While standing at the starting line of the Tar Heel Ten Miler in Chapel Hill, I found my tightly laced, arch supported, custom orthotic running shoes next to the barely there, glove-like Vibram FiveFinger shoes of the runner beside me. I was still staring at his strange looking feet when the starting gun turned the stationary crowd into a charging herd. My neighbor took off in effortless stride. I watched him disappear into a faster pack of runners, wondering if he and his fellow minimalist runners were onto something.
In 2005, Vibram, an Italian shoe sole manufacturer, introduced its now popular FiveFinger running shoe == if it can even be called a shoe. It's simply a flexible, plastic sole with a Velcro strap that has individual spots for each toe. It's closer to glove than a shoe. Originally for boating, FiveFingers offer the barefoot feel with protection against sharp objects and abrasive ground.
The shoes gained popularity with runners around the same time Christopher McDougall's book, Born to Run, was published in 2009. McDougall takes readers into the Copper Canyons, exploring the incredible runners of Mexico's elusive Tarahumara and the super athletes who dare to venture deep into the most perilous terrain in North America to run with them. The Tarahumara run hundreds of miles through valleys and over cliffs wearing nothing but thin leather sandals. And somehow, they have low injury rates compared to their asphalt running, high tech shoe wearing counterparts. No Air-Max or Asics Gel needed. This tribe, completely separated from modern sportswear technology, run on the feet they were born with and on the ground that's always been beneath them.
As the Tarahumaras' story spread through popular culture, more and more runners began to kick off their shoes or slim down their footwear. Advocates claimed stronger foot muscles, fewer injuries, faster speeds, and increased endurance. Vibram FiveFinger sales skyrocketed and the rest of the sports industry raced to the minimalist running sector, a sector that grew 303% from 2010-2012. But now, only one manufacturer is increasing its sales and keeping the minimalist running trend growing.
Nike's (NYSE:NKE) early response to the minimalist trend came around 2007 with the introduction of the Nike Free and its accompanying slogan, "Run Barefoot." In the last few months, the updated Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit, a hybrid between barefoot and minimalist shoes with little arch support and a flexible sole, came to market. It does not have individual toe sectioning as the FiveFingers, but its knit upper layer fits snugly on the top of the foot like a sock.
With the Nike Free, Nike is leading sales in the minimalist running category. Minimalist sales increased 30% in 2013, an increase, according to SportOneSource, that can be solely attributed to the Nike Free and the Nike Flex, another of Nike's minimalist running options. Nike controls a whopping 92% of the minimalist market. Vibrams may have been a first mover, but Nike is now the only one with growing sales.
While Nike is taking more market share, Adidas' (NASDAQOTH:ADDYY) run has been much less successful. Adidas came out with the ADIpure training shoe, a FiveFinger look-alike that is marketed specifically for cross training and not long distance running. Consumer reports of increased injuries and stress fractures related to Vibram's FiveFingers have called into question the benefits of the shoes and ones like it. A few weeks ago, Vibram settled a $3.75 million class action lawsuit for false advertising . The scientific research as to whether barefoot running and minimalist shoes actually reduce injuries and increase endurance is inconclusive, and if runners fail to slowly acclimate to running with less footwear, injuries are all but guaranteed.
Nike's strong brand image is definitely a factor in its domination of the market. Consumers are more likely to feel comfortable trying a Nike minimalist shoe, trusting in the swoosh that's been on their shoes for years rather than risking an injury with the trendy but odd looking Vibram FiveFingers or Adidas' toed gloves. The Nike shoes look, well, like shoes.
Your mom probably had shoes on your feet before you were walking. Carpet loving, arch supported feet can't become the toughened trail runners of the Tarahumara overnight. However, after a proper acclimation period, many decide they were born wearing shoes better than anything to come out of a Nike factory. It may seem counterintuitive that shoe manufacturers could actually capitalize on bare feet, but we've worn shoes our entire lives and will continue to. Consumers will see changes in form and design, selling points that Nike has mastered as their lighter, thinner, more flexible models hit shelves. Vibram did the barefoot trend first and Adidas tried to compete, but Nike did it best, squashing the competition with its "traditional enough for the mainstream" barefoot shoe.