Two summers ago, I took a pair of shoes that looked like padded "toe socks" with me for a 30-mile hike into Evolution Valley. The valley is in the northeast corner of Kings Canyon National Park, California, and I brought along a pair of boots as an alternate pair of shoes, just in case the toe socks didn’t work out. The toe socks in question were the Vibram FiveFingers, and after 30 miles of hiking, alternately, in the FiveFingers and my boots, I managed to all but destroy my feet. As a former collegiate runner, lifelong skier and generally athletic, outdoorsy person, it hurt my ego to think that my feet couldn’t handle this latest footwear innovation. I blamed the shoes and tossed the Vibrams into the back of my closet.
The following spring, one of my college running buddies started a conversation about how running shoes might be bad for you, and e-mailed a link to a story. The story reminded me of all the legendary runners who hadn’t needed shoes for running as we know them today. The modern running shoe wasn’t even invented until the 1970s.
I reached back in my closet, found the FiveFingers and put them on again. This time, I approached the "barefoot shoes" a little more reasonably. I took them for short runs and hikes, two to three days a week. On one particular hike, I wore them to Pinnacles National Monument with my girlfriend and halfway through the hike switched to my usual hikers: a pair of old running shoes.
That was the epiphany moment—my feet were extraordinarily uncomfortable in my runners after having spent just 21/2 miles walking in the Vibrams. Over that summer, I ran and hiked various distances in the FiveFingers, even climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome, a roughly 16-mile round trip. I had begun adapting to these barefoot shoes and was enjoying them immensely.
I decided to do some research. Internet surfing turned up scientific studies going back to 1987 that call into question the reasoning behind running shoes. I got in touch with Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard researcher studying human motion. He believes that long-distance running played a major role in the evolution of mankind.
Says Lieberman: "No one has ever published a study showing that high-heeled, cushioned running shoes are in any way good for you or prevent injury. I am astonished by experts who think there is something dangerous or risky about running in minimal shoes. This view is obviously absurd from an evolutionary perspective…Humans evolved to run maybe two million years ago, and natural selection is a better engineer than anyone in any shoe company."
Such opinions are beginning to gain ground, with companies designing shoes that lack structural support and are little more than basic armor against rocks, glass and twigs. They have a dedicated following: Vibram’s FiveFingers seem to be the most popular, but Feelmax and Terra Plana make shoes using similar philosophies.
I asked Terra Plana’s founder, Galahad Clark, why he made barefoot shoes. "Vivo Barefoot started when a childhood friend of mine who had repetitive ankle injuries realized that shoes were the problem," he said.
Breaking Them In
For those curious to try barefoot running or walking, it’s best to start slowly. You will be using muscles you didn’t know you had, and will be appropriately sore. Terra Plana and Feelmax shoes are primarily sold in Europe, though Terra Plana does have a store in New York City. Vibram’s FiveFingers are sold throughout the country and online.
The FiveFingers might best be described as armored toe socks. They fit your foot like a glove, and enable you to feel the ground you stand on, without being injured beyond bruises. The Terra Plana shoes, on the other hand, do have a thin insole. While this takes away some of the sensitivity found in Vibram’s shoes, the Vivo Barefoot also feels much more like a traditional shoe and gives your foot the freedom to move naturally. And there’s another advantage—since they look normal on the outside, they won’t draw unwanted stares.
Though they still comprise a small portion of the shoe market, barefoot shoes are making inroads. The owner of The Shoe Tree in Pismo Beach, California, told me that he sells "two or three pairs of FiveFingers a day." Then he sighed and added: "I wish I had another shoe that sold so well."
BRIAN COLLERAN is a restoration ecologist, environmental writer and former collegiate runner living in Burlington, Vermont.