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'Minimalist' running shoes and their problems

Bob Cook of Runner's Edge in Farmingdale holds

Bob Cook of Runner's Edge in Farmingdale holds two running shoes that demonstrate the older minimal style vs new maximal style. The thin sole shoe is a Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit while the thick sole shoe is a Hoka One One Stinson ATR. The shoes are shown Wednesday, April 8, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely

Bob Cook should have known better.

As the owner of The Runner's Edge, a running apparel store in Farmingdale and a longtime competitive runner, Cook was well attuned to separating the hype from the substance when it came to claims about various brands of footwear.

"I'm always cautious," says Cook, 70. "That's been my modus operandi with customers."

But when the so-called minimalist movement exploded, Cook saw his sales of lightweight shoes soar, to nearly 20 percent of his business. Although criteria differ as to what exactly defines minimalist footwear, the professional publication Podiatry Today describes them as having "less of everything. Less weight, less cushioning, less structure than conventional shoes."

Cook began running in a pair of minimalist shoes. The results, some would say, were predictable. He tore a tendon in his right foot.

Two years later, he still hasn't fully covered.

Cook wasn't alone. It was hard not to be swept up in the hype. The idea of going back to running the way nature supposedly intended -- unencumbered by restrictive, overpriced shoes -- had a romantic appeal. And minimalism was fueled by a great story, too: the exploits of the legendary, barefoot-running Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, as told in the 2009 bestseller "Born to Run."

Conveniently overlooking that the runners generally acknowledged to be the world's best -- the Kenyans and Ethiopians -- run in shoes, pavement-pounders of all levels of abilities found the promise of minimalism irresistible. "Many runners have been led to believe that switching to a minimalist shoe will automatically improve their form, reduce injury and make them a more efficient runner," writes coach Jeff Gaudette in an article in the current issue of the American Medical Athletic Association (AMAA) Journal. "Unfortunately that's just not true."

Some suspected as much from the get-go. "My first thought was that we're taking a step backwards," says podiatrist Dr. Edward Fryman of Seaford. Fryman, the former longtime medical director of the Long Island Marathon, notes that in the early years of the 1970s running boom, the shoes were stiff and offered little protection. In the subsequent decades, he says, "shoes became more flexible in the forefoot, more controlled in the rear and with more cushioning. I started to see a decline in injuries."

While he points out that some runners do run without problems in lighter shoes, Fryman says that, as the sales of minimalist footwear rose, so did the number of runners presenting themselves in his office with overuse injuries. "Bigger runners, especially, break down the shoes, and develop all sorts of problems," Fryman says.

Now, just a few years after the hype began, the minimalist shoe movement appears to have broken down, as well. Reportedly, sales have plummeted, and last May, Vibram, the company that made the glovelike FiveFingers -- the "uber" minimalist shoe -- reportedly settled a class-action lawsuit that alleged the company made unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of its footwear.

Cook has removed almost all minimalist shoes from the shelves of The Runner's Edge, as he continues to rehab his injury. "Last year was the first year I didn't run a race since 1973," he says adding with a chuckle, "I admit it, I was a knucklehead."