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Ten Reasons The Natural Running Revolution is Coming

Posted by on Oct 22, 2011 | 21 Comments

In a recent post, I discussed the impending revolution in the shoe industry and which companies seemed to be in a position to be winners and losers.  It’s purely speculative and based on nothing but my own observations (i.e.- no real data), but it’s fun tossing out predictions.

One that note- here are ten reasons the shoe revolution will occur:

1. The revolution in running form.  POSE, ChiRunning, Evolution Running, Good Form Running, Bareform Running, barefoot running… all of these ideas support one concept- running with a shorter, faster stride.  Quality running coaches (high school, college, and professional) all teach the same basic idea- there’s a right way to run and it doesn’t involve overstriding with a heel strike.  The fact that some companies are actively teaching this (Merrell, New Balance, Vibram) is a sign that “good form awareness” is spreading.  Once people recognize there’s a right way to run, they will begin seeking shoes that facilitate good form, which are lightweight shoes with a minimally-cushioned sole and near-zero heel drop.

2. The Nike factor.  Nike IS going to do something… it’s just a matter of time.  The Free line clearly is not going to be their lone foray into the minimalist shoe market.  As the most powerful force in the athletic shoe world, they alone have the power to affect the tipping point between the old “motion control/stability/neutral” paradigm and the new “natural running shoe” paradigm.  I don’t think the Valiant research was meaningless.  I predict Nike will release a true minimalist shoe (not like the Free) and market the Hell out of it.  They will also push the new paradigm hard.  Why?  They can immediately dominate a new market by redefining it, which will leave their present competition in the dust.  Don’t be surprised if they recruit some powerful allies in the barefoot/minimalist community.

3. The New Balance factor.  New Balance is making incredible strides in shoe design.  Their new Minimus line and the MT110 should be significant improvements over the previous models.  Good design is a major plus.  New Balance’s real significance, however, lies in their pedigree.  As a running shoe company, they already have strong in-roads to running specialty stores.  Running Specialty is going to be the last holdouts for a paradigm shift.  After all, they’ve sold the “foot coffin” paradigm for decades.  If Nike doesn’t act, New Balance will be the agent of change that will provide minimalist products in your local running store, teach about good running form, and ultimately be the “Trojan Horse” that ultimately opens up the minimalist market in local running stores.

4. The social nature of running.  The barefoot running movement has been a grass-roots phenomenon fueled by the Internet and friend networks.  It works like this- one person learns about barefoot running, tries it, has tremendous success, then tells all their friends.  Eventually their friends try it, too, fall in love, and continue spreading the word.  The Internet serves as an educational tool that supports that expansion.  This trend will continue at an exponential pace, especially since so many institutions are beginning to either actively spread the idea or passively support the concept.  The introduction of the “barefoot shoe” idea opens the concept of barefoot running to a MUCH wider audience.  As more manufacturers begin selling shoes marketed as “barefoot shoes” more and more people will pick up the idea.  Exponential growth facilitated by peer networks… this is what has and will continue to fuel the movement.

5. The start-ups.  The idea of minimalist shoes is not new… they’ve been around forever.  However, the shoes being marketed as minimalist shoes appears to be a new idea in the minds of consumers.  That new shoe concept is being fueled by tiny startups that are defining the market.  Companies like Stem, Skora, Altra, Kigo, etc. are creating products that larger companies will eventually copy.  This is how most innovation works- tiny companies spring up, take HUGE chances on innovative products, then larger companies use the ideas once the market decides which ideas will be successful.  We’re at the point where the startups have pretty much defined what constitutes a good minimalist shoe.  We’re seeing most of the major manufacturers producing shoes that fit this new paradigm.  Some are better than others.  Over the next year, we’ll see a refining process as the good shoes succeed and the bad shoes fail.  The market will help cull the good offerings from the shit, and the small startups will help define what is a “good offering.”

6. Empirical research.  The current body of research supporting the ideas of barefoot and minimalist shoe running is fairly impressive.  There are A LOT more studies supporting the idea than studies refuting the idea.  It’s safe to say the idea is valid.  Since Lieberman’s Nature study was published, I’ve been contacted by no less than six researchers or assistants for guidance on developing studies related to barefoot or natural running.  And those are just the researchers that reached out to me.  Over the next year or two, well see a flood of empirical research that will help teach us the specifics of natural running.  Groups like the Natural Running Center will help spread the word about the emerging research.  This research will serve a critical purpose- it will help sway the medical community.

7. The changing medical community.  Supported by emerging empirical research, the medical community is becoming increasingly supportive of the premise of barefoot and minimalist shoe running.  Based on conversations I’ve had with people in the medical community, one specific idea has swayed their opinion.  Barefoot and minimalist shoe running strengthens anatomy, while traditional shoes immobilize anatomy.  If a traditional shoe is thought of as a cast, suddenly this idea makes a lot of sense.  If someone has suffered an injury and need immobilization to heal, traditional, supportive shoes will allow them to heal.  Once healed, however, it’s logical to begin a strengthening program.  What strengthens?  Minimalist shoes!  I’ve found most doctors prescribe orthotics because patients are too lazy to do the required rehab exercises to strengthen their feet and solve the problem.  They’re aware that orthotics will never solve the problem, only temporarily alleviate the symptoms.  They recognize this is a way to actually solve problems.  As such, they’re beginning to support the idea en mass.

8. The effects of standing.  People that stand on their feet all day have a tendency to buy excessively cushioned shoes that provide a ton of support.  Unsurprisingly, this group experiences significant foot, leg, and back problems related to foot immobility and changed posture due to raised heels.  This group, for the most part, has not discovered minimalist shoes.  When they do, the idea will spread like wildfire.  All it will take is one nurse at a hospital to make the switch and experience immediate benefits.  Or one cashier.  Or one hairdresser.  This application of minimalist shoes will be far more powerful than the effect on the running world.  After all, only about 3% of the population runs.  Imagine what will happen when people recognize the benefits outside the realm of recreational physical movement?

9. Born to Run- the movie.  Jake Gyllenhall + the story line of Born to Run = blockbuster.  This could be bigger than the previous eight factors.  The cinema has the power to reach a HUGE audience, including the international community.

10. Momentum.  All of these factors are occurring at the same time.  This movement started as a trickle.  It grew steadily for a number of years.  Over the last year or so, it really began to build momentum.  I don’t have the exact figures, but shoe sales can be one such measure.  Motion control shoes increased in sales by something like 2-4% in the first quarter of this year.  Minimalist shoe sales grew several hundred percent in the same time frame.  That’s just one objective measure of growth.  There are others: the number of barefoot or minimalist stories appearing in the media, number of blogs dedicated to the topic, number of Barefoot Runners Society chapters, number of different shoes released by different manufacturers, the number of minimalist SKUs on the walls of shoe stores, etc.

There are other reasons we’re going to see a significant revolution… these ten are just a partial list.  All point in the same direction- how we think about human movement is changing, and that change is being led by the barefoot/minimalist shoe movement.

By now, most people with some sense of objectiveness acknowledge this change.  Still, many believe change will be slow and methodical… taking perhaps years.

I strongly disagree.  Change appears to be slow today, but that will change.  Any study of epidemics will show the typical progression of growth, and it’s not linear.  Something will happen that will cause sudden and dramatic growth.  I’m willing to bet that “something” will be any one of or a combination of the ten factors above.

What do you think?

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21 Comments

  1. Clare Harding
    October 27, 2011

    All the above comments are valid. As a trainer, I do think Ken S has a point – people are lazy and follow the pack. However, if the stars start wearing minimalist trainers, all this will change in a flash as the fashionistas lead a new pack thought. And we must never underestimate the power of NIke advertising.
    I love the term ‘foot coffin’ and do hope that truly bare feet and minimalist shoes do take off since a)cave man did not nip down to his local Nike shop for a new pair of trainers every 6 months and b)as people age, there is a real problem with thinning of the sole of the feet, which is very painful and reduces the amount they move about. Not good.

  2. Rob
    October 25, 2011

    Not sure a “revolution” is the proper word. More like a return to our running roots. I’m not a running shoe historian, but it would be very interesting to research what the first modern running shoes looked like. FWIR, they were about as or more minimal than the minimal shoes of today. I know even when I started running 20 years ago there wasn’t a whole lot of structured shoes, they were present but there were a whole lot of “neutral” shoe choices as well. What I’d like to understand is what happened 20+ (or more) years ago that started us down the slippery slope of shoe technology and innovations? I mean, what was wrong with the original Nike Waffle Racer? I had a pair and they were basically thin slippers with grip; awesome!

  3. Dan Stoner
    October 24, 2011

    I hope I hope I hope that Nike and others get into the Zero Drop game. Can’t tell you how frustrating it has been trying to find healthy footwear for my kids!

  4. Mike M.
    October 24, 2011

    Most of your list makes sense, except for Jake Gyllenhal and a movie version of Born to Run having any effect. I loved the book “Born to Run,” but I don’t see how a movie version (which is really just a rumor right now anyway) could have any effect on the public perception of minimalist running. First, Jake Gyllenhal is quickly becoming irrelevant as an actor (even his most recent Source Code, which was great and he was great in, got very little buzz). Second, I don’t really know how they are going to convert that book into a good movie. Will it only focus on the race with the Tarhumara? No offense, but a movie about a 50 mile race would be hella boring. Finally, even if they do make the movie, who says they will spend even one second of the movie talking about minimalist footwear? The compelling part about the race is that these “sophisticated” indians can run better than our “elite” athletes, not what shoes they wear (compelling for the general movie-going public, I found the minimalist shoe discussion in the book very compelling… but in movie form it would be boring).

  5. Lloyd
    October 23, 2011

    I’m not sure there will be “revolution” regarding minimal shoes. I imagine this is your desire, but not convinced it will happen.

    Better form, yes. But a movement because of shoes? You said it already: “Quality running coaches (high school, college, and professional) all teach the same basic idea- there’s a right way to run and it doesn’t involve overstriding with a heel strike.”

    Seems like folks have been doing it for years. Are supportive or cushioned shoes really the culprit?

    I don’t get your focus on footwear if the essential behavioral change is on form. Does it really matter what is worn? Is it not possible to mid-foot strike in a “foot coffin?”

    You are correct when you imply that the real paradigm shift will be when people think less about the footwear and footstrike and more about form.

    I’m not convinced it matters what shoe folks wear, whether supportive, cushioned, or minimalist. IMO, wear enough shoe to get the job done and which feel comfortable. Improving form does not depend on the type of shoe on your feet.

  6. Barefoot Josh
    October 23, 2011

    Dude, if I get bought by Nike, we will totally have to battle to the death. What a bummer. Hope Nike doesn’t buy me out.

  7. Javier Cortez
    October 23, 2011

    I think you said it with JG in the movie. we as a society are so involved in what our “stars” are doing that we adopt it ourselves. when the movie comes out, it’ll spread like wildfire. where I work, I always ask the MC runner why there are in MC shoes? they always respond with “I’m fat, my doctor says that I need it, my feet are flat, etc”. it’s very disappointing as a whole how miseducated most runners are with so much access to information.

    keep up the great work, Jason!

    -JC

  8. John
    October 23, 2011

    Just saw ads today in ESPN Magazine for adidas versions of VFFs. They were pitched as workout shoes, but it’s not a long distance from there to running shoes.

    Maybe the other 800 lb gorilla will beat Nike to the punch…

  9. BF in AZ
    October 22, 2011

    I just reread Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point (about how social phenomena mimic epidemics) and I kept being reminded of the way FiveFingers took everyone by surprise. Gladwell writes about how social movements reach a tipping point where the momentum becomes unstoppable. It seems like we could be getting close to that point.

    • Jason
      October 31, 2011

      Gladwell’s ideas were part of the motivation for this post. The movement itself has a self-sustaining quality that may eventually lead to a tipping point. Once all other factors (research, medical acceptance, anecdotal success stories, shoe sales, etc) it’s hard to imagine this not reaching the tipping point very soon.

  10. Pete
    October 22, 2011

    Reason #11: Jason’s beard is just too awesome for people to ignore.

    • Jason
      October 31, 2011

      If you look back on history, you’ll see that most major revolutions have been made by people that have beards. Just look at the list – Ghangis Khan, Jesus, Lenin, etc.

  11. Erik Lee Skjon
    October 22, 2011

    Great post; really informative. But I wonder if a sudden explosion would be a good thing. A lot of people might hear about natural running through marketers and corporate media rather than through word-of-mouth, become convinced they need minimalist shoes to run properly, and never give barefoot running a chance. Not that I’m against minimalist shoes, it’s just that I think barefoot should be the default setting for running on easy to moderate terrain and reasonable temps. Also, I agree that if that movie is a hit it could be the single most decisive factor. That might counter the marketers a bit if the actor is shown running barefoot at least once. If he’s shown only running in huaraches, audiences might not pick up on the barefoot concept.

  12. Ken S.
    October 22, 2011

    I really hope that you absolutely right and I wish I shared your optimism, but unfortunately I don’t.

    I do think the barefoot/minimalist movement will grow and become much bigger than it is now. I do think that it is not going away, and that it will become much more mainstream and much more accepted. I do think that in time there will be no question about it being the best way to run.

    But then there is human nature to contend with. Unfortunately I also believe that most people are apathetic about their running technique (or about the proper technique for any type of exercise), and will remain that way. In my opinion, the majority will never make any serious effort to learn and adopt better running form, and instead they will prefer to just put on traditional running shoes, and deal with their injuries as they come up.

    In any case, I sincerely hope that I’m completely wrong and that you’re completely correct.

    • Jason
      October 31, 2011

      Ken,

      See my reply below ;-)

  13. Doug Brandt
    October 22, 2011

    It will be slow. Too many people who transition to natural running do so too quickly and suffer injury. This does not happen to all who try it, but does happen to a significant number of people. Training and support for the transition is generally lacking. Preconceived notions about how to undertake the transition are not always correct; underlying foot weaknesses are exacerbated by these notions and thus injuries occur. Such injuries need not happen, but they do, and this will significantly impede the movement to so called natural running.

    Yes, the transition will occur, but it will take years.

    • Jason
      October 31, 2011

      Doug,

      I think this is where the idea of the tipping point comes in. The rate of adoption is relatively slow. However, the money being spent by the big boys on running form education points to one conclusion. There will be a huge push in the industry geared towards the idea there is one right way to run.

  14. Franklin Chen
    October 22, 2011

    Everywhere I go in my FiveFingers, I encounter some questions from people. They are curious! They usually say they’ve seen other people wearing them also, and I spread the word about why less shoe works well for me. As the concept of less shoe enters the mainstream more, people will try it out. Our responsibility is to to tell them how it is not just about shoe or no shoe, but about relearning how to use our own bodies, so that we don’t damage them.

    Barefoot is still rather frowned upon, however, such that I have to be careful where I do it.

  15. Fabio Montoya
    October 22, 2011

    Definitively I agree with all itś written above: Barefoot/Minimalist shoes Revolution is here to stay. First I bought mi VFF’s just as a curiosity thing to be tested, I made my transition through months and I got convinced that this is the real and natural way to run. As apeman evolved to become a natural runner/chaser, feet are a state of the art piece of biomechanical engineering, they know how to absorb shocks; and by that time there were no brand shoes to help men to run, so it’s just a granted gift from nature to mankind. Hurray to Barefoot/Minimalist shoes running!!!

  16. Trisha Reeves
    October 22, 2011

    Bravo! Excellent, excellent post. I agree with you that it’s only going to take a few factors to coincide before this whole natural running/walking thing explodes exponentially. I think the main factors will be the medical community and what Nike will produce. So far they are quite possibly the two strongest influences on the minds of runners in general. I’m glad people like us are already on board: it means we get to sit back and watch all the lightbulbs turn on.