They've been called the "the most controversial item in military running since the MP3 player" by the Army Times. Toe shoes, or "snocks," were banned by the Army last month. Officials decided they just didn’t look professional. But this evolution in footwear isn't just creating controversy in the military.
You could point to a 2009 bestseller by Christopher McDougall, "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen." McDougall, an injured runner, goes on a quest to learn the mysterious ways of the Tarahumara Indian tribe in the Mexican Copper Canyons. Members of the tribe run up to 100 miles, completely barefoot, without acquiring the usual running injuries of Americans. McDougall concludes our Western obsession with cushiony athletic footwear is the culprit for our plantar fascitis, knee pain and more.
The book spread through the running community like "Twilight" at a girls’ boarding school. Shoe companies caught on, with Nike introducing the "Free Family" of shoes that encourage a "ball of the foot strike," or landing on the ball, rather than the heel.
"I see minimalist footwear as a philosophy, a way of approaching running," says Raul Garcia, a distance runner who sells shoes at Luke's Locker, an athletic boutique in Austin, Texas. "The idea is that running injuries can be caused by all this heel cushioning and height that doesn’t allow you to land on the ball of your foot. These shoes are meant to correct your motion."
Saucony and Asics have their own versions, but it’s the Vibrams FiveFingers getting the most attention. With a snug compartment for each toe, they look like space age socks. VFF’s, as they’re sometimes called, existed long before "Born to Run" became the barefoot runner’s manifesto, but mainly for rock climbers to help with gripping. Now, the company markets them as beneficial running shoes.
"Running in FiveFingers delivers sensory feedback that improves agility and equilibrium and allows immediate form correction," touts the company website. "In addition it stimulates and strengthens muscles in the feet and lower legs."
Some runners swear the "snocks" have changed their life.
Adam Odeh, a research scientist in Fort Worth, was getting sick of doing cardio at the gym. With a trail right by his house, he decided to give running a try. His knees began to throb and even buckle during most runs, and no braces, anti-inflammatory meds or straps made a difference. Like a good scientist, he hit the web and the books. After reading "Born to Run," Odeh bought a pair of Vibrams.
"I've been running in Vibrams for about a year and they completely eliminated the pain in my knees," Odeh says. "I couldn't make it past one mile in normal running shoes and now I run three or four miles a few times a week."
"While I do believe that minimalist shoes do make your feet and your calves stronger, I really think that runners must ease into them, rather than making a jump from high support to no support," says Gilbert Tuhabonye, a native of Burundi who once competed in barefoot running and now runs Gilbert’s Gazelles, a running group in Austin that trains athletes for the Boston Marathon. "I always tell the Gazelles to do a series of foot exercises following our runs to build up the strength in the foot and the lower calf. Power and efficiency in running comes from your feet, and they take the most impact."
Tuhabonye didn’t even own a pair of shoes until he was around 13 years old, which he says helped him develop strong feet and legs from the start. While he advocates for the "less is more" footwear philosophy, he stresses that you have to have a plan to get there.
Garcia also cautioned against wearing them as your full time running shoe.
"If you run 20 miles a week, maybe give them a shot first on the grass, treadmill or an indoor track for about three miles," says Garcia, who runs 80 miles a week and only wears his Vibrams 10 percent of the time.
Garcia pointed out other options from Nike and Asics that look more like traditional running shoes -- no separate toe homes to be found.
Walking around in a pair of VFF’s, you can feel all of the muscles in your feet working. They felt better than walking around barefoot, but it’s hard to imagine walking out the door to the nearby trail and taking a jog. Especially if your high arches have been coddled with cushion, or if your flat feet are used to specially designed soles.
"The trendiness is definitely a motivation for trying them out," says Garcia. "A lot of people walk in and say 'They look so different and my friend swears by them. I want to give them a try.'"
But the minimalist running trend has produced another beneficiary aside from shoe companies and retailers: podiatrists.
"Those toe shoes have certainly been good for my business," says Dr. Andrew Cassidy of Lone Star Podiatry in Austin. He sees about two patients a week with injuries and pain from barefoot or minimalist shoe running.
"The concept that we should go back to our natural roots with barefoot running is all kumbaya. It’s a misnomer," Cassidy adds.
He argues that training your feet to land with a "forefront strike" may take stress off your heels, but it could add it to your knees, hips and back.
"You’re borrowing from Peter to pay Paul," he says. "The Vibrams were not intended for running, they are for climbing. Maybe some people can get away with them without injury, but very few."
Cassidy tells his patients they should be wearing sturdy running shoes even just around the house -- advice that isn’t too popular with his female patients. The ideal shoe in Cassidy’s world has an enclosed heel with a "stiff heel counter," should only bend in the toe (not the arch) and have ample room in the toe box.
"If something seems gimmicky," Cassidy says, "it probably is."