Barefoot running shoes take on conventional trainers
Experts cast doubt on new footwear's advantage, while users praise its performance
It might sound like an oxymoron, but barefoot running shoes are gaining traction in the city, or at least in the production plants of sports brands that are busy marketing these minimalist sports shoes that give you the feeling of running barefoot.
The likes of Nike, Adidas and New Balance are making these barefoot running shoes that often feature a light, thin sole and minimal protection of runners' feet, often with claims that they are more "natural" and "high-performance" than conventional shoes.
"I feel like I run faster in barefoot shoes as I can feel the ground better and lift my legs faster," said Mr Wong Yung-chu, second runner up in the 10-kilometre Men's Junior Challenge in Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon 2010.
While the runner's endorsement of these shoes seem to align with the brands' marketing claims, some experts have warned that the efficacy of barefoot running shoes is unproven.
Dr Louie Hung-tak, associate professor at the Department of Physical Education, Hong Kong Baptist University, said there was no proof that showed one could run faster in barefoot shoes albeit they have a lower energy cost than cushioning shoes.
In June 2012, studies presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine show that while barefoot shoes may increase runners' speed, it may also mean "a greater risk of injury, causing strain in muscles and tendons".
While sports brands are promoting how barefoot running shoes prevent injuries, Dr Louie refuted, "potential risks may appear when people wear barefoot shoes with little cushioning as they are not really barefoot. And if they do not change their way of running, their heels would get hurt easily."
"People who promote barefoot running and claim that running with shoes would change the shape of people's foot have forgetten the theory of evolution," Dr Louie added.
Human beings nowadays wear shoes to protect their foot and shoes are therefore made with thicker heels as shock absorbers. According to Dr Louie, due to this common characteristic of shoes, muscles used when running with shoes are different from that of running without shoes or with barefoot shoes.
"People tend to land on the forefeet when running barefoot while they land on their heels habitually when running with shoes," explained Mr Law Hiu-fai, a prosthetist and orthotist consultant.
Mr Law said the biggest difference between traditional trainers and barefoot shoes was that the former had a thicker heel but soles of the latter shared the same thickness and were rather thin.
Those thin soles provided inadequate support for the arches and had bad shock proofing, Mr Law added.
Though the product is heavily criticized by experts, a barefoot shoes enthusiast begs to differ.
"I've been wearing barefoot shoes for four years and I have never got injured; yet, when I shifted to wear traditional trainers, my arch and heels got hurt and ache as they are too thick and hard," said Mr Mak Ka-wing, associate student of Health and Physical Education, The Hong Kong Institute of Education.
"Barefoot shoes are really light, thin, and fit," added Mr Mak.
A slow adaptation phase is of utmost importance for the muscles and brain, which is the commander of the limbs, to get used to the new running style in order to avoid injuries, according to Mr Law and Dr Louie.
As one gets used to wearing shoes with a completely flat sole during an adaptation period, one gradually increases his running speed.
Mr Law said marketing campaigns had emphasized the benefits of barefoot running, including strengthening the leg muscles and reducing injuries.
But as they failed to remind users of the importance of an adaptation period, people wearing these shoes may suffer from shin splints, Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis, he said.
A public relations officer of the sport brand New Balance, one of the companies selling barefoot shoes, who declined to be named, emphasised that they did warn their custumers in writing to wear their barefoot running shoes with an adaptation period as the soles were different from traditional trainers.
"We also made use of promotion materials, such as Facebook, to tell people to train slowly in our barefoot running shoes instead of doing a huge amount of exercise at once," the officer added. "And we never claim that we can improve the running performance of users."
New Balance barefoot running shoes are made of soles from Vibram the sole manufacturer which has been sued in a class action lawsuit in America over ‘deceptive health claims' associated with the sale of the series FiveFingers.
The representative made no response to this case, but stated that so far there were no reports showing people got injured by wearing their barefoot running shoes in Hong Kong.
If one wants to have more protection for their feet, the company spokesmen the MINIMUS running shoes could help prevent sports injuries by correcting runners' ways of running.
Talking about minimalist shoes which provide people with barefoot running experiences, Mr Law said those shoes were not suitable for runners who did long-distance running as the shoes were too soft to give enough support for users' feet, and thus their legs might get tired and ache easily.
Dr Louie agreed with Mr Law that barefoot shoes were just a gimmick. "Sports is a kind of culture, and people are following changes in the culture," said Dr Louie.
"I see no big difference between plimsoll shoes and barefoot trainers except that the latter look cooler than the former." said Mr Wong.
Reported by Jessica Lee
Edited by Joyce Cheung
Food for thought
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