So, is this the great shock’n’sole swindle?
Purists are scathing about the brands paying lip service to minimalism. “It’s about giving people what they want rather than what they need,” says Saxby.
But Nick Pearson, managing director of Sweatshop, the largest running shoe retailer in the UK, believes there is a genuine place for these more moderate products. “They won’t change your gait, but they may help you get stronger and reduce your risk of injury,” he says.
And perhaps just as importantly, from a marketing point of view, they might make you feel as if you’re part of what’s new and exciting in running.
Manufacturers jump on the band wagon
The idea of ‘semi barefoot’ footwear to help runners transition from traditional cushioned shoes is catching on among manufacturers.
One British brand, Inov-8, has a fittingly innovative solution: its minimalist range is rated using ‘arrows’ – the fewer arrows on the shoe, the more minimalist it is, allowing you to transition your way through the range over time, until you’re in the featherweight, 150g Bare-X Lite.
“It seems logical that you gradually reduce the level of cushioning in your shoes, but it’s based on the wrong premise,” says Saxby. That premise being that it’s the shoes that are at the heart of the matter and not how you run.
Form vs shoes
“No shoe can protect you from the forces of running, so if you aren’t going to change your form to handle those forces more efficiently, then stick with traditional padded trainers.”
I see Saxby’s point, but in my experience I think ‘transitional’ shoes have their place in reacquainting runners with what’s beneath their feet and facilitating a more natural running style.
Sweatshop offers a wide range of minimalist shoes across its stores. Two London branches stock the Vivobarefoot brand which, with no cushioning and a sole just 4mm thick, could be described as truly barefoot (the company has even sent staff from the stores on a barefoot coaching course to ensure they dispense the right advice).
But if Sweatshop has bought into barefoot, then how can it justify the remaining 99 per cent of its stock being old-school trainers?
“The industry has been guilty of making too many outrageous claims about what a shoe can do for you that cannot be substantiated,” says Pearson. “It’s often presented as a black and white scenario: buy the right shoe and you won’t get injured; get the wrong shoe and you will.”
But, he points out, that’s just as much of a problem with barefoot and minimalist shoes as it has been historically with traditional shoes.
McDougall agrees. “My concern is that the barefoot trend is being led by products,” he says. “The minimalist shoe
industry is now worth $1.7 billion. You’ve got many of the major shoe companies making minimal shoes but not telling people how to run in them. The shoes don’t change anything – it’s your form
that needs to change.”
Time to adapt
And therein lies the difficulty for companies such as Sweatshop. “Moving away from conventional footwear requires a period of adaptation,” explains Pearson. “And while a customer might have read Born to Run and have been inspired and excited by it, in reality they may not have the time or commitment required to change their gait or gain the conditioning needed to adapt successfully.”
And if they don’t? “As a retailer, our role is to inform, educate and protect the consumer – they need to understand the choice they are making,” says Pearson. “There’s a quantum difference between something like a Vivobarefoot, with no cushioning or heel raise whatsoever, and a Saucony Kinvara, which is really more just tilting its hat to minimalism.”
According to Spencer White, head of Saucony’s Human Performance and Innovation Laboratory, the Kinvara is designed to allow you to heel strike if you need to. “When you’re in the process of changing your gait, you will still heel strike occasionally, say, when you’re getting tired,” he says.
In fact, Saucony’s Step into Minimalism brochure recommends using minimal shoes for just short bouts to begin with, supplemented by runs in your ‘normal’ shoes.
This ‘minimalism-lite’ category of shoes, which tend to be lightweight, less cushioned and less structured, might sound like the perfect compromise for someone who wants to dip their toes into natural running. (The Kinvara has become Saucony’s third most popular shoe.)
But some experts see them as a red herring. “It’s much easier to change your form in a non-cushioned shoe,” says Jay Dicharry, director of the Speed Performance Clinic at the University of Virginia and a leading researcher and lecturer on running biomechanics, injuries and footwear.
Saxby couldn’t agree more. As we fall into step on a second lap of Governors Island, both of us unshod, he makes an observation. “A lot of these people have got rid of their shoes, or put on a pair of FiveFingers or whatever, but they’re still running with crap technique,” he says, with characteristic bluntness.
“When I see injuries in people running barefoot or in minimal shoes it’s because they haven’t changed their form. Learn the technique, and build the conditioning to back it up.”
On the next page: How to change your form and the getting-started barefoot basics.