Every afternoon, a young man runs barefoot down the middle of our street. He’s one of those paleo-fitness people—the ones who believe we should go shoeless like the cavemen when we exercise. I’m not necessarily a detractor—as a runner myself, I think about things like long-term impact on my joints, heel strike and arch support, all of which are purported to be better when barefoot—but given that our environs are now covered in asphalt, broken glass, and worse, I’m also not eager to take up this practice.
The barefoot approach is just one among a variety within a movement known as minimalist running. Going shoeless is both the most extreme and the most low-tech of the options for “reducing your shoes.” For those who prefer an intermediary between their skin and the street, there is barefoot-inspired footwear, like the ever more prevalent Vibram 5 Fingers (I’ll reserve my opinion on the aesthetic consequences of this trend). Recently, Nike announced a new shoe for the lightweight category that responds to many of the desires of minimalist runners, and then‚ since Nike likes to push the innovation envelope, goes further, tackling some of the bigger challenges inherent to mass-manufacturing shoes. The Nike Flyknit takes its cues not so much from bare feet as from socks. The company had heard from runners that the ideal fit for a shoe would be the snug feeling of knit material. “But all the features that make a sock desirable,” Nike says, “have proven to make them a bad choice for a running upper [the part of the shoe that is not the sole or the tongue]. An inherently dynamic material like yarn generally has no structure or durability.”