All across the country, people are kicking off their shoes and braving streets strewn with broken glass and rusty nails that house tetanospasmin-producing Clostridium tetani , and heaped with endless piles of toxic dog poop. They somehow manage to traverse sidewalks that crumble underfoot at the slightest touch, throwing a person off balance and putting the ankle at severe risk of permanent injury. Podiatrists’ waiting lists grow along with their bank balances with the endless parade of hobbling barefooters nursing crippling foot injuries; they laugh as their coffers fill.
And yet, despite these confirmed dangers and despite the warnings from esteemed experts, the barefoot revolution continues to grow. It’s pretty remarkable. The recent New York Marathon featured more barefooters than ever before , according to organizers, and the Barefoot Runners Society  has seen its membership double since 2009. Purely anecdotally, whenever I’m out hiking, I see more and more folks going in Vibrams or even totally barefoot. I don’t get the weird looks as often (I actually kinda miss ‘em) and I’ve even spotted Vibrams in non-athletic environments, like grocery stores or coffee shops. It’s been awhile since a kid has screamed and pointed at my “monkey feet.” Progress!
Shoemakers are taking note and jumping on the barefoot bandwagon. You’ve got the MBT types offering “barefoot technology,” which despite my post  last week actually has some support in the community and seems to help certain segments of the population, but people looking for as close an approximation of the barefoot experience without actually baring their feet generally opt for “just barely there” shoes . For me, my longtime personal favorite, Vibram FiveFingers , are pretty much the only way to go. But for those looking for other options there are a couple coming down the pipe. Let’s take a look at some of the more promising ones.
Merrell, noted outdoor apparel manufacturer, is teaming up with Vibram for their upcoming Merrell Barefoot 2011 line of shoes, with Vibram providing the outsole. There are six models, three for men and three for women, with four colors per model (except for the Tough Glove, which has three colors). The promotional material  speaks the right language – “natural stride…encouraging forward momentum, where you land at mid foot”; “lower impact…more aligned at efficient gait”; “connection with nature” – and the shoes look good and light and sport a new “Vibram Trail Glove sole,” so I’m pretty optimistic about them. There is some interesting talk of an “internal support construction wrap” along with “a midfoot absorption plate,” which, as Birthday Shoes points out , may point to a troubling desire to protect our feet from themselves. Let’s hope not. Shoemakers have a tendency to consider themselves indispensable to our poor little footsies, but I’ll give Merrell the benefit of the doubt for now. Here’s a quick summary of Birthday Shoes’ Merrell coverage:
– Designed for (duh) the trail
– Toe protection that wraps around the outside of the foot, perfect for those who stub their toes in the VFFs
– Meant for “scrambling across creeks and crags”
– Multi-sport shoe; think workouts, playing basketball, going for a quick trek around the neighborhood
– Traditional look; great for casual “barefooting” around the office or while out on errands
– Goes well with pants
– Works for impromptu activity, too, since it’s still minimalist
– Not sure what to make of it; it’s a boot with straps
– Birthday Shoes calls it a “cross between a removable cast and a snow boot”
– Standard looking running shoe, akin to the True Glove for men
– Strap; looks like the VFF Sprint without the toe fingers
– I hope they make one for men; it just looks comfortable
According to a few accounts, Merrell’s run narrow, which hopefully doesn’t bear true with their barefoot line. The big draw of the VFFs, at least for me, is the ability splay out my toes. I hate feeling confined to a shoe. My toes need room to wriggle. They’ll run between “£80 and £90,” or about $130 to $145 per pair. More expensive than the original FiveFingers models, and more expensive than no shoe at all, but, depending on the durability, worth it for interested parties.
New Balance is also coming out with a Vibram-soled minimalist running shoe . The NB Minimus is a running shoe with a not-so-neutral heel to toe drop of 4 mm. 4 mm isn’t much, especially when compared to a standard running shoe with a grossly pronounced heel and 12 mm drop, but if you’re coming from something like the VFF Classic, with its total lack of a drop from heel to toe, the Minimus might be jarring. Still, New Balance claims that it’s the thickness of the heel, and not necessarily the drop, that determines a runner’s tendency to land on the heel, midfoot, or forefoot. I’m not sure. It seems like the Minimus is designed for barefoot newbies, people who’ve never tried it before and want a gradual change before going fully barefoot (or barefoot alternative). It’s the in-between. It’s “closer to barefoot” without wearing funny toe shoes. Since Vibram is making the outsole, I think we can probably trust NB’s claims of enhanced ground tactility. No, not as much proprioception as going truly barefoot, but I feel like I have pretty good foot position awareness through my FiveFingers.
There’s the Wellness – a slip on without laces. Judging from the name, it’s for casual use and walking, like strolling the aisles of your local health food store.
There’s also the road shoe and trail shoe, which sound pretty similar except for the enhanced durability and traction on the trail shoe.
Here’s a blurry pic of all three of them (Wellness, Trail, Road) from here .
The Minimus is due for a March 2011 release. $100 each (all models). This bearded guy who runs upwards of 200 miles every week seems to enjoy them . I’m not so sure I dig the orange and black design, to be honest.
Richard Nikoley is real big on the SoftStar Runamocs , even preferring them in most instances over the Vibrams. They – surprise, surprise – feature outsoles made by Vibram: the 2 mm thick “Street” or the 5 mm thick “Trail.” I’ve tried these babies  on myself, and to be completely honest I wasn’t a huge fan of the way they looked on me. But that’s just one guy’s opinion. If you like the way they look they’re a good barefoot option. They run $87, about the price of a pair of FiveFingers.
A few of the my staff members wear Vivo Barefoot  shoes designed for casual use and they all seem to love them and always praise the wide toe berths, though they haven’t tried the Evo runners.
As with any shoe, trying these barefoot shoes on before you fork over cash is absolutely required. And it’s always smart to be wary of a shoe trying to emulate the natural barefoot state. I mean, even the VFFs aren’t really barefoot; they’re just really, really close to it. The beauty of VFFs is that except for the fact that you’re wearing a piece of rubber on your feet, they are almost completely neutral. Your toes can move, you feel stuff beneath you (albeit somewhat dampened), and your foot retains a mostly natural movement and landing pattern. It ain’t perfect and it ain’t barefoot, but it’s pretty darn close.
These shoes might do the same thing. I don’t know. They’re definitely a huge step up from padded running shoes, and they make entry into barefooting more palatable for more people, but until we try them on, we won’t really know. In any case, I’ll be sticking with my tried and trusty FiveFingers for now.
What do you think? Happy to see shoe manufacturers jumping on the barefoot bandwagon? Are they close enough to barefoot for your liking? Will you consider buying a pair? Share your thoughts in the comment board and Grok on!