Natural, Minimal ... or Naked?

We recently reported on the barefoot running craze that’s gaining popularity, and how several shoe manufacturers are designing “barefoot shoes” to combine the benefits of barefoot running with the protection of a traditional shoe.

When done correctly, the biomechanics of barefoot running have been shown in some studies to be more efficient and less injurious than using traditional shoes. However, even the most hardcore barefoot runners wear something on their feet occasionally – in which case they look for footwear that mimics naked feet as closely as possible.

The problem is that barefoot running form is completely different than the biomechanics of traditional footwear. That’s why footwear companies have developed two distinct new categories of shoes with barefoot biomechanics in mind.

Minimalist footwear

This style means just what the name implies: the absolute minimal covering you can get by with short of leaving your feet naked. Typically, the underside of the shoe is very thin and flexible, made of some kind of puncture-resistant rubber just a few millimeters thick. There’s no heel, no midfoot cushioning, no arch support, and nothing to give the shoes structure; in fact, most shoes of this variety can be rolled upon themselves like a sleeping bag.

Vibram is clearly the industry standard in this category, with its revolutionary FiveFingers gaining in popularity with each passing month. Check them out at www.vibramfivefingers.com.

Feelmax is a small Finnish company that is just beginning to make inroads among American consumers. Their styles have a casual athletic-shoe look to them, and can be used for exercise or casual wear. They’re sold at www.giftsfromfinland.com

Other runners wear aqua socks or thin moccasins to maintain the barefoot feel with a thin layer of protection and warmth.

Natural footwear

These shoes replicate the biomechanics of barefoot running – in particular, a forefoot strike instead of heelstrike - while still providing most aspects of normal shoe construction that consumers expect. This category has attracted the heavy hitters of the shoe industry.

Compared to traditional running shoes, natural footwear has a lower heel angle, less midfoot cushioning, and more forefoot flexibility. They represent a great intermediate step for someone looking to gradually shift towards minimalist or barefoot running.

With that in mind, here are some key players:

Nike: You may have heard of these guys before. Ironically, the company who almost singlehandedly kicked off the running shoe boom is now a leading proponent of barefoot running, and has several different lines of Nike Free footwear available online and in stores.

Newton: Their Gravity shoe is a lightweight trainer that is built for a pure forefoot running pattern. They’re also built for speed – and Newton enjoys a significant following among elite triathletes. See www.newtonrunning.com

ECCO: Better known for their high-end dress shoes, ECCO created the BIOM as a super-durable high-performance natural running shoe. It’s loaded with unique features and design innovations born from the company’s extensive background of research and expert craftsmanship. Learn more at www.biomproject.com.

Naked feet

Of course, nothing will truly replicate the feeling of running completely barefoot, but these shoes provide you many of the benefits without nearly so much risk or discomfort from cruising around with naked feet.

The worlds of minimal and natural footwear are definitely worth exploring if you suffer from frequent injuries, or want to gradually progress toward becoming a barefoot runner. Donald has done in-depth reviews of each of the products mentioned here; check out our website for all the links.

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