I have an early proof of Chris McDougall’s now-legendary book, Born to Run. It doesn’t have the glossy cover of later prints, instead eschewing the glitzier colours with a single muted blue and two rudimentary footprints.
I remember it arriving in the post and thinking “mmm…interesting”, but even as a long-in-the-tooth journalist and past-his-best runner I could never have predicted how influential this understated book would be in terms of running trends and shoe sales in the several years that followed.
Ironically, McDougall himself didn’t actually run barefoot and was somewhat surprised that his book almost single-handedly created the minimalist running movement. “It is funny that the message of the book has been transformed into something that really isn't in the book,” he said. “It's not what is on your feet, it's what your feet are doing.”
And he’s absolutely right. Barefoot running wasn’t exactly new; it was more that it had been forgotten. Athletes like Bruce Tulloh, Herb Elliott, Abebe Bikila and Zola Budd had been mavericks blazing a trail for barefoot running in mainstream sport. But they were lone proponents of a lost art; something early man took for granted had long since been replaced by the footwear giants and their shoe technologies.
The running industry was looking for a new trend. And with McDougall as its poster boy, barefoot – or minimal as the more acceptable face – boomed, with sales of footwear rocketing as consumers jumped, literally, on to the barefoot bandwagon.
But like the Rubik Cube, Babysham and soon-to-be fidget spinners, all good crazes come to an end. Or do they? While literal barefoot running passed, it’s fundamental roots around posture, foot position and foot strength survived into a whole new breed of shoes. Manufacturers shied away from using evocative terms like ‘barefoot’, instead choosing ‘natural running’ as its successor.
One of the original arguments about minimal running was that built up shoes create a braking force when the foot plants. Tests of Kenyan athletes showed that they slowed significantly when wearing a heavier cushioned shoe than their unshod feet. Taking this on board, today’s natural footwear is lightweight, likely to have a minimal drop from rear to forefoot but might still retain some cushioning and natural support to protect the runner.
Popular shoes like the Saucony Kinvara, On Cloudsurfer, New Balance’s Minimus and Nike’s Free continue to extol the virtues of natural running, while at the more extreme end the Vivobarefoot Stealth II cuts a sleek and lightweight path for people looking for real ground contact in their endurance running.
As manufacturers continue to look at technologies to lightweight their shoes, it is refreshing to see that while barefoot is not so readily talked about, the publicly acceptable face of natural running continues to forge ahead. Runners are definitely more discerning about what they put on their feet and with natural running here to stay, the next generation of shoes will be interesting to see.