Tag Archives: minimal footwear

Feet in shining armor: Paleo Barefoots review

CHAINMAIL. Quick … what comes to mind? Medieval warriors? Knights in shining armor? Running shoes? (Okay, maybe not so much shoes.) Given traditional recommendations for cushioned, supportive running shoes, the thought of metal chains against naked feet might not elicit a strong sense of comfort or safety.

THE CONCEPT

Indeed, even I – a barefoot runner – was skeptical when I first heard of the Paleo Barefoots, a minimalist footwear constructed entirely of chainmail. Being a sucker for functionally and aesthetically innovative advances in minimalist running, I became immediately intrigued. Like most minimalist shoes on the market, the Paleos are designed to allow the foot move as freely and naturally as possible, with just enough protection against the elements. But what sets the Paleos apart is their unique design that, theoretically, will let them last a lifetime. Even the most minimal shoes – including the more popular “toe” shoes or huaraches – require a rubber-like sole at least several millimeters thick to confer durability and protection. In contrast, the Paleos’ construction from metal – yes, literally minuscule steel links – eliminates the need for a thicker sole. This design yields a sock-like slipper, only 1.4 mm thick, with ultimate flexibility and ground feel.

My Paleos@Ultra with green paws

However, while chainmail will win the battle against dirt, sand, twigs and grass, the victor of a metal-versus-concrete war is anyone’s call. Thus, Paleos are intended only for use on ‘natural’ surfaces, and aren’t recommended for running through the concrete jungle. Such a product sounds like a dream come true for any barefoot runner looking to venture into more challenging terrain. But the unfortunate reality is, dreams aren’t fulfilled for free. In fact, the Paleos carry perhaps the heftiest price tag on the minimalist shoe market – on the order of two- to three-hundred U.S. dollars, depending on the style and options.

THE PRODUCT

After reading several glowing reviews, I became curious – okay, no … obsessed – with trying the Paleos. I rationalized the sacrifice to my bank account with the reassurance that it would be a one-time cost, as the Paleos should last forever if cared for. After much deliberation, I bit the bullet and purchased my very own Paleos@Ultra. Considering the high price tag and the shipping time from Germany, I was nervous about their fit and my chosen options. To my relief, their customer service promptly evaluated my foot tracing and confidently offered a size recommendation.

My Paleos fit perfectly right out of the box.

When they arrived, I was first struck by the quality of not only the shoe, but also the thoughtful packaging, informative care guide and personal touches. My Paleos arrived packaged carefully in an exquisite metal box, along with instructions and a complementary chainmail key chain. My personalized Paleos were equipped with engraved metal plates, black elastic laces, mesh lining socks and ankle wraps, and green “paws”, designed for extra grip on rough rocky or urban terrain. Right out of the box, this was clearly a quality product.

PERFORMANCE

In all honesty, it took me three attempts to fully appreciate the Paleo experience. As they’re unlike any other footwear I’ve tried, it took me some time to refine my fit and preferences. When I first put them on, they felt loose and heavy on my foot as I walked around my apartment. I couldn’t imagine them performing well while running. My first test run was a brief trot on a sandy trail cut short by skin irritation at the back of my ankle. Feeling that my Paleos were too loose, I had tightened the laces too snuggly, to the point where they dug into my achilles. Discouraged but not defeated, I tried another day, loosening the fit and wearing the sock liners. This first mini test-mile was a success and I was ready for a real trial run.

Paleos with sock liners

As I am far from an experienced trail runner, I sought out a gentle trail for my test run. The terrain was mostly packed sand, but also included several unavoidable rocky patches and stretches of rough gravel. I had only previously attempted this trail in full shoes or Luna sandals, and would never consider tackling it barefoot. In fact, convinced the Paleos would not hold up against the gravel and rocks, I stashed my Lunas as back-up. To my great surprise, the Paleos handled even the roughest segments with ease. The fine gravel and stones, which would typically abrade my bare feet, didn’t phase me. Although I could feel the larger rocks, not once did I get a foot bruise, which I’ve become notorious for sustaining. About two miles in, I did feel some irritation around my achilles (and later discovered a small blister as a result), which was easily remedied after a quick adjustment to loosen the laces. As the run progressed, the experience became almost surreal, as I soon forgot I was even wearing footwear, yet still felt well protected from the rough earth under foot. I found myself sprinting the end of my five-mile test run, carefree and thrilled with the Paleos’ exceptional performance.

THE SERVICE

This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the great folks behind the product. From start to finish, the owner himself made it a priority to respond to my questions and concerns via email and social media. They shipped my Paleos faster than promised, and they arrived in the U.S. remarkably quick. When they got stuck in customs, the owner looked into the issue and sent me shipping updates along with his apologies for the delay.

Sure, it may take some time for the mainstream running community and shoe market to embrace a metal sock as an acceptable option for running footwear. I don’t predict the PaleoBarefoots will soon be ranked among Runner’s World’s most popular shoes for comfort, style or affordability. But based on my initial impressions, I suspect there’s a niche of selective athletes who would be thrilled to discover this treasure. What barefoot runner isn’t looking for foot protection that not only embodies minimalism and functionality, but also the bonus perks of quality, creativity and beauty?

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Skora Core: A sh*e review?!

Fare warning, barefoot runners … the following post contains sensitive content. It is, indeed, a SHOE review.
“Has she turned to the dark side?” you might ask.
“Hypocrite!” you may holler.
Don’t fret, barefooters. I still run exclusively barefoot, strongly advocate free feet, and don’t foresee changing my ways any time soon.

That said, I am not anti-shoe, but rather, view shoes as tools that can be immensely beneficial when used in the right context. I’m writing this review not because I’m swapping my feet for SKORAs, nor do I suggest you do, if you’ve already discovered the joys of naked soles. Instead, I’m writing this as a former shod runner who understands the value (and rarity) of a quality running shoe and believes that SKORA is about as good as a shoe gets. During my roughly two year transition to minimalist – and later barefoot – running, I experimented with shoe after shoe after shoe. Many failed miserably while others were unimpressively acceptable. Through these many trials and errors I vowed to never become a brand evangelist. That is, until I put on my SKORA Cores.

When I bought my pair of SKORAs last year I took a huge gamble. I had never purchased a running shoe without first trying it on, but was so intrigued by others’ glowing reviews that I just had to try them. With a hefty price tag of $110-195 depending on the model (as of Winter 2014), this isn’t a cheap gamble to make. But when I took them out for their first spin, I had no regrets.

STRUCTURE

Skora_CoresThe Core is constructed of a Goatskin leather upper and an injection blown rubber sole. Because of this composition, and its lack of cushioning, the shoe can allegedly sustain 1000+ miles, compared to the measly 300-500 mile lifespan of typical running shoes. It is zero-drop (no heel-toe differential) and has an 11-mm stack height, making for a truly minimalist ride. Like all of SKORA’s aesthetically pleasing models, the Core comes in a range of color options, including my chosen charcoal / cyan / purple combo. You can find all of the other juicy details in SKORA’s product description.

FIT

When SKORA says they fit true to size, believe them. I didn’t, and it took three orders (which they gladly exchanged) to finally find my correct size. For reference, I usually wear an 8-8.5 (Women’s US) in everyday shoes, and a 9 in running shoes, and my SKORA size was an unambiguous 8. Once I finally settled on the right size, I discovered just how comfortable they are. Out of the box (which, by the way, is nearly as beautiful as the shoe) they almost molded to my feet. After a few more runs, they further softened and fit the foot like a glove. The toe box was comfortably roomy, although my feet are admittedly on the narrow side, so I can’t speak for those with a wider forefoot. The Core weighs in at a mere 6.7 ounces, but I might have guessed even less. Unlike many of the minimalist shoes I’ve tried, they make it easy to forget you’re in a shoe.

RIDE

The Core may be light and comfortable, but how does it perform? As a diehard barefooter, nothing will ever compare to my own two feet. But if you’re looking for a bit of protection from the elements while minimizing the bulk and interference from a standard shoe, the Core’s a great choice. When I first tried the Core I immediately noticed how engaged my feet were compared to the other minimalist shoes in which I had been running. I could feel my foot landing, rolling through the arch and toes, and could detect variations in ground surface that were blocked by other shoes. That said, they performed well on a range of surfaces, including some pretty rough trails.

Back when I was a shod runner, I so loved my Cores that I applied to be a SKORA ambassador. Since going full bare, I have only rarely worn my SKORAs, but this does not discredit my accolades for their shoes. From their philosophy of “running real” to their exceptional product quality to their fun social media, the company is one even a barefoot runner can stand behind. So, for those of you who do enjoy wearing a shoe, this one’s worth checking out.

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DIY: Minimalist running socks

So you run barefoot. Your feet have toughened up, you’ve perfected your light, quick foot-strike and you pride yourself on having become so bad-ass. But c’mon, admit it … Every once in a while it’s just too cold, that gravel’s a bit too rough and you just might need to protect your feet. So what’s a barefooter to do? Dish out $100 for a pair of shmancy “barefoot” shoes that you’ll wear twice a year? Fret no more! There’s a much simpler, cheaper (and way more bad-ass, since really – that’s what matters) way to protect your feet while maintaining that barefoot feel. Make your own running socks!

What you’ll need:

  • Socks
  • Plasti Dip
  • Paintbrush
  • Paint tray

How to make your running socks:

1. Socks. Choose a good pair of socks. The ideal pair will be new, since you want them to last as many miles as possible. They should fit snugly, with sufficient elasticity so they don’t slip off or slide around while running. But make sure they’re not too small, since the Plasti Dip can make the fabric contract a bit. I use socks with separated toes in this example, as I prefer how they allow greater toe mobility compared to standard socks, but any good pair – toed or toeless – will do.

Plasti_Dip2. Plasti Dip. Get some Plasti Dip in your favorite color. Plasti Dip comes in a rainbow of colors (18 to be exact), so you can tailor your socks to be as flashy or inconspicuous as desired. It’s available in either the standard liquid or aerosol spray cans. Here we’ll use the standard pourable form, but I’ve heard the spray works as well.

pour3. Prepare. First, get comfy. Wear some old clothing and find a chair away from valuable furniture, as there will likely be some stray Plasti Dip spatter. You’ll probably want to protect the floor with some newspaper. Get a book or a friend to keep you entertained while the socks dry. Next, put your socks on and pour a generous amount of Plasti Dip into the paint tray.

paint4. Paint. Now you’re ready to start! Carefully paint the Plasti Dip onto the bottom of your foot with the paintbrush. Ensure that the layer is relatively even but thick enough to actually provide some durability. Avoid the sides and top of the socks, and make sure the ball, heel and toes are fully covered, as these areas will sustain the most wear and tear while running.

dry5. Dry. Prop your feet up and wait at least 30 minutes for the socks to dry (longer is always better). It’s critical that they are on your feet during this initial drying period, as the Plasti Dip will mold to the shape of your feet. Once you’re sufficiently bored, carefully remove the socks and let them finish drying, soles face up. They won’t completely dry for several hours, and I’d suggest waiting a full day before running in them just to be safe.

6. Try them out! Here’s the fun part. Take your socks for a spin. The first several steps might feel strange, but the sock should quickly adjust to your foot and feel almost as wonderful as fully bare. My first run in my Plasti Dip socks was 5 miles, in the frigid New England weather along a debris-strewn highway. The socks held up remarkably well while keeping my feet surprisingly warm and adequately protected against the elements.

Since these guidelines are based on my first experiment, I’d love to hear others’ tips and tricks for improving my future running socks. As always, please share your thoughts and experiences!

Update 4/20/13: I performed a touch-up using the spray can and it was considerably easier and less messy. I highly recommend it over the pourable Plasti Dip!

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Running the Minimalist Road: Worth the Risk?

Alcohol. Politics. Relatives. Ice cream. The common thread? All are best enjoyed in moderation (just kidding, family … I love you all dearly!). Running, on the other hand, is one activity we should feel free to indulge in to the extreme. Maybe not in terms of mileage, speed or intensity, but in terms of foot support – or more precisely – lack of support. Just a year or two ago I would have argued defiantly with the me of today, having been skeptical of both barefoot zealots and advocates of cushy, motion control shoes. It was from this conservative, middle-of-the-road stance that I launched my minimalist experiment, gradually transitioning to lighter, less supportive running shoes, ranging from huaraches to racing flats.

Readers and friends will attest to the fact that this past year has been undoubtedly the most challenging of my fifteen-year running history, strewn with an unwelcome and unprecedented chain of frequent, relentless running injuries. As recent as a month ago, I began to seriously reconsider the tradeoff between the risks and benefits of my attempted transition to minimalism. Sidelined once again, this time from intense calf strain, I picked up Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton‘s book Barefoot Running Step by Step for some inspiration. While I typically avoid promoting specific products or gear, this man is not only the father of barefoot running and a running guru, but also a witty, endearing writer. Reading this book at the nadir of my frustrating recovery generated the perfect storm. Running should be easy, fun and painless; if it is anything else, you’re doing it wrong. My recent runs, in contrast, were filled with with aches, tension and anxiety. While I noticed a definite improvement in my form, some lingering bad habits in conjunction with reduced protection from less shoe left my bones, tendons and muscles dangerously vulnerable. Clearly something had to change.

Desperate, but willing to experiment as always, I ditched the fear that my feet were still weak from injury, ditched my goals of rebuilding my pre-injury marathon-level mileage, and ditched my shoes … my flats, my vibrams, my sandals. Starting at just half a mile, my feet were laden with blisters and my spirit was humbled by my evidently horrible footstrike. Despite having transitioned fully to an otherwise barefoot lifestyle, the layer of foot protection I consistently relied on while running was blocking a source of sensory feedback essential to reap the full benefits of barefoot running.

Although I’ve run bare – or nearly bare – countless times before, these previous efforts had been lacking two critical ingredients: 1) Awareness of my form and 2) Mentality of a novice runner complete with a willingness to progress SLOWLY. With a touch of restraint and patience, lots of intentional relaxation and a boatload of mindfulness, over one month I’ve developed the ability to run four miles completely bare, blister-free and often with an obnoxious grin plastered across my ecstatic face. Once I abandoned the preconception that my feet still weren’t strong or tough enough, the transition was remarkably easy. The secret, I quickly discovered, is first and foremost to relax and run however feels fun and easy. This revelation was aided by several indespensible tips from Ken Bob’s “cheat sheet”, such as bending the knees, landing first on the forefoot followed by the heel and toes, a forward lean that propels you into a falling motion, and steps so light the feet barely kiss the ground. The greatest challenge hasn’t been mastering the technique or covering the mileage; rather, it’s been fighting the inevitable “barefoot running exuberance syndrome”. I’ve addressed this by adhering to the following super-conservative plan (of course, this isn’t ideal for everyone, but is working great for me!):

1. Run at most every other day.
2. Start at 0.5 miles, increasing by no more than 0.2 miles per run.
3. Stop at the first sign of pain, and don’t even think of increasing mileage if the last run wasn’t awesome.

Having followed steps one and two religiously, I have yet to worry about step three.

By venturing beyond the comfort zone of minimalist running, I’m finally seeing the logic behind many of the claims from other barefooters that I had previously dismissed as radical propaganda. Running barefoot doesn’t guarantee correct form or injury-free running, but it does make it a heck of a lot easier. The chronic hip and calf tightness I’ve felt for years literally melts away when my shoes are off.

The sidewalk greeted my feet with this message after my most recent barefoot run.

And best of all, the skills I’m learning bare are translating into easier, healthier, more fun shod running as well. This past month of supplementing my longer shod runs with short barefoot runs has facilitated a successful recovery from months of injury, as I’m learning to run in shoes with the same ease as without them.

So if you’re thinking of exploring minimalist running but are afraid to bare your soles, I urge you to consider … is moderation really worth the risk?

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Back to basics

In the long run, coping with life’s challenges and hardships can provide unforeseen benefits such as a more grounded perspective and sense of empowerment. Similar strengthening can also occur during a runner’s battle with injuries. For instance, I’ve emerged from prior injuries having learned critical lessons in patience and adaptability. Yet this growth has often also been accompanied by an awareness of concomitant physical losses, including reduced strength and stamina, missed races and training setbacks. My most recent injury, however, has demonstrated that when the injury is severe enough and the struggle to recover is sufficiently trying and lasting, even these physical losses can be converted into gains. How, you ask, could a five-month hiatus from running, ignited by a metatarsal stress reaction followed by a lateral foot injury and then severe calf pain, turn one into a stronger runner? By radically transforming their technique and definition of running.

Too often we address injuries with a patch; we treat the pain and inflammation with drugs, ice, orthotics, creams and bandages, until the symptoms disappear, without ever understanding how they originated in the first place. A frustratingly stubborn recovery, for which these quick fixes are ineffective, can force a deeper understanding of the biomechanical imbalances that frequently lay at the source. While each runner is unique and must listen closely to their own body to learn such lessons, let me share a few personal experiences that may strike a chord with some readers.

As the cause of my injuries was not immediately apparent, I initially tried to treat them while adhering to my ingrained, unhealthy running habits. Only when I finally realized this old routine would no longer cut it, I launched a new approach to my recovery with a clean slate. I abandoned my goal to rebuild mileage and became determined to simply learn to run again – correctly and painlessly – which I’ve approached by incorporating frequent short, easy and mindful barefoot runs. This simple tool not only teaches proper running biomechanics, but has also revealed subtle differences between my shod and barefoot running form that have likely been the culprit of injurious, inefficient running.

Metatarsal stress reaction

The ignition to my train of injuries, a stress reaction in my left metatarsals, was assumed to be a classic result of too many miles in too little shoe, before my feet were strong enough. Yet this explanation seemed at odds with my intentionally very gradual, cautious transition to a minimal shoe and foot strengthening efforts through barefoot walking. A recent barefoot run confirmed that the culprit may not have been the miles and weakness, but rather, poor running form transferring undue stress to the forefoot. During this particular run along a harsh urban route – my only unpleasant barefoot run to date – I adopted a rigid, tense and sloppy foot strike as I traversed uneven, rough terrain. The consequence was an aching, swollen top of foot, disturbingly remniscent of my old injury.

Lateral foot tightness

Just as my stress reaction was healing and I resumed gentle running, I became plagued with a nagging ache along the lateral foot (presumably the flexor digiti minimi brevis / abductor digiti minimi muscles), from the cuboid to the base of the fifth metatarsal. To no avail, I tried massage, ice, heat and running on every imaginable surface, from concrete, dirt and grass to an Anti-gravity treadmill. It wasn’t until replacing my already minimal shoes with an even lighter, less cushioned and less supportive shoe that I found relief. The subtle arch support of my prior pair had evidently been encouraging excessive supination, placing undue strain along my lateral lower leg and foot.

Calf strain

Finally recovered from my foot ailments after months of rest, I launched back into running cautiously but soon discovered my calves were not up to the task. A month of running with tight calves culminated in intense pain and swelling that spread throughout my calf, ankle and foot, forcing me into another two-week running hiatus. Despite common logic that weak, strained calves would benefit from cushion, support and soft surfaces, I discovered a peculiar phenomenon that the calf pain appeared instantly when running in shoes, but I could run painlessly barefoot … on concrete.

Could it be that each of these injuries did not in fact result from too many miles, aggressive training or insufficient support, but instead stemmed from running with unnecessary tension and improper biomechanics? 

Admittedly I’m eagerly awaiting the days when I can enjoy endless miles with full strength and endurance; but for now I’ve discovered a new source of joy from running. Rather than progressing in terms of mileage or speed, I’m gaining satification from my gradual improvements in form which allow me to run free of pain, tension and injury. These lessons have spawned a new era of growth in my evolution as a runner, one marked not just by improved biomechanics and strength, but also by a rekindled appreciation for the pure joy of running.

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Barefoot birthday

A year ago yesterday I took off my shoes, and *mostly* haven’t looked back. Envisioning this post months ago, I projected an enthusiastic account of how a barefoot lifestyle can radically improve foot health and transform your running. While the year-long journey has certainly been enlightening, it has more specifically revealed the detrimental impact of a lifetime of shoe-wearing, the dangers of demanding too much from the body, and the complexity of the “barefoot vs. shod” debate.

Before expounding upon my personal experiences, let me clarify what I mean by the term “barefoot”. I do not wear shoes unless absolutely necessary. That means bare sole to dirt, concrete, pavement or snow, walking around campus, at lab, through my neighborhood or hiking a mountain. I’ll slip on a pair of flip-plops in professional situations or at restaurants or stores that request shoes, since I may not understand others’ distaste for feet, but hey – I’ll respect our difference of opinion. The other main exception is when I run. Although my feet rapidly adapted to walking bare, the demands of running bare are considerably greater and require a more cautious transition. For this reason, depending on the distance, my running footwear ranges from a lightweight shoe to a sandal to fully bare.

As my original motivation for this experiment was to personally assess the effects of a barefoot lifestyle, the critical question is how has shoe-free living changed my life and health? As a scientist, you’d think I would have conducted a properly controlled experiment. But as an overzealous extremophile, I of course changed too much at once, and now have a mess of uninterpretable anecdotes. Over the past year I not only started walking barefoot, but concurrently started using a standing desk and running in minimalist shoes, making it essentially impossible to dissociate their impact on my well-being. With that caveat, let me share the benefits, frustrations and painful lessons of this adventure.

By far the most entertaining aspect of my barefoot experiment has been the often ludicrous, hilarious and sadly misinformed comments I receive from strangers. I’ve been repeatedly advised to put on shoes because my feet “need” the arch support, I’ll cut myself on all the glass and needles that are everywhere, I’ll contract diseases from all the spit on the ground, and my favorite (from a plumber) – “there’s shit everywhere”. Either these are unwarranted concerns or I’m blessed with super-human resistance, since I have yet to experience any of these complications. In fact, the greatest danger I’ve encountered has been one easily removable splinter. I’ve even proudly developed enough resilience to walk over glass without injury.

Feet at the start of my barefoot experiment (left) and one year later (right). Excuse the poor quality of the 2011 photos, taken from my iPhone!

Perhaps most astounding is that such a seemingly minor change as taking off your shoes leads to such a dramatic physical transformation. The visible changes have been surprisingly subtle, including slight thickening of the skin on the soles and a slight expansion of the metatarsals. Although I originally intended to document the physical changes with periodic photographs, the differences from day 1 to day 365 are just barely apparent. Rather, the predominant changes have been in terms of internal structure and strength. My feet have appropriately adapted to the demands of supporting themselves, instead of relying on the artificial support of a shoe, by gradually developing stronger muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments. The difference has been dramatic enough that others, including my massage therapist and acupuncturist, have commented on my remarkably high arches and increased strength in my feet and lower legs.

In an ideal world, the story would end here. Hypothesis confirmed … returning my feet to their natural state led to improved foot health and function. But I am an athlete – a stubborn, sometimes irrational, too often fanatic – runner. As such, I of course sought the thrill of pushing my boundaries, expediting my progress towards minimalist running and only half-heartedly heeded the warnings of an overly aggressive transition. I ran contently in a safe transition zone for several months before making the error of incorporating marathon training into my bare and minimalist experiment. Predictably, at the peak of my training I over-ran myself into a metatarsal stress reaction which, due to a combination of a poor self-diagnosis and improper treatment, evolved into an excruciating 4 month hiatus from running. A slow bone recovery was followed by soft-tissue irritation as my foot is re-awakening to the demands of running.

That said, one could justifiably consider this a failed experiment in barefoot living. The anti-barefoot community can now happily add me to their stats of runners who sustain transitioning-to-barefoot-running injuries (although, some research suggests these stats may be inflated). Call me crazy, but instead of convincing me to protect my vulnerable feet with shoes, the journey has opened my eyes to the many joys of a barefoot lifestyle and minimalist running. Walking bare is an essentially risk-free way to improve foot health while inviting in a flood of wonderful, novel sensory experiences. My trials with minimalist running have foremost underscored the dangers of 1) weakening our feet through a lifetime of unnecessary, artificial support, and 2) over-stressing the thus-weakened bones and soft tissue of the foot by demanding too much, too soon. While dangerously high mileage in a minimal shoe pushed my feet beyond their present strength, this is by no means evidence that a lighter – or absent – shoe is inherently dangerous. Running bare with poor form or insufficient strength can lead to injury; conversely, there’s no risk of running in traditional shoes with correct form. While the runner, not the shoe, is the critical factor (for example, see Daoud et al, 2012), the benefit of less shoe comes from the natural tendency to run with improved form – including faster cadence, lighter steps and a midfoot / forefoot strike – with reduced interference from a bulky shoe.

Year one has been filled with surprises, frustrations, and continued physical and mental development. As is true for science in general, our findings may not always confirm our predictions, but we can trust that they’ll reveal the truth. I’m looking forward to a second year of growth and discovery, but can’t help wonder … do bare feet experience the terrible two’s?

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To wear or to bare?

A runner’s choice of footwear can be confusing and downright overwhelming. We’re fed mixed messages from shoe manufacturers that their latest motion-control, cushioned stability shoe with custom orthotics on the one hand – or maybe their lightweight minimalist shoe on the other – will guarantee our feet a smooth, fast ride. For years I believed that finding the right running shoe was like finding one’s life partner … we all have a perfect match out there somewhere, but it might take years of dating around to discover our sole-mate (sorry – couldn’t resist). Over the past several months I began to both test and question this idea in a recent personal experiment. But before sharing my discoveries, let me offer a bit of context …

I had been blessed with 14 years of essentially injury-free running. That is, until a fateful day in February 2010 when, while training for the Boston marathon, I returned home from my evening run with a torn achilles tendon. Needless to say, I did not make it to the starting line that April. The ensuing year was filled with a flurry of peroneal tendonitis, femoral-patella syndrome and trochanter bursitis (ie ankle, knee and hip injuries). Was my body just not designed to run this many miles (as my doctor informed me!) or was I doing something wrong?

Given many runners’ reports that going barefoot helped resolve their injuries, I began to look into the possibility that my shoes might be contributing to my own problems. Although initially skeptical of these seemingly radical claims, the more I researched, the more I found them intuitively appealing and scientifically sound. The logic was simple: the human body evolved to walk, run and jump perfectly fine without the need of external crutches like arch support or heel cushioning. It’s doubtful that our hunter ancestors had to slip on their Nikes before pursuing their next meal. Modern man has changed little from our predecessors, with one notable exception: for most of us a lifetime of shoe-wearing has fostered an epidemic of shoe-dependence. Held captive in footwear, our feet become weak, inflexible and ridden with bunions, fallen arches or crooked toes. We in turn attempt to correct these imbalances with more cushioned, structured and protective footwear, only perpetuating the cycle. The truth is, our feet are quite well suited to sustain the physical impact of these activities with their elegant support system of 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. Introducing an artificial support system like footwear transfers the impact burden from foot to shoe, which over time can 1) weaken our feet and lower legs, 2) alter our natural walking or running gait and 3) redistribute impact forces to place excessive stress on areas like knees and hips. While there is nothing inherently dangerous about shoes themselves (with maybe a few exceptions), the associated consequences of long-term foot support such as weakness and unhealthy gait are concerning. I’ll limit my explanation to this, in the hope of being minimally redundant with the countless articles already written on the topic. But I will refer the interested reader to a stellar investigation into the effects of shoes on foot-strike patterns and their associated impact forces, published last year by Daniel Lieberman and colleagues.

Thus, curious and excited yet still skeptical, five months ago I began to experiment with the natural potential of my own feet. This has not been a quest to become a barefoot runner per se, and I do not intend to provide a “how-to guide” for such a goal. Rather, it has been an exploration of my body’s response to removing my feet from artificial sources of support and protection. Heeding cautions that my feet would be weaker than expected, I began slowly … exceedingly slowly since I was concurrently training for another marathon and of course, stubbornly refused to compromise my mileage. My experiment involved the following core elements:

Walk barefoot. Babies aren’t born with the capacity to run without first developing the strength to crawl, then walk and finally run. Similarly, why would I expect to be able to run bare if I couldn’t first walk bare? On day one of my barefoot journey I lasted only a few blocks before my sensitive skin and tired feet screamed for shoes. But within just a few weeks I built up the strength and resilience to walk essentially everywhere and anywhere.

Run minimally. Various features of your typical running shoe can influence gait including cushioning, arch support and heel-to-toe drop, all of which were characteristic of my own standard running shoe. I therefore experimented with various shoes that minimize these factors to different degrees. Practically, this involved running most of my mileage in my standard shoe, while gradually increasing the percentage of miles run in a more minimal shoe. For instance, I began by running about 20% of my weekly mileage in a light-weight racing shoe and ramped up this mileage by approximately 10% each week. I also supplement my daily longer runs with one or two weekly short runs (1-3 miles) in minimal protection (huaraches or vibram five-fingers).

Listen and adapt. This has been critical for both the success and evaluation of my experiment. I’ve become increasingly aware of my body’s response to each new change and continue to adapt as necessary. When feeling strong I allow myself to increase my “minimal shoe” mileage. If I feel weakness or strain in my feet or calves, I introduce extra support until the issue resolves. For instance, I recently completed a marathon in a lightweight shoe but ran exclusively in a higher-support shoe for the entire post-race week to allow my strained feet and ankles to recover.

So what has come of the early stages of my experiment? I now exclusively walk barefoot, as I’ve grown to love the sensation of my foot contacting the earth as well as a heightened awareness of my environment. In fact, I find it rather awkward to walk in shoes and can’t imagine going back. While I won’t go so far as to claim that discarding my shoes has been a panacea, I’ve discovered that footwear significantly affects my lower leg strength, running form and overall running experience. Perhaps most remarkable has been the transformation in my gait. Trained as both a dancer and sprinter before taking up distance running, I developed an unusual tendency to excessively forefoot strike and supinate. But in zero-drop footwear I find myself engaging my entire foot – from ball to heel – and striking with better lateral balance. As my form corrected, the demands on my upper leg shifted lower, resulting in remarkably stronger feet, calves and shins as well as reduced tightness in my hips, quads and IT band. Generally, the less support and cushion under my feet, the lighter, smoother and more balanced I find my gait. That said, I appreciate some form of protection from rough terrain, as this frees my mind from worrying about rocks, sticks, or other potential dangers so I can simply enjoy the ride. Yet I still find value in a traditional shoe, particularly in providing extra support to keep me running through periods of soft-tissue weakness or strain. As conservatively as I tried to pace myself, my progression was just aggressive enough to ensure my share of achy feet, stressed tendons and tight calves. These past months have debunked the myth that any one shoe – or lack of shoe – is ideal. In fact, I currently alternate among 5 different models of footwear, depending on my support needs …

My embarrassingly large array of running shoes, from handmade huaraches (so fun!) at left to classic supportive sneakers at right.*

My barefoot / minimal journey is still in its infancy and I’m excited to witness its continued evolution over the coming years. These preliminary “data” indicate that for me, less is indeed more. Less shoe equals increased strength, a more balanced foot-strike and an overall more liberating running experience. However, the heterogeneous reports from others suggest that this is not a universal experience and that the runner, rather than the shoe, is the critical ingredient. So whatever you choose to – or not to – wear, if you’re healthy and happy then you’re probably doing something right.

* Although I try not to promote any particular product, I will gladly share my opinions if you contact me directly.
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