Amy Cortese published an article Saturday in the New York Times titled Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants. The article gives a hearty shout-out to barefooting, generally, and minimalist footwear and Vibram FiveFingers, specifically. I was actually contacted by Amy a bit over a week ago as she was looking to talk to folks who were running the recent NYC half marathon in VFFs though she wasn't able to work in any of my leads.
Below are my thoughts on Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants, an article that will surely further the "FABLA movement." And if Amy happens to read this, perhaps she could tell someone over at the NYT to review Christopher McDougall's Born to Run already!
As I read "Wiggling," I was reminded of NY Magazine's You Walk Wrong as well as the UK Dailymail's The Painful Truth about Trainers. "Wiggling" asks the question, is less more? Is there something to minimalist footwear? Barefoot running? For ease of discussion, I'm going to lump the minimalist and barefooting movements into a single movement — the FABLA movement — Feet Are Best Left Alone*!
As you might have guessed, Wiggling quotes a handful of "experts" who naysay FABLA outright or indicate that "more research is needed," a statement almost as silly as saying "human beings need to breath oxygen to survive but more research is needed."
And really, the experts sound more silly than convincing:
“In 95 percent of the population or higher, running barefoot will land you in my office,” said Dr. Lewis G. Maharam, medical director for the New York Road Runners, the group that organizes the New York City Marathon. “A very small number of people are biomechanically perfect,” he said, so most need some sort of supportive or corrective footwear. ...
Simon Bartold, an international research consultant for Asics, said advocates of barefoot running “are propagating a campaign of misinformation.” ... [later in the article] Mr. Bartold ... said the industry had runners’ best interests in mind. “It’s all about trying to protect the athlete,” he said.
Dr. Maharam's comment is, of course, completely ludicrous — are we to believe that human beings are crippled by design? That humanity evolved over tens of thousands of years despite being completely handicapped by their faultily designed and biomechnically inept feet?
Bartold gets to the nuts of the issue: "protect the athlete:" wrap up the athlete's feet in a cast of cushioning and "corrective devices" intended to perfect biomechanics.
Don't any of these guys see how absurd all of this is? How do you know what correct biomechanics are if you're thwarting the bioengineering via highly-padded, high-heeled, spring-loaded, shoe casts? This dogmatic and dogged reasoning just chases its own tail.
If you're paying attention, you'll notice that Cortese tees up this little gem, which is promptly hit home by a sports research manager at New Balance:
But for all the technological advances promoted by the industry — the roll bars, the computer chips and the memory foam — experts say the injury rate among runners is virtually unchanged since the 1970s, when the modern running shoe was introduced. Some ailments, like those involving the knee and Achilles’ tendon, have increased. ...
At the same time [in the 1970s], millions of Americans began taking up running as a pastime. Those twin trends ushered in a golden age of biomechanics research. “There was a lot of concern about injuries because of the boom,” said Trampas TenBroek, manager of sports research at New Balance. The logic, he said, was that “if you build a heel lift and make it thicker, you take stress off the Achilles’ tendon.”
Whoops! The whole stress-off-the-Achilles' thing has been working out pretty well, right?
What I liked about the article is that Cortese does a solid job of illustrating the sports shoe market. You've got a $17 billion sports shoe market. Then you've got Vibram, an upstart** shoe manufacturer that is growing like crazy but is only slated to have "revenue of $10 million this year in North America."
Vibram (and others) is like the proverbial David up against the Goliaths of the sports shoe industry — Nike, Asics, Adidas, Reebok, New Balance, etc. These giants are all clad in their showy marketing and padded, "protective" armor while utterly missing the naked point — feet are best left alone! Quite trying to reinvent the foot! The best any footwear can hope for is to simply get out of the way.
But the giants don't get it—even when they try. Just take Nike. Nike spent untold amounts of money researching barefoot running and designing their "barefoot" shoe, the Nike Free, and what did they come up with? Something that still looks and functions a lot like modern sneakers, high heel and all.
And even if they did get it, could the giants untangle the mess of misinformation they've been pandering now for four decades? Would they be willing to implicitly say, "Hey, we were wrong: our shoes have been doing more harm than good." I'm skeptical.
What I am optimistic about is that the FABLA movement is gaining momentum. And why shouldn't it? It's founded on the evolutionary backing of a few tens of thousands of years of bioengineering.
With that kind of history, do we really need more research to understand that feet are best left alone?
* If anyone can come up with a better acronym, I'm all ears!
** Upstart because Vibram has been a sole company up until the past three years!