Back in the middle of the last decade, someone at the Vibram company had a brainstorm, the kind of once-in-a-career inspiration that undoubtedly is studied at business schools across the land. What if, this person must have mused, instead of marketing our FiveFingers shoe to the small community of boaters who use them to secure their footing on wet, slippery surfaces, we could convince tens of millions of people that they should run the streets in them? That running in flat, cushionless shoes with individual pockets for each toe is, in fact, better for your health than protecting your feet with all that soft, high-tech razzmatazz?
Even if you’re not a runner, you probably know what happened next. The brilliant book “Born to Run,” which celebrated a band of Mexican ultra-runners who lived in a hidden canyon and ran huge distances in sandals made from old tires, came out about the same time. A Harvard anthropologist, among others, launched a rigorous study of “barefoot running,” concluding that the way people have been locomoting for hundreds of thousands of years is better for you than the raised sole of the modern running shoe.
The “barefoot” or “minimalist” boom was off and running, so to speak. Nike, Brooks and other major shoe companies jumped in with both feet, and soon you had an enormous choice of barefoot running shoes, with soles that ranged from totally flat to a few millimeters high at the all-important heel. Last time I checked, such footwear made up 10 percent of the $588 million U.S. running shoe market and had grown by 303 percent between November 2010 and November 2012, compared with 19 percent for running shoe sales overall.
Photo credit: Vibram Komodo Sport (Vibram)