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Running the Distance
After a good workout, my head dropped as I sat in the sauna sweating like a turkey on Thanksgiving Eve. My lowered eyes couldn’t help but notice and follow what was the strangest shoe I had ever seen in the gym. They strolled into the sauna like an alien entering a spaceship.
At first I thought sweat was clouding my vision. As I wiped the dripping water from my tired eyeballs, I realized I wasn’t seeing things. These toes were bound in a bright royal blue, ribbed, rubber-like material.
I immediately remembered a pair of socks for all five toes that I had seen in stores around the holidays in bright Christmas colors of red, green and white. I have never tried that kind of socks because I thought it would take too long to wrap my fat toes in them. Ideally, when my feet are cold, I like to pull on my socks like a firefighter reaching for gear at a four-alarm fire. No time for messing around. I want my gloves and socks without complications.
But these were not socks. For me, they were half socks, half water shoes.
When I opened my eyes, a woman was sitting next to me listening to music on her iPod. She probably didn’t want to be disturbed. But my curiosity got the best of me. So, I tapped her on the shoulder to ask about her strange shoes. What on earth were they? She laughed, and said they were her new running shoes.
Running shoes? Did I hear her correctly? Were my ears waterlogged from swimming? Apparently not, as she went on to say that she absolutely loved them because they made her run faster and they were healthier for her feet.
Out of? As someone who specializes in health, my interest was now even more. I asked more questions. Her name was Vena Cook-Clark, 27 years old, and she had been a hobbyist for 6 years.
Originally, the unusual appearance and lightness of the shoe caught her attention. She read that running barefoot was better for her alignment, and it was enough to get her to drop the $100.00 asking price to give it a try.
When she brought them home, her husband joked that they looked like she had “foreign toes,” but now she’s exclaiming that he wants a pair, too. I asked if they were difficult to put on. She said that it becomes easier after the first few times, and it is worth the effort. She added, “At first it was awkward to walk with them, but after about 2 weeks I got used to them and now I want another pair for walking.”
She raved about how easy it is to throw them in the wash with the rest of her running or working clothes. She told me that they were manufactured by a company called Vibram and told me that I could find them on the Internet by Googling “Vibram Five Fingers.”
When I got home that evening, I did just that. I immediately found what was called a “Barefoot Movement”. Purists prefer the term “minimalist movement” because you’re not really barefoot while wearing them. First, I wanted to find out if there really were any health benefits to wearing them.
It turns out that a 2010 study from India says that children who wore shoes before the age of 6 are more likely to develop flat feet than children who walked barefoot. They also had better developed longitudinal arches. Statistically, 8.2% of children who regularly wore shoes suffered from flat feet compared to 2.8% from bare feet. The study was published in The Times of India.
I also learned that I am not the first to discover this study. In 2009, Christopher McDougall wrote a New York Time bestseller called “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”. It offers an in-depth look at the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. They walked hundreds of miles over rough terrain in bare feet, and they walked into the 70s with no sign of injury. Die-hard runners took note, and made the switch.
I wondered what doctors thought of her.
Last year, Harvard scientists showed that people who walk barefoot or with minimal shoes—as humans have done for millions of years—often land on their feet in a way that avoids a terrible impact. Less pounding equals less stress and injury on the foot.
PBS has a video that visually shows how your feet look when running in regular sneakers vs. It is interesting to notice how your feet land on the ground differently. Minimalist shoes have you land on the ball of your foot instead of the heel.
The majority of doctors claim that they are indeed better for your feet and “may” prevent injury. There is that word “may” instead of can that doctors say when they want to cover themselves. Non-committal, but they say anyone with plantar fasciitis or any type of foot injury from running can benefit from them.
Doctors offer the following advice when switching from your regular running sneakers to minimalist sneakers. Start slowly. They recommend that you start using them on paths and grassy areas before you hit cement or pavement.
If you’re interested in reaping the benefits of barefoot running, experts say you should prepare your feet before making the switch. You can do that by:
1. fanning your toes, holding for 10 seconds, 10 times a day per foot.
2. Flex your feet for 5 seconds, then release.
3. Trace letters in the alphabet with your feet in the air every day.
4. Stand on your tippy toes, and
5. Side walk.
The above looks like a lot of fancy footwork, but wearers like Vena Cook-Clark rave about them, and won’t be going back to regular running shoes anytime soon. Clark says, “I look at my old running shoes and can’t believe I used to carry those heavy things in my gym bag. I love these and I run so much faster now and my feet feel so much better afterwards.”
They were founded by Dan Lieberman and Peter Von Conta. Fitness experts have since made the switch and word-of-mouth about them is spreading rapidly because the shoe causes curious people, like me, to ask about them.
Stephen Meade, founder of BigBamboo, LLC says he has seen a man wearing them to meetings under a suit. He said you can’t help but notice and ask about them. He did and says the guy wearing them is a marathon runner and swears by them. Meade can’t wait to get a pair herself.
Although, Brian Cuban, an avid runner who has run 8 marathons with his best time being 3:27 in the Marine Corps. Marathon says he would never use them.
Cuban, who in addition to running marathons is also an attorney, author, blogger and speaker, believes they will always be a niche item for runners. He never sees them catch on in the mainstream.
Cuban said, “I have too many existing foot and knee problems to make them viable. I need to reduce my strike power, not increase it.”
US Navy Lieutenant Commander Andrew Baldwin, MD, who is also an avid marathon runner, agrees.
Baldwin is not a big fan of minimalist shoes. He says: “They are correct in theory, but with our overweight society with bone structure used to heavy lifting, it can be dangerous and lead to injury.”
Andy Baldwin, MD knows a little about health and fitness, both professionally and personally. He has been running since he was a child and has completed 35 marathons and 8 iron mans.
Baldwin is a triathlete, humanitarian, US Navy diver and media personality who currently serves as a family medicine resident at the Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton in Southern California. He has also served at the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington, DC as a spokesman and advocate for naval medicine.
While in DC, he assisted the US Surgeon General with a program called Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future and currently serves as an advocate for the Let’s Move campaign led by First Lady Michelle Obama. Both of these programs target overweight and obesity in children.
On a side note, he was also the star of the ABC hit show, “The Bachelor: An Officer and a Gentleman.”
Still, despite low opinions, sales are on the rise.
Sales for the Vibram Five Finger shoes have tripled every year since their launch in 2006. And sales continue to grow. So these rubber-soled, light or airy running shoes can be more than a passing fad in the fitness industry.
The biggest consumer complaint so far has been that the seams tear after 90 days. As a result, the guarantee on them is, you guessed it, 90 days. But, the advantage over that is the manufacturer, Vibram, will immediately replace them at no cost if that happens. So far, the customer service is excellent, and they have been around since 2006. The second complaint is blisters. But traditional running shoes can also give you blisters.
The webbed running shoes may look dorky and weird, but they are super comfortable, just like barefoot, only your feet are completely protected from sharp objects and stones. They also keep your feet warm. If you are renovating your house and have nails on the floor, they can be an advantage or if you have small children who leave all kinds of things lying around, they can also be a smart substitute for wearing socks around your house.
I also ran into Vena Cook-Clark again at the gym, and she ran up to me in her Vibrams to tell me that she was happy to announce that she had gotten a second pair for walking, and that her husband now a few sports, loving them.
Skeptics who may not want to use them for running use them for comfort and grip during weightlifting, yoga, cycling or just plain old walking.
I was walking through a mall recently, and couldn’t help but see them in all the shoe stores. They come in a variety of attractive, vibrant colors for both men and women. When you lift them, it is exciting to feel how light and flexible they are and there is a buzz in shops with people talking about them.
Last month, runners wore them in a 5K race in the Oshkosh Half Marathon. And you can’t walk into an athletic shoe store without seeing them on the shelves. Top brands are starting to enter the race. Nike and New Balance just introduced “minimalist sneakers” this week.
Current Top 5 Brands for “Minimalist Sneakers” that are approx. $100. are:
3. New Balance
As for me, I still want my gloves, socks and sneakers without complications. But I’m willing to give these a try, if only for the light weight of carrying them around. I also think they are great for walking on the beach in the sand. I love the feeling of sand from my toes, but there is always a chance to step on something sharp. I love running/running by the ocean and these seem like a good alternative to bulky traditional shoes. I also like the non-webbed toe version, which are even lighter in weight than the Vibrams. They are easier to throw in a beach bag than traditional running shoes. I recently tried Stand-Up Paddle boarding and I was able to use them for that as well.
Vibrams weight is 5.7 ounces. The Mizuno Universe 3 (price $119.99) weighs 3.6 ounces and has a closed toe like you would see on a traditional sneaker, so no weird toes.
As summer approaches, you may see more and more of these minimalist running shoes, and do a double take like I did. If they are durable and people like them, I believe word-of-mouth these minimalist shoes will go the distance like a Tarahumara Indian in the Copper Canyons of Mexico.
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