Running: Shoes that feel like bare feet

The shoeless movement is opening up a hot new market — and Nike is already there.

For decades, the big running-shoe companies have marketed their products as essential performance tools. From the dual-density foam pioneered by Asics in the 1980s, to the pressured air pockets of the Nike Air Max in 1987, to the recent microchip-assisted Adidas 1, cutting-edge technology was held up as the key to becoming a better athlete.

But lately, some researchers and professional runners have begun to challenge that wisdom. They say today’s high-tech shoes actually hinder mankind’s natural ability to run by interfering with the ultimate running machine: the human foot. This has led to a strange twist in the arms race to build the perfect running shoe. Rather than competing to add as many high-tech support mechanisms as possible, some manufacturers are looking at scaling down to create a new type of shoe that lacks any kind of support at all.

The seeds of the minimalist shoe movement were first planted back in 1960, when Abele Bikila, an athlete from Ethiopia, won the Olympic men’s marathon while wearing no shoes. South African runner Zola Budd added to the intrigue in 1984, when she set a new world record for the women’s 5,000 metre race in her bare feet. In the late 1990s, marathon runner Ken Bob Saxton (“Barefoot Ken Bob”) began evangelizing about the benefits of barefoot running, claiming that running shoes have “imprisoned our feet, weakening them through lack of use.”

Just this year, the idea of barefoot running broke further into the mainstream when journalist Christopher McDougall released a high-profile new book, Born To Run. In it, he describes Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, who effortlessly run the distance of multiple marathons in a simple sandal with a leather or rubber sole for protection. More damaging to the shoe companies, he cites multiple research studies, such as a 2008 paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, that claim there has yet to be an evidence-based study showing running shoes decrease the chance of injury. McDougall concludes that “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot.”

To cash in on the growing movement, a host of upstart companies, such as Vibram, Feelmax and Terra Plana, have launched strange new footwear designed to simulate the effect of barefoot running. Some of the models, such as Vibram’s FiveFingers shoe (available at Mountain Equipment Co-op for $80 in Canada), look like a bizarre cross between a five-fingered glove and a sandal. Other models feature very thin flexible soles.

At first glance, one might conclude that the barefoot movement poses a threat to the shoe giants, but so far the opposite seems to be true. Nike is actually a bit of a pioneer in the field, having launched one of the first minimalist shoes back in 2005 when it released the Nike Free. Resembling a sock with laces and a deeply notched rubber sole, the Free was launched after Nike discovered that a respected track coach at Stanford University was using barefoot running as part of his training regime.

The Free was designed to offer what E. C. Frederick, a former director of the Nike Research Lab, calls “controlled instability.” Now a consultant to the footwear industry, Frederick says the major shoe manufacturers are treating this as a new area for technology and have already filed numerous patents to exploit it. “Nike is way out on the lead on this,” he says.

In fact, rather than infringing on the existing market, the barefoot movement may turn out to be a gift. Nike, for instance, is positioning the Free as a training shoe that real athletes need in addition to the performance shoes they wear on the track. And rather than offering these basic shoes at a basic price, shoe companies may use controlled instability as a means to charge a premium. The Free costs about $125, and Frederick points out that Masai, a high-end Swiss manufacturer of shoes with a curved sole, retails its “anti-shoes” for up to $200 a pair in the U.S.

The minimalist shoe market is still small — Matt Powell, a footwear analyst at SportsOneSource in Charlotte, N.C., doubts barefoot running will take even 1% away from the conventional market — but it’s a fast-growing niche. Sales of the Nike Free have increased at double-digit rates over the past few years, and Vibram’s sales alone are projected to reach $10 million this year in the U.S.

As long as new entrants in the field stick to calling their shoes Free, but keeping the price points high, the industry has nothing to fear.