Nance, of Augusta, wears Vibram FiveFingers running shoes, a minimalist shoe that mimics running barefoot while protecting the soles of the feet. Several brands of shoes in the growing market are designed to force a runner off the heels and onto the balls of the foot.
Nance started wearing Vibram FiveFingers about 18 months ago after a lower-leg injury. Similar to gloves, the shoes separate the toes and fit snuggly around the foot.
“When you first put them on, they feel weird. You quickly get over that,” Nance said. “They literally feel like you’re barefoot. There’s next to nothing between your feet and the road.”
Nance, like many other fans of the running style, alternates between barefoot running and traditional running shoes. Though barefoot running can cause more muscle strain on calves, many say it’s a healthier way to run.
The health benefits, however, are debated. This month, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Vibram FiveFingers for false claims that the shoes reduce risk of injury, increase muscle strength and improve performance.
Nicole Barnes, of Evans, was looking for less impact on her joints when she started using minimalist shoes in January to train for a half-marathon.
“It changed the way I run. It helps with injury, but in order to train with them you have to back off on mileage,” Barnes said.
Escape Outdoors, a sporting store in Augusta and Evans, began selling the Vibram brand about one year ago, said store manager Matt Patrick, who wears barefoot shoes. The store now offers a brand by Merrell.
“People started out just running barefoot and then they decided to basically put a glove on (the foot),” Patrick said.
According to a report by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, sales of Vibram FiveFingers grew from about $450,000 in 2006 to an estimated $50 million last year. Sales of barefoot-style shoes have become a $1.7 billion industry.
Adidas and New Balance also make a line of the shoes. Price points compare to traditional running shoes with costs ranging from about $55 to $115.
Patrick said running shoes with lots of supportive cushioning make the foot weaker. Barefoot shoes re-train the foot to have a natural arch.
Many people are using the shoes for more than just running, Patrick said. They can be worn anywhere from in the water to the grocery store.
Barnes said people have stopped her to ask about the shoes’ unique style, but she’s not deterred by the stares.
“It does feel like you’re walking on barefeet and it’s very comfortable. I could walk in them all day,” Barnes said.