: "I'm going home alone tonight!"). The shoes, from Italian shoe company Vibram, sell for between $75 and $125—$35 for a knockoff version at a street vendor's booth.

In addition to their nonconformist currency in popular culture, the FiveFingers—which weigh all of 5.7 ounces and have a minuscule heel height of 7.2 millimeters—present a health and exercise message as well, as we've seen with a recent barefoot tutorial from Dr. Mehmet Oz. "The shoes were designed to not give too much cushioning," the ubiquitous doctor explained on his TV show, "but they allow you to run off the arches of your feet so you bounce." And Time, which named the FiveFingers one of the best inventions of 2007 (when hikers and boaters first latched on to them), points out that the shoes give you "the barefoot experience without putting your tender soles at risk."

For runners, though, the popularity of the FiveFingers has only intensified an ongoing conversation that kicked off in the spring of 2009 with the publication of Born to Run. The book, a New York Times best seller, reports on the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico who reportedly suffer fewer running injuries than North Americans do, even though many members frequently race ultralong distances in thin rubber sandals. Born to Run also presents reasons why barefoot advocates, such as author Christopher McDougall, believe that the best way to learn good running form is completely unshod, letting your feet and legs feel the subtle changes in impact so you can adjust your body to lessen that impact. Heavily cushioned treads, many of which dominate today's running-shoe market, don't allow for such an experience, the barefooters contend. "Sure," McDougall, himself an ultramarathoner, says, "I'll throw on a minimal shoe, but when I want to get back on track with my form, I have to be barefoot."

Buoyed by ideas presented in the book, the ranks of barefooters have grown, with a new organization, the Barefoot Runners Society, adding 700 members nationally in its first few months. But even the Barefooters point out that there are times when the foot needs some minimal protection from the elements. FiveFingers offer runners a way to guard their soles from sharp pebbles or ice chunks while allowing the foot to move almost as if it had no shoe on at all. And they're proving to be more than a protective trainer. In May, a 31-year-old California runner, Patrick Sweeney, won the Palos Verdes Marathon in a time of 2:37:14—with FiveFingers on his feet.

They're also proving to be more than a fad. Just ask Nike, New Balance, Saucony, and the other big boys of the multibilliondollar running-shoe business who have glimpsed the future of running shoes and are racing—get this—backward to catch up.

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