The Barefoot-Running Debate: Is Less More? (Preview)

Call them what you like - toe shoes, foot gloves, gorilla feet. Call them strange-looking, weird or ugly if you're so inclined. Just understand that the funky, almost barefoot look of the FiveFingers hides from no one.

The ultra light, increasingly chic shoe has made appearances on the feet of everyone from Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey to Google founder Sergey Brin. The FiveFingers announce "I'm a free thinker!" (though critics 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 £84.99 and £165.99.

Health benefits

In addition to their nonconformist currency in popular culture, the FiveFingers - which weigh all of 162g and have a minuscule heel height of 7.2mm - present a health and exercise message as well.

"The shoes were designed to not give too much cushioning," says Dr Mehmet Oz, co-author of You: Staying Young (£12.99, Harper Thorsons). "But they allow you to run off the arches of your feet so you bounce."

And Time magazine, 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".

The book that started a trend...

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 (£8.99, Profile Books).

The book, a bestseller, reports on the Tarahumara Indians of north Mexico, who reportedly suffer fewer running injuries than North Americans do, even though many members frequently race ultra-long 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 to be 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, which have traditionally dominated the running-shoe market, don't allow for such an experience, the barefooters contend. "Sure," says McDougall, himself an ultra marathoner. "I'll throw on a minimal shoe, but when I want to get back on track with my form, I have to be barefoot."

Getting organised

Buoyed by ideas presented in the book, the ranks of barefooters have grown, with a new organisation, the Barefoot Runners Society (barefootrunners.org). But even its members point out that there are times when the foot needs some protection from the elements.

FiveFingers offers runners a way to guard their soles from sharp pebbles or fallen twigs 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 American runner, Patrick Sweeney, won the Palos Verdes Marathon in the US 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 multi-billion pound running shoe business who have glimpsed the future of running shoes - and are racing backwards to catch up.