Last week on a run I saw something I hadn't seen in a long while – a barefoot runner.
As I soldiered into an incessant coastal headwind, this shoeless athlete darted past me without a sound. Attempting to keep up, I watched, mesmerised, as he took strong strides but planted his feet softly – toes spread wide, midfoot lightly skimming the pavement before rising again. As I watched him pull away, I wondered: where have all the barefoot runners gone?
It was only a few years ago that people were running without shoes, or wearing minimalist Vibram FiveFingers runners, in local marathons. But with the big players in the shoe industry deciding to stop producing minimalist footwear, it feels like barefoot running has lost some of its traction. Or has it?
While minimalist shoes and natural running has been a strategy of champions for decades – like Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, who won the marathon in bare feet at the 1960 Rome Olympics – it was only recently that barefoot running had a surge in popularity following the 2009 publication of Christopher McDougall's best selling book, Born to Run.
For those that haven't read the book yet; it tells the story of a Mexican indigenous tribe whose members compete in races of 100km or more in flat, roman-looking leather sandals – and almost never get hurt. McDougall argues that humans evolved to run barefoot, and that modern cushioned runners are over-supporting the foot, breeding runners with poor form and weak feet, and are a major cause of running injuries including Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and shin splints.
I found barefoot running much easier on the body than wearing shoes.Grant Arnott
Barefoot running was further propelled by research from Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman and his colleagues, who argued in 2010 and 2012 papers that very minimal foot covering and a forefoot strike technique deliver greater running economy and fewer injuries.
Scores of runners were inspired to ditch their cushioned runners for bare feet, or bought minimalist footwear such as Vibram FiveFingers, New Balance Minimus and Nike Free.
Born this way
Melbourne-based barefoot running enthusiast Grant Arnott says Born to Run made a lot of sense to him.
"I've always enjoyed running barefoot on the beach because it feels great, and I found the way the book detailed the biology of humans and our innate ability to run long distances really interesting," says Arnott.
"[It] reminded me of the strength of the human foot, especially the arch, and drove my curiosity to give barefoot running a go."
At a New Year's celebration Arnott made a commitment to run the 2011 Melbourne Marathon barefoot to raise funds for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Besides going barefoot, Arnott had never run more than 15km, and so over 10 months he gradually built up his fitness and foot strength.
"I didn't run in shoes all year," says Arnott. "I transitioned from running in cushioned shoes to barefoot sensibly – taking it slowly to start with by running 500m barefoot and building up gradually. I never felt aches and pains, and I didn't suffer shin splints or knee soreness that can sometimes be experienced by runners."
Arnott says that besides the occasional small cut to the foot from glass or sharp stones, he faced no major setbacks from injuries, and finished his first marathon in just over four hours.
"After 42km of running barefoot my feet were dirty and tender for a couple of days afterwards, but I found barefoot running much easier on the body than wearing shoes," he says.
As is often the case for an underdog, barefoot running has faced its share of obstacles. As the craze grew in popularity, it also drew criticism from physiotherapists and podiatrists who questioned claims that barefoot running reduced injuries.
A 2013 study found that runners who transitioned to doing some of their training in minimalist shoes were prone to injuries such as stress fractures in the feet. Then in 2014, Vibram agreed to settle a lawsuit that contended the company deceived consumers by advertising its footwear could reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles, without basing those assertions on scientific evidence.
While recent global sales data is hard to come by, according to the sporting goods industry tracker SportsOneSoure, minimalist footwear sales quickly rose and fell between 2011 and 2014, with American sales of minimalist shoes peaking at US$400 million ($526m) in 2012.
The makers of Vibram FiveFingers said business reached its peak back in 2011, when barefoot running became a sensation and sales in recent years have been stable. A Google trends search of Vibram in Australia supports this finding, with online interest peaking in August 2010 and flatlining since.
She teaches clients the barefoot style of running on their mid-foot.
"I see a lot of broken people. Most of the people I coach aren't new runners – they are people who are returning from injury, realise that something different needs to happen if they want to keep running, and are keen to change their style to prevent future injuries," says Lynch.
Barefootinc started importing FiveFingers to Australia 10 years ago, well before Born to Run popularised barefoot running and minimalist shoes. Lynch says that when she turned up to races wearing FiveFingers, people would question her footwear. Soon after the glove-like shoes started to get traction worldwide and on runs she would be stopped every couple of blocks by people wanting to know more about them.
"Then Born to Run came out and of course everyone wanted a pair of FiveFingers or they started running around without shoes, which was a huge trend," says Lynch.
"At the height of the phenomenon, Barefootinc was selling around 20,000 pairs a year. It was like people thought that by reading the book and buying a pair of FiveFingers that the shoe was a cure-all for their injuries, but it wasn't like that at all."
Lynch adds that initially Vibram got a bad rap because people were getting injured, but it was really through their own naivety and lack of research.
"Humans have 33 joints in each foot and because of modern running shoes they don't get used very much," she says. "So when people decide to wear minimal running shoes their foot starts to move around, and they begin working all these little muscles they haven't previously used, and they pull up quite sore or get injured.
"That's why I never recommend going from a cushioned shoe to minimal support or bare feet without building up the muscles and tendons in the foot. I also recommend people get any niggles, existing injuries or biomechanical issues addressed first."
Is barefoot running dead?
Lynch says she gets a lot of people asking her if barefoot running is dead and her answer is always the same: no.
"Before Born to Run and the minimalist footwear movement, people just accepted what the shoe companies told them - that they needed to be running in a 16mm heel lift shoe with cushioning at the front.
"Today people are a lot more educated on shoe choices because of the growth and awareness of minimal footwear," says Lynch. "While interest has dipped in the past few years, Barefootinc is still selling more than 1400 pairs of FiveFingers every couple of months and demand remains strong."
While barefoot running and minimalist footwear might not be at the prevalence they were in 2010, it seems safe to speculate they are here to stay.
Lynch thinks the same. "Right now the pendulum is tracking towards maximalist footwear, but we can expect to see it swing back because three of the big shoe companies have just signed sole development contracts with Vibram to produce minimal shoes again in 2017 and 2018, so watch this space."
Do you rate running barefoot? Let Laura know in the comments section.
Laura Hill is a Melbourne-based corporate communications executive and runner, and the founder of the I Heart Running blog.