Running the Distance

Following a good workout, my head was lowered 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 oddest footwear that I’d ever seen at the gym. They sauntered 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 weary eyeballs, I realized I wasn’t seeing things. These toes were webbed into a bright royal blue, ribbed, rubber-like material.

I instantly recalled a pair of socks fitted for all five toes, which I had seen in stores around the holidays in bright Christmas colors of red, green and white. I’ve never tried those type of socks on, as I figured it’d take too long to wiggle my fat toes into them. Ideally, when my feet are cold, I like to pull my socks on like a fireman reaching for gear at a four-alarm-fire. No time for messing around. I want my gloves and socks without complications.

But these weren’t socks. Before me were half socks, half water shoes.

When I raised my eyes, sitting beside me was a woman 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 her shoulder to inquire about her odd footwear. What on earth were they? She laughed, and said they were her new running shoes.

Running shoes? Did I hear her right? Were my ears waterlogged from swimming? Apparently not, as she went on to say she absolutely loved them because they made her run faster and they were healthier for her feet.

Healthier? As someone who specializes in health, my interest was peaked even more now. I asked more questions. Her name was Vena Cook-Clark, age 27, and she’d been running as a hobby for 6 years.

Originally, the unusual look and lightness of the shoes grabbed her attention. She read that barefoot running was better for her alignment, and it was enough to make her plunk down the asking price of $100.00 to give them a try.

When she brought them home, her husband joked they looked like she had “alien toes,” but now, she exclaims he wants a pair too. I asked if they were difficult to put on. She said it gets easier after the first few times, and it’s worth the trouble. She added, “It was awkward running with them initially, but after about 2 weeks I got used to them and now want another pair for hiking.”

She boasted about how easy it is to toss them in the wash with the rest of her running or working out clothing. She told me they were manufactured by a company named Vibram and told me I could find them on the internet by Googling “Vibram Five Fingers.”

When I got home that evening, I did just that. I instantly found what was called a “Barefoot Movement.” Purists preferred the term, “Minimalist Movement,” since you’re not really barefoot while wearing them. First, I wanted to find out if there really were health benefits to wearing them.

Turns out, a 2010 study from India says children who wore shoes before the age of 6 were more likely to develop flat feet than kids who ran around barefoot. They also had better developed longitudinal arches. Statistically, 8.2% of kids who wore shoes regularly suffered from flat feet compared to 2.8% of barefoot kids. The study was published in The Times of India.

I also learned I’m not the first person to discover this study. In 2009, Christopher McDougall wrote a New York Time’s bestseller called, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”. It offered an in-depth look at the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. They ran hundreds of miles over rugged terrain in bare feet, and they ran into their 70’s without any sign of injury. Die-hard runners took note, and made the switch.

I wondered what physicians thought about them.

Last year, Harvard scientists, demonstrated that people who run barefoot or with minimal shoes – as people have done for millions of years – often land on their feet in a way that avoids a jarring impact. Less pounding equates to less stress and injury on the foot.

PBS has a video that visually demonstrates what your feet look like when they are running with regular sneaker vs. what they look like when you’re running barefoot or with minimalist sneakers. It’s interesting to note 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 physicians claim they are indeed better for your feet and “may” prevent injury. There’s that word “may” instead of can, which doctors say when they want to cover themselves. Non-committal, yet they state anyone with plantar fasciitis or any type of foot injury from running may benefit from them.

Physicians offer the following advice if you switch from your regular running sneakers to minimalist sneakers. Start slowly. They recommend you start by using them on trails and grassy surfaces before hitting cement or pavement.

If you’re interested in gaining the benefits of running barefoot, experts say that you need to prepare your feet before you make the switch. You can do so 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 mid-air each day.

4. Stand on your tippy-toes, and

5. Side walk.

The above seems 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 lug those heavy things around 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 rapidly spreading because the footwear causes curious people, like myself, to inquire about them.

Stephen Meade, founder of BigBamboo, LLC says he’s seen a guy wear them to meetings under a suit. He said you can’t help but notice and inquire about them. He did and says the guy who wears them is a marathoner and swears by them. Meade can’t wait to get a pair himself.

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’d never use them.

Cuban, who in addition to running marathons, is also an attorney, writer, blogger and speaker, believes they will always be a niche item for high distance runners. He doesn’t see them ever catching on mainstream.

Cuban said, “I have too many existing foot and knee issues to make them viable. I need to decrease my strike force, not increase it.”

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Andrew Baldwin, M.D. who is also an avid marathon runner agrees.

Baldwin is not a big fan of minimalist shoes. He says, “They’re correct in theory, but with our overweight society with bone structure accustomed to heavy lifting, it can be dangerous and lead to injury.”

Andy Baldwin, M.D. knows a bit about health and fitness, both professionally and personally. He’s been running since he was a kid, and has completed 35 marathons and 8 iron mans.

Baldwin is a triathlete, humanitarian, U.S. Navy diver and media personality currently serving 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, D.C. as a spokesman and advocate for Navy medicine.

While in D.C. he assisted the U.S. Surgeon General with a program called Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future and currently serves as an advocate for the Let’s Move Campaign headed by First Lady Michelle Obama. Both of these programs target childhood overweight and obesity.

On a side note, he was also the star of the ABC hit show, “The Bachelor: An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Yet, 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 as air running shoes may be more than a passing fad within the fitness industry.

The biggest complaint from consumers to date has been that the seams tear after 90-days. Consequently, the warranty on them is you guessed it, 90-days. But, the upside about that is the manufacturer, Vibram, will promptly replace them at no cost if that happens. So far, the customer service has been excellent, and they’ve been around since 2006. The second complaint is blisters. But traditional running shoes can give you blisters too.

The webbed running shoes may look dorky and weird, but they’re super comfortable, like being barefoot, only your feet are completely protected from sharp objects and stones. They also keep your feet warm. If you’re renovating your home and have nails on the floor, they could be a benefit or if you have small children who leave all sorts of things lying around, they could also be a smart substitute for wearing socks around your home.

I also bumped into Vena Cook-Clark at the gym again, and she ran up to me in her Vibrams to tell me she was thrilled to announce she had gotten a second pair for hiking, and that her husband was now sporting a pair, loving them.

Skeptics who may not want to use them for running, are using them for comfort and grip during weight lifting, yoga, bike-riding or plain old walking.

I recently walked through a mall, and couldn’t help but spot them in all the footwear stores. They come in a variety of attractive, vibrant colors for both men and women. When you lift them it’s exciting to feel how light and flexible they are and there is a buzz in stores 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 footwear store without seeing them on the shelves. Top brands are starting to get into the race. Nike and New Balance just introduced “Minimalist Sneakers” this week.

Current Top 5 Brands for “Minimalist Sneakers” which cost approx. $100. are:

1. Vibram

2. Nike

3. New Balance

4. Reebok

5. Brooks

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 for carrying them around. I’m also thinking they’d be great for walking on the beach in the sand. I love the feel of sand of my toes, but there’s always a chance of stepping on something sharp. I like to walk/run 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’re easier to toss into a beach bag than traditional running shoes. I recently tried Stand-Up Paddle boarding and I could see using 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 as you’d see on a traditional sneaker, so no alien toes.

As summer approaches, you may see more and more of these minimalist running shoes, and do a double-take as I did. If they are durable and people like them, I believe word-of-mouth will have these minimalist shoes going the distance like a Tarahumara Indian in Mexico’s Copper Canyons.

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