Rubber Gloves for the Feet
Oh, the freedom of going barefoot.
The childlike simplicity of a hop, skip and a step with unabashed harmony between your feet and the earth - it all makes one wonder why we place so much emphasis on shoes in the first place.
But in a germy world of God only knows what waiting for us on our everyday paths, going barefoot isn't always the most sanitary option.
The latest shoe fad enables the unshod to live the best of both worlds, offering the freedom of going barefoot with minimalist protection from the surfaces we traverse.
Vibram (Vee-bram) Five Fingers are more like rubber gloves for feet rather than shoes.
Made of thin, abrasion-resistant, stretch polyamide fabric, the "shoes with toes" protect feet from rough surfaces, offering minimal coverage while giving the feeling of being barefoot.
In the return to the minimalist shoe, Vibram claims to strengthen foot and calf muscles while reducing the risk of injuries common to runners.
Author and distance runner Christopher McDougall hails barefoot running as the return to the way humans originally learned to run: hitting the ground on the mid-foot and reacting to the surfaces the foot hits.
In his book, "Born to Run: a Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen," McDougall writes about Mexico's Tarahumara Indians, ultra-marathon runners known to run while wearing thin, rubber sandals or nothing at all on their feet.
McDougall visited Pinecrest High School last month as a part of Foundation of FirstHealth's Promise of Hope Lecture Series.
Since his visit, more people have been reconsidering their approach to running.
Many have jumped on the barefoot bandwagon, choosing Vibrams as a means of return to the "natural" way of running.
"Our feet are pretty bare right now," says Hilary Andrews, assistant manager of River Jack Outdoor Trading Company in downtown Southern Pines.
The feet she's referring to are the foot displays modeling Vibrams on the back wall of the store's shoe section.
The outfitter began selling three different styles of the shoes in late summer of last year, but the shoes' popularity has kept many styles out of stock.
"We completely under-bought them," Andrews says. "We're taking numbers now, and we'll try to get everyone in a pair."
Andrews sees most customers seeking the shoes for CrossFit training, a strength and conditioning program that many military and law enforcement organizations utilize.
"All the military guys in this area love them," she says.
Because the shoes offer no supports for feet, they force wearers to use muscles in their feet that usually get a break in cushioned tennis shoes.
"It's just like your foot," Andrews says. "It's not like you're wearing a big shoe."
Even more people are coming in the store to ask about the shoes since McDougall's visit to the area.
"Now everyone wants them," she says. "It's people who are into a fit, more active lifestyle."
Andrews tells customers to make sure they have a snug fit when they try on the shoes.
"Sizing is important," Andrews says. "Make sure toes are not curling, but also make sure that the fit isn't loose enough to slide out, either."
All shoes have an adjustable strap, either across the foot or over the back of the heel, to customize the fit.
Andrews hasn't gone running in her pair, but she enjoys wearing them for Pilates.
"You stand differently because you're on your bare feet," she says. "You don't have arch support. It's a natural way of standing."
Andrews compares the feeling of wearing Vibrams to the snug feeling of wearing toe socks.
"It's a weird feeling at first," she says. "After a while you get used to it, and it almost becomes second skin."
Andrews also prefers her Vibrams for a more hygienic reason.
"You're not barefoot on the gross floor!" she says.
The Barefoot Movement
In January, the science journal Nature published a Harvard study that found barefoot running - the way humans originally learned to run - to be a preventive of common running injuries.
The study, in partnership with Vibram, analyzed runners who grew up without shoes, American barefoot runners who switched from traditional running shoes and Western runners before the invention of the "thick-heeled" running shoe in the 1970s.
Researchers found that these runners generally land with a forefoot or mid-foot strike.
The study did not suggest that running with a heel-strike is wrong, but the recurrence of certain injuries in distance runners suggested that heel-strike strides are sometimes contributing factors.
Randy Ballard is a physical trainer at FirstHealth Center for Health and Fitness in Pinehurst. He sees lots of health benefits in getting back to our initial means of exercise.
"People in different countries run like we play baseball," Ballard says with a laugh. "Some of them have never put on a pair of sneakers. Obviously there's something to it."
Ballard discovered he had a problem with his running form while competing in triathlons.
He excelled in the swimming and biking legs of the races, but he always struggled to find a comfortable stride running.
"It wasn't a fitness issue because I could do the other legs of the race, so it had to be my technique," he says.
Ballard attributes his problems to his heel-strike running form, in which he hits the ground heel-first and rolls forward to push off the balls of his feet.
"It's like hitting the brakes every time," he says.
For Ballard, going barefoot was a cheaper, long-term solution for his running problems.
"People pay $150 for a shoe that will support their feet, but the support takes away the foot's function," Ballard says. "A lot of it is making our feet weak by not making them work. Barefoot running teaches from the ground up. You'll know pretty quickly if you're running the wrong way."
Most of the Vibram styles run between the $75 and $125 price range.
Ballard ran three miles in his Vibrams the day he bought them, but he cautions others to break them in gradually before taking on greater distances.
"I did get a pretty good amount of soreness," he says.
Ballard now uses his Vibrams as a warm up before long runs, jogging five to eight minutes to get into form.
"Then I throw my shoes on really quickly and finish doing the mechanics," he says.
FirstHealth's Center for Health and Fitness in Pinehurst has taken up the barefoot cause by holding Barefoot Running clinics, a series on how to condition and strengthen feet for exercise.
Ballard and fellow physical trainer Jeff Moody II demonstrate the foot's natural reaction to shock by using techniques they learned during McDougall's visit.
The center held its first clinic Feb. 18 and 24. Though only 20 spots were initially available, Moody and Ballard increased the class size to accommodate a long waiting list.
Participants implemented barefoot mechanics while performing familiar drills, such as doing high knees, jumping rope or running stairs.
Because they were doing all of these activities barefoot, participants had to change their form to absorb the impact on their feet naturally.
"You do the barefoot drills in order to use the mechanism so you can run injury-free," Ballard says. "You're not going to get that feedback from the ground wearing running shoes."
FirstHealth plans to hold its next clinic March 11 and 18.
Crocs of the New Decade?
Comfort, support and optimal performance are all promises used time and again to entice potential customers to buy into the latest shoe fad.
Remember the advent of Crocs - those strange-looking, yet comfy and lightweight slip-on shoes that made the (questionable) transition from functional to fashionable for children and adults alike a few years ago?
How about Earth Shoes - designed with a negative heel technology promising to strengthen and tone your body while you go about your day?
Does the name Dr. Scholl's ring a bell?
Vibrams are definitely the most radical trend in footwear today, promising the benefit of running injury-free.
The shoes are quickly permeating popular culture thanks to appearances in many media outlets, ranging from Time Magazine to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in conjunction with the rising popularity of "Born to Run."
Andrews, from Riverjack, enjoys wearing her Vibrams casually too, though she admits her feet do get chilly during cooler months.
"I had to stop wearing them when it got colder," she says. "I would be wearing them now if I could."
Randy Ballard hesitates to say that everyone will eventually wear Vibrams for both casual and fitness attire, but he does think more people will seek minimalist shoes for training.
"You will see a lot more people practicing that way to perfect their mechanism," he says.
The growing barefoot movement has captured the attention of other shoe brands.
Nike's answer is the Nike Free running shoe, but, unlike Vibrams, the shoe still offers cushioning and support for the foot.
Regardless of whether or not these toe shoes fit snugly in a world of high-tech running shoes and fashion trends, the Vibram Five Finger shoes offer a change of pace and a new connection to the what's around us.
Hannah Sharpe can be reached at (910) 693-2485.
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