In the early years of the new millennium, there were rumblings in the shoe industry. Researchers like Bartold and biomechanics expert Benno Nigg reported that they had failed to find a connection between pronation and injury. Others, like Peter Bruggeman, were finding that feet get stronger when you remove highly supportive shoes. Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman published an article in the journal Nature that helped popularise the idea that running is natural and that we need no additional support.
In Italy, Tony Post, who worked for sole maker Vibram, saw a concept shoe that fit like a glove. Post was a longtime runner trying to recover from knee surgery; at the time he could not run in traditional shoes for more than three miles without feeling pain. He took the Fivefingers out for a run. The shoe forced him to run more lightly, with a rapid stride. After three miles his knee felt fine.
‘I’m thinking, Was my form bad? Was all that cushioning interfering? Maybe this is my solution,’ says Post. ‘Then I started thinking, Maybe there are other people like me.’
Meanwhile, designers at Nike were constructing a shoe that would simulate a ‘free’ feeling while still providing protection. Elsewhere, runners were trying out novel ways to address persistent problems.
In Utah, US, former high-school cross-country champion Golden Harper put his shoes in an oven so he could pull them apart and remove the built-up heel. In France, adventure-racer Jean-luc Diard applied ideas he learned designing ski equipment and bike wheels to running shoes, coming up with a fat, tyre-like shoe. In Colorado, Danny Abshire, ultra runner, running coach and custom-orthotic specialist, was working on a new shoe that would reward a forefoot-oriented stride.
Consumers were after something new, too. ‘ We were in an innovation vacuum – companies were adding stuff and making everything heavier,’ says Bartold. ‘Everybody was tired of rigid shoes. It was the perfect storm.’
That storm broke in the form of minimalism, which achieved the status of religion. Chris Mcdougall’s Borntorun was its bible and overbuilt shoes were the devil.
Sales of Fivefingers skyrocketed. Every shoe company scrambled to introduce their own minimalist offerings. But the trend wasn’t just for less shoe, it was also for a wider opening of minds as to how running shoes could look and act. Those innovators around the world gave us Newtons, Hokas and Altras – shoes with pods on the bottom, huge rockered soles, wide forefeet.
‘Minimalism made everybody sit up and pay attention, and made the big five [Adidas, Asics, Brooks, New Balance and Nike] get off their bums and stop being so lazy,’ says Bartold. The result was a boon for runners.
THE RW GUIDES By the mid-2000s, with the internet adding to the barrage of content available to runners, RW set about raising the bar (again) in independent, objective shoe testing by employing biomechanist Ray Fredericksen to set up the Runner’s World Shoe Lab. ‘Now we had an objective measure that fit like a spine to anchor the subjective comments of the wear-testers,’ says Fredericksen.
2004 Vibram Fivefingers soon becomes the symbol of minimalism.