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Where is the Running Industry Heading: Ten Observations About the Impact of Barefoot

Posted by on Apr 10, 2012 | 13 Comments

Over the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to experience multiple facets of the running world, including:

  • Attending and participating in races (mostly marathons and ultras),
  • Participating in the planing of races,
  • Attending running festivals,
  • Holding clinics for the public and retail sales associates,
  • Participating in strategic discussions with retailers,
  • Participating in behind-the-scenes shoe fitting training,
  • Participating in discussions at the manufacturer and distributor level,
  • Engaging in conversations with tons of barefoot, minimalist, and maximally-shod runners,
  • A handful of other experiences within the industry.

Based on these experiences, I’ve learned a ton about the running world.  When I was just a runner (and consumer), my view was limited.  The observations I made about the running world were based mostly on assumptions and logical conclusions.  Over time, those assumptions and logical conclusions have been replaced by hands-on observations.  It’s given me a much more complete picture of the landscape, especially in regards to barefoot running and its place in the running world.

Based on this, here are some observations:

  1. Barefoot has made an impact everywhere.  Most of the manufacturers have been influenced by the tenants of barefoot… mostly in regards to producing shoes that allow for barefoot-like form.  Some have embraced this idea more than others, but everyone (whether it is apparent at the consumer level or not) is having internal conversations.  Researchers and the medical community has also taken notice, and it is shaping the way they go about their business.  There’s a flurry of research occurring right now with the majority supporting the basic ideas of barefoot running.  The medical community is beginning to recognize exercising the foot is superior to encasing it in an immobilizer shoe.
  2. There’s a significant shift in ideology from “shoes are corrective devices” to “shoes are tools.”  Motion-control shoes are quickly (but not completely) falling out of favor, and this shift is fueled by a renaissance in the teaching of good running form.  For the last few decades, shoes were seen as something that would correct a runner’s gait problems.  The trick was to prescribe a shoe that would fix a specific problem.  The idea of actually fixing gait problems, then prescribing a shoe that will allow that improved gait is gaining popularity.
  3. Barefoot continues to be a grassroots-fueled phenomenon.  The current boom was fueled by consumers pressuring manufacturers to produce better shoes followed by the manufacturers pressuring retailers to sell the product and educate.  This is a somewhat unusual model historically, but speaks volumes about the impact of the Internet and social media.
  4. Shoes are both evolving and devolving.  This may be the most interesting development of the last year.  Manufacturers are paying close attention to the needs of their customers… probably more than they ever have.  This is resulting a plethora of shoes that fill every conceivable need.  A few years ago, there were motion control, stability, neutral, and racing flats.  Today we have those categories along with super minimal “barefoot” shoes (huaraches, VFFS, Merrell Barefoot, NB Minimus Zero, Skoras), cushioned zero drop shoes (Bare Access, Altras), minimally-cushioned shoes with some heel drop (Saucony Hattori, NB MT10 and MT110, Merrell Mix Master, various Inov-8s), reduced shoes (Nike Free, Reebok Pure project, Sketchers Go Run), and super-maximal shoes that still allow natural form (Hokas).  Additionally, most of these categories feature shoes made from anatomical lasts so people with different foot shapes can find a solution that works for them.  We have a wealth of choices.
  5. Actual barefoot running is gaining popularity, but mostly as a training tool.  The number of full-time barefoot runners isn’t increasing much, but the number of people that use barefoot for training purposes is increasing rapidly.  This includes people using barefoot to learn better form, learning better trail running skills, strengthening feet, and overcoming form-related injuries.  Part of this explosion is fueled by our efforts to spread the word.  Part of it is fueled by a handful of manufacturers and retailers that have realized the benefits of promoting barefoot.  Most importantly, part of it is being fueled by the medical community as they see it as a means of preventative medicine.
  6. Coaches are starting to actually coach running form.  I used to coach a variety of sports, including football and wrestling.  Teaching the fundamental movements of the sports was absolutely critical.  I was absolutely shocked to find out many cross country and track and field coaches don’t teach running form.  I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that a coach didn’t bother coaching the fundamental skill required for their sport.  As I engaged more people in conversation, I began to understand.  In the 80’s, running research revealed running success could be measured by things like VO2 Max.  As such, the focus of coaching shifted from good running for to building physiological mechanisms believed to bring about success.  The really good coaches never stopped teaching better running form, and they were the most successful.  The idea of combining the methodology of building physiology AND teaching better form is slowly beginning to trickle down from the elite level to the college level to the high school and lower levels.
  7. Online retailers are leading the way in minimalist sales.  The numbers are clear- online retailers are dominating sales of minimalist shoes.  This isn’t a surprise as they have the capability of offering every conceivable model.  The down side- customers can’t try the shoe before buying.  This disadvantage is overcome with free shipping, which is brilliant.  The forward-thinking online retailers are taking this a step further by offering educational materials, too.  Onlineshoes.com is doing a wonderful job with this.
  8. The “last frontier” of barefoot acceptance is running specialty retailers… and most are WAYYYY behind the rest of the industry.  These are the stores that made a living selling the idea of pronation-control, the wet test, and heavy heel striking.  They’re having incredible difficulty integrating the tenants of barefoot and minimalism with their current way of doing things.  Some are doing a better job than others, but this is definitely the “laggard” group.  Part of this aversion to change has to do with the belief that running form shouldn’t be taught (see #6).  Part of it has to do with the impossible situation of trying to teach better form to customers that have no desire to learn… they just want comfy shoes.  Because of this, running specialty will not change until their customers demand change.
  9. There’s a greater degree of gender equality today.  Years ago, most people experimenting with barefoot and minimalism were men.  There have been a million theories attempting to explain why this occurred.  Regardless of the reason, it’s changing.  Based on everything I’ve seen from the number of minimalist shoes in races to my clinic attendees, these ideas are becoming more acceptable to women.  The gender split of my readers is closing in on 50/50.
  10. Barefoot Running is spreading beyond the running world.  Other sports are taking notice.  The hiking industry is beginning to feel the influence of minimalism.  Even casual is being influenced.  In fact, the recognition that our casual shoes should be minimal in nature has the power to make the greatest impact.  Minimalist and barefoot running will have positive benefits for most, but barefoot and minimalist living offer the promise of strengthening during all waking hours without the dangers of higher impact running.

The running world continues to evolve as barefoot running shapes the landscape.  In many cases, this is resulting in close introspection about why we do the things we do.  This introspection has resulted in some wonderful changes throughout the industry.  The two best outcomes thus far has been the rebirth of a focus on the importance of running form and the number of excellent shoe choices the public now has.

What are your thoughts on these observations?

 

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13 Comments

  1. Leon Boone
    April 14, 2012

    I have noticed a shift in what running shoe stores offer now. A year ago when I bought some running shoes the salesman knew very little about minimalist shoes and thus couldn’t recommend any to me. When I just recently bought some new shoes the same store had a huge variety of minimalist footwear. In fact there were more minimalist styles than traditional shoes. I for one am glad that they are making to transition.

  2. joohneschuh
    April 11, 2012

    The running specialty retailer on my way to work had a huge sticker (2 meters) sticking on the show window. It was an extreme example of an overstriding lower leg, figure the worst example you´ve ever seen. It always hurt to look at it.
    Yesterday I noticed that they exchanged it for a new sticker, also a lower leg, same size, still wearing a heavily chushioned shoe – but now in a perfect midfoot-strike! The shin is vertical, the foot parallel to the ground.
    There is hope!

  3. Janice Nicholls
    April 10, 2012

    I continue to be amazed at the change in advertisments in running & triathlon magazines. Now it seems the majority of ads for shoes are for minimalist or close to minimalist shoes. Funny though, the magazine “shoe review” section still focuses on the traditional coffin with the odd minimalist shoe included. I think it’s time for the magazines to shift now as well.

  4. karen
    April 10, 2012

    I think your observations are spot-on. As a barefoot farmer, I tend to fit into your category #5, using barefoot to strengthen my feet, learn better form etc…and because of this I feel the necessity to transition into a minimalist shoe. Most of my running is on back roads, some asphalt but do enjoy a barefoot hike. A stress fracture last year led me to a podiatrist who told me not to even think about that barefoot running-so my journey began!!!

  5. Tuck
    April 10, 2012

    Great post. I hope you’re right (and I think you are).

    @Adam Lawrence: it’s definitely changing the hiking world, and has been for years. Lots of hikers (myself included) switched from hiking boots to trail running shoes. Once you do that the switch to a more minimalist shoe is only logical. It’s tough to even find old-school big leather hiking boots any more.

  6. trissa
    April 10, 2012

    Sharing. Good as usual!

  7. Adam Lawrence
    April 10, 2012

    I wonder about the impact of minimalism on the hiking industry, which you allude to. I first became aware of VFFs among outdoors people- kayakers, backpackers, and climbers- and only later realized that minimalism had become so powerful amongst runners. It seems that minimalist/barefoot runners are much more likely to be predominantly trail runners than shod runners, and yet I see very little evidence of crossover between the barefoot running community and the backpacking/hiking/climbing community. Amongst backpackers, the dominant paradigm has been one of heavy immobilizing mid-cut boots which support the ankle and render the foot virtually impervious to harm, and also immobilize it completely. My old hiking boots had a stiff plastic plate between the outsole and the insole which meant you could stomp on rocks on the downhill wearing a 45lb pack and hardly notice it. But the ground could just slide out from under you, because your foot has no idea what is going on through those soles. It is also literally impossible to run in these boots, or to move fast down gradients, because dissipating the concussive force of footfall by minimizing heel contact is impossible. Anyway, minimalist footwear backpacking seems to make sense to me, and I hope to try it this summer, but I do worry about the effect of pack weight on a relatively unprotected heel that is striking the ground again and again while walking. Also, a fractured metatarsal or twisted ankle that is an unfortunate sidelining injury while racing can become a genuine emergency situation when out in the middle of nowhere. So even if the potential risk is not greater, the potential cost of a negative outcome seems much higher for backpacking than for running. At the very least, I think many fit backpackers now understand that traditional running shoes, rather than heavy indestructible hiking boots, are more than enough shoe for the job.

  8. Jeff Gallup
    April 10, 2012

    I was just discussing this with a friend this morning (who just recently converted to VFF’s after reading my blog, and my incessant chatter). I think that the industry is really going to change over the next year… especially since consumers want minimalist shoes and will pay for them… the industry will follow the money… great recap!

  9. Brian G
    April 10, 2012

    A better, perhaps more business oriented view for the reasons for #8 (running specialty retailers being way behind the curve) is they have a lot of human and physical capital invested in products to measure motion control, wet tests, slow-motion running form videos, etc, not to mention their stock of traditional running shoes and maybe even contractual purchase agreements with manufacturers for such shoes. A lot of those tools, especially the costlier ones, may have been purchased using loans.

    Dropping their use entirely can create a significant short-term cash flow problem that, since they’re smaller stores with a limited breadth of products, they may find very difficult to financially absorb.

    For many, filing for Chapter 11 to clear out all prior debts and starting from scratch may be the only viable business option.

    As a rough analogy, think of the troubles in the US auto industry a few years ago when they had expensive, large SUVs and an entire supply chain feeding all that which suddenly couldn’t be sold. The only way (most) stayed alive was through government bailouts with others disappearing entirely.

    Yes, running specialty shoe store customers can demand they change, but can those customers also provide the investment capital to enable such change?

  10. Jonas
    April 10, 2012

    I totally agree with your observations.

  11. Erik
    April 10, 2012

    Very informative. Thanks.

  12. Jesse
    April 10, 2012

    first!

    • Jason
      April 10, 2012

      Aren’t you supposed to be running right now? ;-)