Shoe Month: Natural motion set for big gains

"Natural-motion" footwear transformed the running-shoe market. It could have a major impact in golf, too. Some examples (clockwise, from top left): Adidas Puremotion, Nike TW '13, Ecco Biom Hybrid and True Phx.
"Natural-motion" footwear transformed the running-shoe market. It could have a major impact in golf, too. Some examples (clockwise, from top left): Adidas Puremotion, Nike TW '13, Ecco Biom Hybrid and True Phx.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rob Rigg is an avid golfer and long-distance runner, and he's combining his two passions in a most unusual way.

This fall, he not only will tackle the Portland Marathon in Oregon and the New York City Marathon in a span of four weeks, but he'll run the combined 52.4 miles wearing – drum roll, please – his golf shoes.

Call him crazy, but Rigg is out to prove a point and promote so-called "natural-motion" or "minimalist" golf footwear created by his start-up shoe company, True Linkswear. Inspired by a revolution in running that is advocating super-flexible shoes that enable feet to function as if they were barefoot, Rigg launched True to bring the same concept to golfers.

His premise: Feet that move freely provide better balance, more comfort, minimize injuries and create better tempo for a powerful swing.

Though it would be easy to dismiss Rigg as a radical with a vested interest, he's hardly alone in adding runners' speak – minimalist jargon such as "zero drop," "low profile" and "natural motion" – to the golf lexicon. Major golf footwear companies, including Ecco have invested and committed to natural-motion golf shoes. And athletic giants such as Nike and Adidas are putting their marketing muscle behind their minimalist entries, too. Tiger Woods already has garnered much attention for his TW '13 shoes, and Adidas accelerated production of its Puremotion in anticipation of growing consumer interest.

With their unconventional aesthetics and wide toe boxes, it’s safe to say minimalist shoes don’t have the sleek styling of classic saddles. And considering golfers’ conservative sensibilities, some question whether natural-motion footwear will make a major impact in the marketplace. In running, however, minimalist shoes have surged to account for nearly 35 percent of all footwear sales. Thus far, their golf counterparts account at most for about 3 percent, according to Ecco, but company executives are betting they’ll become a similar force in golf.

“It’ll be three to five years before it has the same impact, but it’ll get there,” says David Helter, specialty sales director at Ecco USA. The basis for his confidence: Natural motion just makes sense, and its benefits are self-evident.

The footwear industry's pursuit of natural-motion running shoes began in earnest primarily because of the success of runners from East African nations such as Kenya. Their dominance in long-distance running perplexed the rest of the world, considering Kenyans often trained barefoot while more industrialized nations outfitted their elite athletes in highly-cushioned, structured, heel-padded shoes.

As biomechanists studied the world's best, their conclusions mirrored those of renowned researcher Peter Brueggemann at the University of Cologne, whom Ecco had paired with to develop a running shoe. The bottom line: Barefoot running led to foot strikes near the mid-foot as opposed to cushioned shoes that promoted landing on the heel. Though modern running shoes were created to protect the heel, mounting scientific evidence indicates they're inflicting jarring impact upon it.

"Even with extreme cushioning, injury rates hadn't improved at all," Helter says. Barefoot running enables the muscles in the feet to strengthen. In contrast, highly cushioned and structured shoes weaken feet, much the way muscles atrophy when an injured limb is placed in a cast, according to natural-motion proponents.

They say developing stronger feet, the foundation of every golf swing, is one of minimalist shoe's many benefits for golfers. By definition, these shoes are lower to the ground than conventional golf footwear and have web-like forefoot design to allow toes to splay naturally during motion – for better stability and traction. The low profile typically is achieved with thinner outsoles and through the removal of cleats and receptacles; they're replaced with durable rubber nubs or treads.

Adidas soon will release a golf shoe featuring a 1.2 millimeter-thick outsole, which the company says is more than 50 percent thinner than some competitors' models, according to Bill Price, the company's vice president for golf footwear. That improvement will aid in reading greens, he says, adding, "You'll be able to feel each little rise and bump."

Low profile also means less heel construction, meaning the heel is closer to the ground. Price says that should benefit golfers, because some – especially beginners – struggle with posture and balance. When they try to take a stance on the balls of their feet, some tend to feel "like they're falling forward," he says. "That's easier to do, especially during the swing, when you're wearing golf shoes with a heel lift."

Rigg, the founder of True, says his company's shoes are the only ones available in the market with "zero drop" – describing a heel and forefoot that are exactly the same distance off the ground, mimicking a barefoot stance.

"When you raise the heel, it's like going up on your toes," he says. "You can feel the angle, and your posture completely changes."

Though even some of True's competitors concede that zero drop may be best for golfers, they say switching to it suddenly can be an awkward, if not difficult, adjustment. That's because golf shoes typically drop 12 millimeters from heel to forefoot. Such a difference can affect the elongation of the Achilles tendon, which has prompted advice – at least in the running community – recommending a gradual transition to zero-drop shoes.

One other potential concern for golfers: traction, or the lack thereof. Some players insist that they're more likely to slip wearing minimalist shoes because their outsoles typically only have rubber nubs and no cleats. Minimalist-shoe manufacturers maintain that in most situations their shoes provide plenty of traction.

"If you're in mud, I can see that you may want shoes with spikes," Rigg says. Other natural-motion advocates add that the bigger factor in slippage is a player's swing motion rather than his environment.

But they all say that the advantages of wearing minimalist shoes, with their promise of greater comfort, movement and performance, outweigh any drawback. Indeed, Ecco's Helter urges golfers not to miscalculate the importance of footwear.

"By the end of a round, a golfer will take 7,000-plus steps," he says. "How many times are you going to use your putter?"