Park City company puts its best foot, and toe, forward
September 11, 2009
At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, an Ethiopian named Abebe Bikila won the marathon by running barefoot. That’s how he trained and ran his whole life. That same decade, the founders of Nike began redefining the importance of athletic footwear.
In nearly every sport, advanced footwear is thought to give an advantage. Manufacturer Vibram is turning that common sense on its head with a new line of footwear called FiveFingers. Like a glove for the foot, it’s a lightweight shoe with five "fingers" for the five toes and minimal support and structure.
The concept is the same that inspired Bikila: the human foot was designed to run bare.
Parkite R.J. Guiney is the managing partner and sales manager for Mountain Source, a sales agency representing athletic apparel to retailers in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico. Vibram asked him to represent FiveFingers in the Rocky Mountain region and Guiney agreed because the young company already has people talking.
Mountain Source is the area sales company for brands such as Smartwool, Timbuk2, Atomic XC and Klean Kanteen. They can’t sell to the public; their clients are retailers like White Pine Touring. Soft-goods and footwear buyer for White Pine, Desiree Lindemann, says she, too, has heard people talking about FiveFingers and plans to carry the shoe starting in early spring.
The product has received major media attention from the likes of The New York Times business section and The Chicago Sun Times, but Lindemann said she hadn’t actually seen them before Thursday. She ordered them anyway, she said, because she trusts Mountain Source.
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Even though they aren’t currently available in Park City, Lindemann said she has seen a few people in town wearing them, and without introducing herself has asked what they think of them.
"I’ve only heard good things and have even gotten a request for ‘those weird shoes,’" she said.
Shoes with toes are different. With all the innovations in footwear, that hasn’t really been done before. Vibram has 36 patents on it, he said.
When they first came out, the manufacturers pushed them to athletes like climbers who want to get as much performance out of their feet as possible. A few climbers tried running in them and a new sensation was born, Guiney said.
Despite all the good that shoes do us, our bodies have evolved to only need the soles of our feet to stand on, he said. In a shoe, the foot is restricted. Any structural or support deficiency is passed up the leg into the knee, hips and backs. It’s well recognized in the medical community that people from countries where shoes are worn less have fewer knee and back problems, he said.
Runners are recognizing this and have already been taking shoes off to train. Mountain Source office manager Sharon Matt said her teenage son runs track and trains barefoot. According to Vibram, doing so strengthens muscles in the feet and lower legs, improves the range of motion in ankles, feet and toes, stimulates neural function important to balance and agility, improves body awareness as well as spine alignment and posture.
Already, Yoga practitioners are recognizing that a flat foot improves posture, Lindemann said.
All models of FiveFingers have one thing in common: minimal padding on the sole to prevent wear and improve traction. Other than that, the shoes are drastically different to comply with the designed activity. Running pairs have straps to secure the shoe to the foot, trekking pairs have more insulation for warmth, Pilate-studio shoes resemble a light glove.
FiveFingers are designed to give maximum protection to the foot while minimizing interference of the foot to the ground. One of the running models is even named Bikila after the man who reminded the world of the proper way to run, Guiney explained.
Most people aren’t used to that much connection, Guiney said. The manufacturer recommends breaking them in slowly since leg and foot muscles will need to adjust to the change.