Barefoot Running Footwear: from skin to vibram and everything in-between
Be like Laura and take off your shoes
I’ve been reducing my footwear ever since I was eight year’s old when I was so fully immersed in the Laura Ingall’s Little House book series that I was sure I was born 100 years too late. Living barefoot on the prairie sounded like pure bliss and I would have thrown off my bonnet too if I’d had one.
Spurred on by Laura and others my life became a quest for authenticity – Who are we? What are we? Where is our place in the world? When we take everything away, when nothing is left? Bare bones, earthbound, ancestral living.
I went as far as sleeping in leaf piles (generously called “debris shelters”) killed my own food (domestic and wild), and drank from many dubious streams, lakes and puddles. I lived in the back of my truck, on the tundra, in backyards and on beaches. I was a total dirtball. Once when I was a teenager I visited my grandmother in Newport, RI and I had no shoes with me. She offered to buy me a pair so she could take me to dinner at her lovely club. When we got to the store I was thrilled to find Birkenstocks. At first she was quite upset and thought they were ugly but being the open-minded feminist that she was, she ended up buying us both a pair. She liked her new-found foot freedom so much that she wore Birkenstocks everyday until she died 20 years later!
Oh how I wish I could call my Granny now and tell her how much more wonderful the choices for minimalist footwear have gotten. Instead I will tell you.
Let’s start from the beginning . . .
1975: Born barefoot. My twin sister and I were so pigeon-toed and knocked kneed that we couldn’t step over the garden hose. Thus began my journey into embodiment – complete with super wonky foot/leg/hip alignment.
1980 -1990: Many versions of insufferable footwear. Except spring-fall, when like all good hippy children, I wore as little as possible from the feet up.
1994: Limmer bootsI wore as a porter for Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies carrying 100lb packs of gear up to the Continental Divide. That was the summer I trashed my knees, finally wised up and slowly started ditching weight in all forms.
1995-1998: Boreal vector climbing shoes size 8.5. Wow. I still have them in my shed and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t even fit my six-year-old daughter. Gnarly toe contortion.
1998: Solomon paragliding boots. I was in Baja with NOLS and I’d seen a guy wearing these at the top of a lonesome peak. Since NOLS instructors are required to wear boots I thought these were a brilliant ultra-light-weight compromise. I wore them on several Alaska/Yukon backpacking trips and suffered minor stone-bruising but otherwise I was quite pleased with my subversive coup.
1999: Solomon hiking shoes and various running shoes + ski poles for 2,500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. This is when I finally gave up on wearing any of the dozen pairs of orthotics I owned up to that point.
2002: Lowa hiking shoes for a 2,000mile hike on the Continental Divide Trail. Lowa generously send me a new free pair every 500 miles. Light enough to trot in for up to 35 miles a day. Sturdy enough to kick steps into a stiff snowfield.
2005: MBT’s. Ok yes, I owned a pair of these stupid shoes, bought used from ebay. My knees were too trashed to run, I was pregnant, and I wanted a vigorous walking workout. What can I say? I fell for the barefoot-action part of the advertising. Now you don’t need to.
2007: Nike Frees, after several years off from running (mending torn ALC’s, having babies etc.) I started running short distances again. These were among the first flexible running shoes to hit the mass market. They definitely helped me build the base of flexibility and strength I would need for full barefoot running later on.
2008: Nike Fireflies. These were awesome and inexpensive but of course they only made them for one year. These were my first running shoes with zero heal drop and they have thin super-flexible soles, but the uppers were flimsy and ripped after a few weeks of running. I ran them into shreds and soon started looking for a substitute.
2009: Vibram 5-fingers. Oddly these were stiffer than my Fireflies. And they are incredibly dorky looking. And they are a fair weather shoe – I spent way too many days following my pokey kids up a trail in the rain wishing I had a nice pair of wool socks on instead. Which gave me an idea . . .
2010: Socks. I have a plethora of left-over socks thanks to an old Smart Wool sponsorship. I don’t think they had minimalist footwear in mind, but I hope they don’t mind the repurposing. The socks were particularly effective in snowy-icy conditions, great traction, great insulation. They don’t last long.
2010: Sockwas. An inexpensive but more durable version of socks, I’ve worn though 5 pairs of these in the last two years. They are perfect for toughening up feet because as they wear thinner, your foot pads slowly get more calloused. Also great for winter running.
2011: Skin. Free. Self-mending. Comes with a life-time guarantee. Vulnerable to heat and cold. I spent this summer hiking and running entirely barefoot. No mountain or terrain seems too rough at the moment. I climbed Katahdin and Mt. Washington barefoot.
2012: Vivo Barefoot Trail Shoes. I thought I was going to get to hike a bit with my twin on the Appalachian Trail this spring. Alas, I the magic fairy that absolves full-time working mother’s from responsibility did not arrive in time. But at least I have the shoes. These are the most comfortable sneakers I have ever owned and they look good enough to wear around town. I would definitely get a pair of these for my Granny.
*Update 10/9/12: I did end up joining my brother for 20 miles of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I found I didn’t need shoes at all, even with a full pack. The last day of my trip I went up Mt. Washington by myself and hit snowline. I took my pair of unworn Vivo Neo Trails off my pack an put them on.
2012: Invisible Sandals: hot pavement is a problem. My race pace slows way down where there’s not a white line to run on. So I’m experimenting with different versions of Tarahumara running sandals. I haven’t made any work for running yet, but they are my absolute favorite warm weather around-town shoes. I’ve made a pair for everyone in the family.
Born briefly made an awesomely flexible thin gum-soled sneaker-thing in all kinds of stylish colors. Sadly, they’ve gone to thicker soles for now. Saucony has been making a nice “retro” running shoe called the bullet (low heal drop) that are good for stylin’ around town.
Jambu makes some nice low-heeled, super flexy stylish around town shoes and boots but sadly their size 11 feels more like a size 10. I took the insoles out to make more space and they are an ok alternative to hard lug-soled winter shoes.
And of course this year all kinds of other minimalist, zero-drop shoe choices have cropped up.
If you’re going to cover your soles
Here’s my summary: do not be lured by marketing. Barefoot technology is an oxymoron. Your feet are super hi-tech all by themselves. If you are working on reducing your footwear because you like the idea of having a stronger more flexible foundation, choose a shoe with minimal or no heel drop and as little cushioning as you can get away with. Start slow. You may need to continuing wearing your orthotics for a few weeks or months. (Scared of ditching them altogether? Check out this NYT article.)
Then work on your technique and build a solid mid or forefoot strike. You might have to start with a shoe that provides some arch and torsional support until your feet and calves gain some strength and flexibility.
Each time you step your footwear down, go slow. There is no advantage to fancy minimalist footwear or barefoot running if it causes injury!