After initially racing off the shelves, sales of the unusual design have hit the wall
By JILL BARKER | September 23, 2013.
Vibram had one of the first styles of minimalist shoes, designed to provide only basic protection from rocks, glass and hot pavement.
The rise of the minimalist shoe was swift and fast. Born of the barefoot movement that gained popularity with the publishing of Christopher McDougall's 2009 book Born to Run, minimalist shoes are a compromise between bare feet and the heavily cushioned shoes that make up the bulk of the running shoe industry.
Their role in a market already glutted with shoes is to provide the feel of running barefoot by delivering the bare minimum in cushioning and protection. Based on claims by the unshod that running without shoes promotes a more mechanically efficient running style and fewer injuries, minimalist shoes posted impressive growth numbers in the months after McDougall's book became such a hot topic.
The first style of minimalist shoe to hit the market was no more than a sturdy rubber sole with a barely there upper of which the Vibram FiveFingers model was arguably the most popular. Designed to do little more than provide basic protection from rocks, glass and hot pavement, there was no cushioning, no elevated heel and none of the arch support and stability features found in more traditional running shoes.
The promise that a minimalist shoe would improve running form simply by putting it on was initially taken at face value. Videos of the spontaneous change in running style that occurred while running barefoot were circulated on the Internet with running magazines and blogs all heralding the shorter stride, increased cadence and forefoot foot strike inherent to minimalist shoes. These changes, said the barefoot crowd and more than just a few biomechanics experts, reduce the amount of impact stress on the lower extremities, which will keep runners healthier and less prone to injury.
Time, however, hasn't been friendly to the minimalist shoe, which, according to sports research firm Sports One Source, reached peak sales in the U.S. of $400 million in 2012. A 30 per cent increase in the market from 2011 to 2012, dropped to a meagre three per cent by the end of 2012, followed by a 13 per cent decline in sales in the first quarter of 2013.
That drop in popularity may be due to the inability of runners to get used to a cushionless
shoe stripped of its technical features or it could be due to the growing amount of evidence suggesting that the benefits of barefoot running and minimalist shoes have been greatly overstated.
One of the latest studies to question the value of minimalist shoes was published in the August 2013 online version of PM&R (the scientific journal of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation). Designed to detect whether running mechanics change when wearing minimalist shoes, study subjects switched from their traditional running shoes to Vibram FiveFingers and participated in a twoweek training program (six 20-minute sessions), where their running style was continually monitored. Interestingly, the majority of the subjects exhibited no change in running style after two weeks of running in minimalist footwear. Their stride didn't shorten, impact stress didn't decrease and biomechanics changed very little, a finding that has been replicated in several scientific journals in the past 12 to 18 months.
In fact, evidence suggesting that minimalist footwear oversold their benefits has mounted to the degree that some unhappy customers are suing Vibram for wrongfully making claims that the footwear "improves posture and foot health, reduces risk of injury, strengthens muscles in feet and lower legs and promotes spine alignment." Does that mean the end of minimalist footwear? Not yet. Most of the big players in the athletic-footwear industry have created a new style of minimalist footwear that rests somewhere between the stripped-down Vibramversion and the full-featured traditional shoe.
These lightly cushioned models feature very little in the way of motion control technology, choosing instead to rely on a simple, lightweight low profile design with a flexible forefoot. Seen on the feet of more and more runners, they're making a dent in the market despite the fact that they are largely untested.
Equally as interesting as the new vocabulary around shoes is the theory that better form, not better shoes or more cushioning, is the answer to the injury woes of runners. Minimalist shoes are selling themselves as a natural way to improve running technique without added technology.
So far, there have been few data to prove or disprove the claims of this new hybrid shoe, be it an improvement in running mechanics, a change in foot strike or a reduced rate of injury.
So, what shoes are the right shoes? In the absence of good science to support one style of shoe over another, the best shoes are those that fit well, are comfortable and keep you free of injury. No shoe, be it the first or second generation of minimalist shoe or the traditional running shoe with the raised heel and padded forefoot, has found the perfect design for all runners.