An interesting article titled “Appealing to Runners, Even the Barefoot Brigade,” by Andrew Adam Newman was published in the New York Times a few days ago. The article takes a look at the state of the running shoe industry, with a particular focus on the minimalist shoe segment.
While sales of toning shoes are dropping off precipitously, running shoe sales continue to grow, up 18% overall compared to last year. Even more interestingly, the article reports that sales of so-called “minimalist” style shoes have risen by 283% over the same period. Is this a bubble that’s going to burst at some point, or a “fad” doomed to slowly fade away? Or, is this a sign of a long-term movement away from more traditional, heavy running shoes with extensive cushioning and heel lifts. Time will tell, but I for one find it very unlikely that I will ever go back to the shoes I wore a few years ago, if for no other reason than since going almost completely flat, wearing my old pair of Brooks Adrenalines now makes me feel like I’m standing on a steep downhill slope.
If I had to guess, some of the initial exuberance over minimalist and barefoot-style running will die down, but I think the segment will retain a strong place in the running shoe market. Whereas shoes like racing flats have always been around and available to hard-core runners, nowadays everyday runners are finding that running in a lightweight shoe with less cushioning is a perfectly valid option. What’s more, there are now many varieties to choose from, ranging from well-cushioned shoes like the Nike Free or Saucony Kinvara, down to barefoot-style models like the Merrell Trail Glove or Vibram Fivefingers. More are on their way from other shoe giants (e.g., Brooks), and Saucony, one of the more progressive companies in this movement, is now even lowering heels on some of the shoes in it’s flagship line (e.g., the Triumph 9) from a traditional 12mm heel-forefoot differential to 8mm. Choice for the everyday runner has finally arrived, and for me this is the most important result of the barefoot/minimalist movement. No longer are we locked into just a few stability variants based off of a more-or-less common template.
To give a bit more insight onto the current state of things in the shoe business, I wanted to share some comments that were sent to me by a manager at a specialty running shop. Eric Johnson is a blogger, triathlon coach, and manager at The Starting Block in Springfield, Missouri.
First off, Eric emphasized that at his store they “…do not push minimalist shoes over traditional shoes, but we educate about potential pros and cons and the consumer picks based upon that info.” He went on to describe his store’s minimalist offerings:
“The minimalist-type shoes we carry are as follows (recognizing that most of these aren’t true minimalist): Saucony Mirage, Saucony Kinvara, all Newton models, Saucony Kilkenny spikeless racing flat, and most Vibram Fivefingers (VFF). The Mirage is our #1 shoe, closely followed by the Newton Isaacs. Our brand sales (in order of most dollars) are Saucony, Asics, Vibram, Newton, Brooks, Mizuno, and Adidas. A year ago VFFs were in last place – now they are nearly overtaking Saucony and Asics (all three are super close). And, again, we really do not push them. We educate, but almost never suggest someone start in a Vibram. People come in frequently asking about minimalist shoes. From a running store standpoint, consumers are much more educated than ever before.”
We’ll be getting the Brooks Pure line and New Balance Minimus in October…in the past year we’ve cut a lot of non-minimalist shoes and have added mainly minimalist. Our sales in moderate stability and motion control shoes have plummeted. We are selling mostly neutral/cushioning and light stability traditional shoes as well as the minimalist.”
Regarding the Vibram Fivefingers, which his store stocks, he said the following:
“VFFs are so popular we actually have an entire corner of our store dedicated to them. Incredible. If I had to give my best estimate as to “who” is buying them, I’d say a third are athletes (majority runners, but some lifters), a third are people who don’t like wearing shoes, and a third just want them because of the fad. We had tons of military guys buying them until recently – I heard the military banned them from use in PT tests. So now they usually get Newtons.”
I also asked Eric about his experience, if any, with customers getting injured in Vibram Fivefingers:
“I’ve only seen one guy with a metatarsal stress fracture and he was a guy whose soft tissue adapted quickly so he proceeded to log high mileage on hard surfaces pretty quickly (40+ mpw in Vibrams, 40+ in Newtons simultaneously).
Now the question is how many people are buying VFF’s, having pain, and giving up? Hard to say. Probably a lot – most people have no patience. I get virtually zero returns on them other than an occasional defect though (as opposed to all my other shoes, which do come back a lot). And I do get stories from people who overcame debilitating injuries using VFFs.
We’ve all heard about the big increases in metatarsal stress fractures and calf/PF/Achilles issues at PT offices, but it makes you wonder also how many people with patellar tendinitis, joint pain, ITBS, etc. that had been through the rigmarole with those same practitioners are now successfully running due to minimalist shoes or barefoot style running technique changes.”
Interesting stuff from an industry in flux, and from a guy at the front lines of fitting runners to shoes. It will be might interesting to see if this trend continues, but I highly doubt that minimalism will go the way of toning shoes.