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Barefoot shoes gaining fans

Maybe you have seen them: people running around in shoes that look like gorilla feet, modern ninja footwear or high-tech surf booties. They are the newest twist on the oldest walking technology on Earth: feet. With shoe companies releasing a slew of these so-called barefoot shoes onto the market this spring, what began as a small movement among hard-core runners is edging into the mainstream. People are buying the minimalist shoes to hike, walk, lift weights, cross-train and water their lawns.

"It is like wearing little hobbit feet," said 42-year-old Hollywood screenwriter Matthew Sand, who wears his barefoot shoes to walk his dog. "It feels like walking barefoot across the grass when you were a kid, but also high-tech and cool."

The explosion in funky footwear that promises stronger muscles and better posture has some wondering whether these barefoot shoes are merely a passing fad or something more lasting in the ever-expanding sports-shoe continuum.

The most distinctive of the barefoot shoes is the FiveFingers, the individual-toed bootie with a 2-millimeter rubber sole that was dreamed up by Vibram, an Italian company. The design was introduced in 2006 and marketed for kayaking and sailing. But the shoes became a hit among barefoot runners.

The success of FiveFingers has spawned a new generation of barefoot shoes that are less weird-looking — they lack individual slots for each toe — but are still light and low to the ground:

• New Balance just released the Minimus collection, with shoes for trail, road and life.

• Merrell introduced its Barefoot Collection in March with shoes that promise to strengthen, realign and stimulate your feet.

• Fila's Skele-toes minimalist shoes evoke the original FiveFingers, but they have only four toe compartments (the last two toes slide in together). Fila promotes them "for just about everywhere" but specifically not for running.

Those who believe in barefoot shoes contend the footwear uses the body's natural biomechanics to strengthen the calf, core and foot muscles, change one's gait and improve posture. By taking the foot out of the "cast" of a regular shoe, the barefoot shoes improve the range of motion of ankles and feet. Unshielded by the thick, padded soles of running shoes, receptors in the feet receive information about surfaces and slopes, training the body to respond with balance and agility. And by eliminating the heel lift, body weight is distributed across the entire foot, promoting spinal alignment.

"I do not think it is just a flash in the pan," says Dr. Peter Langer, a podiatrist in Minneapolis. "When you put on unconventional footwear, you feel something decidedly different than a normal shoe. You realize how much sensory information you miss out on when you are wearing cushioned athletic shoes."

Putting on toe shoes requires practice. You have to spread your toes wide, wiggle in the big toe, and guide the rest of the toes in one at a time.

With your toes pried apart, you feel like you can grip the floor like a monkey. The thin rubber sole feels more springy and safe than skin, eliminating the fear of a puncture wound or a burn. After you put them on, you realize you have never been completely relaxed when walking barefoot.

But minimalist shoes aren't for everybody — at least not initially, some experts say. Most Americans grow up wearing shoes. As a result, the muscles in the foot that control the toes aren't fully developed, says Dr. Bobby Pourziaee, a Los Angeles podiatrist. He recommends that those who want to wear barefoot shoes start out with 15-minute excursions and build up their stamina over time.

Dr. Brendan Riley, a partner with the University Podiatry Group at UCLA, advises his patients to get used to the unusual footwear on a soft surface, such as a track, and to stay away from concrete sidewalks. Even then, he's not really a fan. "I cannot think of a problem I would recommend a barefoot shoe for," he says.

By Hilary MacGregor

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Maybe you have seen them: people running around in shoes that look like gorilla feet, modern ninja footwear or high-tech surf booties. They are the newest twist on the oldest walking technology on Earth: feet.

With shoe companies releasing a slew of these so-called barefoot shoes onto the market this spring, what began as a small movement among hard-core runners is edging into the mainstream. People are buying the minimalist shoes to hike, walk, lift weights, cross-train and water their lawns.

"It is like wearing little hobbit feet," said 42-year-old Hollywood screenwriter Matthew Sand, who wears his barefoot shoes to walk his dog. "It feels like walking barefoot across the grass when you were a kid, but also high-tech and cool."

The explosion in funky footwear that promises stronger muscles and better posture has some wondering whether these barefoot shoes are merely a passing fad — the Earth shoe of the 21st century — or something more lasting in the ever-expanding sports-shoe continuum.

"More than a trend, they are going to be a new category of shoe for workout enthusiasts," said Linda Sparling, general manager for FrontRunners, a fitness retailer in Los Angeles. "But yes, when they first came in, we had them sitting with the Earth shoes."

The most distinctive of the barefoot shoes is the FiveFingers, the individual-toed bootie with a 2-millimeter rubber sole that was dreamed up by Vibram, an Italian company. The design was introduced in 2006 and marketed for kayaking and sailing. But the shoes became a hit among barefoot runners.

The success of FiveFingers has spawned a new generation of barefoot shoes that are less weird-looking — they lack individual slots for each toe — but are still light and low to the ground:

• New Balance just released the Minimus collection, with shoes for trail, road and life.

• Merrell introduced its Barefoot Collection in March with shoes that promise to strengthen, realign and stimulate your feet.

• Fila's Skele-toes minimalist shoes evoke the original FiveFingers, but they have only four toe compartments (the last two toes slide in together). Fila promotes them "for just about everywhere" but specifically not for running.

Those who believe in barefoot shoes contend the footwear uses the body's natural biomechanics to strengthen the calf, core and foot muscles, change one's gait and improve posture. By taking the foot out of the "cast" of a regular shoe, the barefoot shoes improve the range of motion of ankles and feet. Unshielded by the thick, padded soles of running shoes, receptors in the feet receive information about surfaces and slopes, training the body to respond with balance and agility. And by eliminating the heel lift, body weight is distributed across the entire foot, promoting spinal alignment.

"I do not think it is just a flash in the pan," says Dr. Peter Langer, a podiatrist in Minneapolis. "When you put on unconventional footwear, you feel something decidedly different than a normal shoe. You realize how much sensory information you miss out on when you are wearing cushioned athletic shoes."

Putting on toe shoes requires practice. You have to spread your toes wide, wiggle in the big toe, and guide the rest of the toes in one at a time.

With your toes pried apart, you feel like you can grip the floor like a monkey. The thin rubber sole feels more springy and safe than skin, eliminating the fear of a puncture wound or a burn. After you put them on, you realize you have never been completely relaxed when walking barefoot.

Few dispute that the trend took off with Christopher McDougall's bestselling 2009 book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. In the book, McDougall posits that running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot. He quotes a Harvard professor of biological anthropology who says foot and knee injuries are often caused by shoes that make our feet weak. He talks about Kalahari Bushmen who run barefoot for hours in the desert chasing antelope until the animals die.

MacDougall endorsed barefoot running — not barefoot shoes — but it didn't take long for people to figure out that FiveFingers and its offspring could make barefoot running more palatable.

"Runners that are using them are militant about how amazing this is," said Dr. Lewis Maharam, a Manhattan podiatrist who serves as the medical director for the Rock and Roll Marathon series.

Minimalist shoes aren't for everybody — at least not initially, Maharam and others say.

Unlike the Kalahari Bushmen, most Americans grow up wearing shoes. As a result, the muscles in the foot that control the toes aren't fully developed, says Dr. Bobby Pourziaee, a Los Angeles podiatrist. He recommends that those who want to wear barefoot shoes start out with 15-minute excursions and build up their stamina over time.

Dr. Brendan Riley, a partner with the University Podiatry Group at UCLA, advises his patients to get used to the unusual footwear on a soft surface, such as a track, and to stay away from concrete sidewalks. Even then, he's not really a fan. "I cannot think of a problem I would recommend a barefoot shoe for," he says.

No one tracks how customers use their barefoot shoes, but among the steady stream of people who purchased them on a recent Saturday at FrontRunners, none intended to run in them.

One man bought a pair of Vibrams to wear in lieu of sandals on a trip to Miami's South Beach. A woman picked up some barefoot shoes for walking around her neighborhood. A third shopper, who already owned a pair of New Balance Minimus shoes for gym workouts, bought a second pair for traveling because he can slip them on and off easily when going through airport security.

Kristin Collins Galbreaith, 50, an open water scuba and Red Cross swim instructor in Alexandria, Va., says she wears her FiveFingers anytime she can get away with it.

"I wear them for Curves workouts or whenever I would wear flip-flops," she says. "They look goofy, especially my bottom-of-the-line ones, but they don't look as silly when I wear socks with them."

Barefoot shoes gaining fans 06/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 5:46pm]

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