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 Over time, those assumptions and logical conclusions have been replaced by hands-on observations.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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?