First things first. Minimalist footwear is footwear designed to promote a forefoot strike and give the foot a better feel of the ground. Essentially mimicking what you would run like barefoot. If you don’t believe me, try running barefoot across your house, just a couple of steps. Do you land on your heels?
Proponents of this movement suggest that we tried to promote heel strikes because heels were hardier and then built an industry around that. Increasing heel height and cushioning and attempting to fix new things such as over-pronation, caused by those same shoes. Linked at the bottom is Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run a New York Times Bestseller that really brought the movement mainstream.
Over the last couple of years there has been a red-hot debate about Minimalist or Barefoot running practices and shoes. I’m not really going to get too deep into it (especially because I’m a little biased) but also there are scientists on both sides with some pretty substantial evidence through lab practices. What we do know is this:
-The minimalist/barefoot movement is still pretty small, representing <7% of all runners and a much smaller market share of the entire athletic footwear industry.
-Growth rate and adoption rate to minimalist/barefoot shoes is pretty substantial. 283% according to SportsOneSource (NY Times)
Athletic footwear companies cannot ignore those kind of numbers, especially since the target demographic seems to fall in line with a more health conscious group that is also open to alternative ideas. (Essentially a hipster. Imagine someone who works at Trader Joe’s or some local coffee shop (not Starbucks*), who eats organic fruits, veggies, late 20s to late 40s, median income around 40K. Got that in your head? Okay now make that person exercise more than 3 times per week and you got the average barefoot enthusiast.)
*I heard a joke the other day by some comedian on Pandora that went something like: “Starbucks is not a coffee shop, they sell milkshakes. Coffee is that black stuff dads used to drink so that they would stay awake and not fall into machinery. They would stick that under your nose and you’d say ‘Yuck, what is that?’ THAT was coffee! Starbucks sells you a drink that is half sugar and with foamy whipped cream on top that is blended beyond recognition and comes in twenty different flavors. THAT is a milkshake!”
Nike got on the bandwagon several years ago with their “Nike Free” which was a superlight shoe that was super flexible which promoted a more natural running motion. Since then, other companies have introduced their own particular minimalist shoes, notably, Brooks Pure Project, New Balance Minimus, Saucony‘s line (Hattori looks cool). One of the more recognizable brands in the market is Vibram FiveFingers and has gained many a fan with their unique shoes*. The individual toe pockets not only help get a better feel for the ground but also make the design so unique as to really capture the attention.
Vibram Ad “You Are the Technology”
I really wanted to write this post because of the big shoe company that I didn’t mention above: Adidas. While Adidas does have adizero and Climacool. It is their new Adipure trainers that really bring up an interesting case. For those of you who don’t want to click on links, Adipures share the same separated toe pockets and laceless design similarly found on a variety of Vibram models. To be fair, Adidas was not the first to introduce a similar design, Fila released their “Skeletoe” shoes attempting to jump into the market at a lower price point. This is admirable and should be noted as a sound business strategy for many businesses trying to get break into a particular industry or product area. However, Adidas is pricing more similar to Vibram and touting the shoe not as a running shoe but rather an indoor training shoe but featuring similar benefits. Interestingly, Vibram has sued Fila saying that they copied the FiveFingers design. It will be telling if they also sue Adidas.
I’m a big fan of FiveFingers. I ran all my races this past year in them and they have worked out really great for me. (I’ll be posting later on my shoes and experience.) Personally, looking at the industry, I think Vibram just needs to file the paperwork to sue and then drop the suit. This pits the name against the big boys and doesn’t really have to win to show off the product. Furthermore, as the industry rises, quality control is very important and it is only going to get bigger. So again, Vibram’s efforts to promote anti-counterfeits is a real positive base to build from.
To sum it up:
Minimalist/Barefoot running is a rapidly growing trend that is bringing a huge part of the running shoe market in conjunction with the rise in participation in endurance events. All major athletic shoe companies are getting involved by introducing new lines of minimalist shoes. If you exercise regularly or enjoy running, you should check out more info.
I’m putting together a business plan related to this industry for my Entrepreneurship class. So I might “editorialize” on this subject as I gather more information about it. Apologies in advance.