As a reformed orthotics-maker, Kyle Roberts pitches a strong argument for the benefits of the minimalist running shoes he sells at his new store in Wauwatosa.
It was ego, though, that persuaded me to pull out a credit card and add a pair of lightweight, low-heel Inov-8 flats to my shoe collection.
The decisive moment came on a training run along the Oak Leaf Trail in Bay View last month, when I spotted a guy running, not on the path, but on the narrow concrete wall alongside of it. He was barefoot, taking smooth, strong strides, and pulling away from me.
I want to run like that.
Like thousands of others, I had toyed with the notion of barefoot running after reading Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestseller, “Born to Run.” McDougall convincingly lays out the biomechanical benefits of running with little or no shoe, relying on the world’s greatest suspension device: the human foot.
While I was curious, Roberts was convinced.
He had spent five years making orthotics to correct whatever lower-extremity injuries his patients had — including himself.
“At the time, my theory was that I could help anyone if I made them an orthotic,” Roberts said. “What became clear to me is that not everyone needed one.”
After studying the research, including the work done by Harvard University anthropologist Dan Lieberman, Roberts concluded that the answer to most running injuries was to strengthen the intrinsic muscles in the foot and lower leg and to run differently. The heel-strike promoted by the design of most running shoes was an unnatural motion that inhibited the body’s natural shock absorption.
“Keeping the foot strong is the thing people are missing when they wear a cushioned shoe,” Roberts said. “A big part of it was when I took my orthotics off and nothing happened to me.”
Roberts eventually switched to the Vibram FiveFingers and has been injury-free. He ran the Green Bay marathon in three hours and 22 minutes earlier this year.
About the same time, he opened the Revolution Natural Running & Walking Center at 11700 W. North Ave. in Wauwatosa. He will host an official grand opening on Saturday.
Roberts bills the store as the only one in the Midwest that sells only minimalist shoes -- no cushioned trainers and no motion-control insoles to dictate proper pronation. The flat-soled offerings made by Kigo, Newton, Altra and Vibram will allow the wearers to redevelop proper running form over time.
That’s one of the things that sold me on Roberts’ pitch.
He doesn’t advocate throwing away your old shoes and going barefoot in one step. He advises a gradual transition from standard running shoes, with a heel roughly 12 millimeters thicker than the forefoot, to a flatter, or no-drop, shoe.
In fact, he guided me to the Inov-8, and added wedges in the heel, rather than sell me the flatter, more minimal Merrill trail runner I had been eyeing.
The mantra is this: run with less shoe, migrate to less shoe, don’t be afraid to be barefoot and small changes add up to be huge.
I’ve been breaking in the Inov-8s, which feel something like rubbery slippers, mostly around the house and walks in the neighborhood. Roberts advised me to start out running a half-mile, then building to a mile, allowing my calves and Achilles to stretch out in the new running position.
And as I learned, that’s what that speedster was doing on the wall on the Oak Leaf Trail: breaking in his feet to go bare.