Shoes

Before we get to reviews of specific shoes, let’s talk about shoes. First, there are no barefoot shoes. There are bare feet, and there are shoes. Bare is bare. 

There is something called a minimalist shoe. Most shoes I’ve seen labeled as a barefoot shoe are more properly described as a minimalist shoe. Even “barefoot style” is something I’d reserve for very few shoes.

Go to SoftStar shoes to find out how they distinguish between barefoot and minimalist shoes. Their blog post is here.

The Natural Running Center distinguishes between barefoot style, minimalist, and neutral or transition shoes. (Like many sites, the Natural Running Center has to have something to sell, so they push shoes at the same time that they explain why we don’t need shoes.) Most of the shoes listed in “barefoot style” are ones that I’d put in the minimalist category. The moment the shoe changes how I stand or walk, then it’s not barefoot style. 

In bare feet and in very minimal shoes, I walk more slowly. I’m testing each step just a bit. Even those most minimal of shoes invite me to walk faster, with less consciousness and more pounding. But anything more than that very minimal sole and soft covering, and the very way my foot moves on the ground has changed. 

In barefoot style, there's the Xero sandals and the Unshoes sandals. For shoes, there’s SoftStar Run Dash Mocs as well as the new Hi-Rez New Balance shoes. The sole on these shoes is so thin that I noticed only a slight shift in my running, most of it psychological (when I know I’m wearing shoes, I’m not treading quite as carefully as I do when barefoot).  With super thin soles and light-weight strapping, there is only a slight change in how I walk. I still have to tread lightly so I’m not pounding my feet into the ground. I will feel every pebble. If I step too hard on a rock, I’ll bruise. The goatheads peak through. I get a bit of protection from the environment but not much. I don’t notice everything, for instance, the heat of the ground. It’s not the same as barefoot, but there’s also very little shoe with very little protection and no support or pressure. That’s barefoot style. 

Pick up a pair of minimalist shoes. Can you roll it into a ball? Can you push your fingers through? Is the heel as soft as every other part of the shoe, or is it a bit reinforced and a bit tougher? That’s the difference between barefoot style and minimalist. The barefoot style doesn’t seem like a shoe. People marvel at it. It’s fun to squish it up. 

On the other hand, minimalist shoes pretty much look like shoes. They have hard spaces. For instance, the Vibram Five Fingers has a stiff sole and some arch support.  Teva Zilch sandals are fairly flexible, but I can see where a small amount of arch support was added in. Minimalist sandals and shoes provide extra protection from the elements so were less likely to feel every pebble underfoot. 

Minimal often means a shoe or sandal has a low heel or zero drop (no difference in height between the ball and the heel). Minimalist shoes might have wider toe boxes so our feet can spread as we move. The sole may be thinner so that there is more ground feel, which is just what it sounds like: the wearer feels what’s underneath, such as pebbles and shifts in the sand. But there isnt as much groundfeel (and sometimes none at all) as in barefoot style shoes. 

When I was at the New Balance store buying the Hi-Rez, I also tried on a pair one step up in stiffness, the 10s. I had the strangest sensation: I wanted arch support. I felt as if my arch were floating and needed something under them. This doesn’t happen when I’m bare or walking in my totally flat and flexible Unshoes sandals. My foot doesn’t want arch support normally. Something about the shoe didn’t let me walk normally as I would barefoot, and it somehow interfered with my normal arch.  Add just that tiny bit of stiffness, and the need for support is created. My foot no longer can work the way it’s designed. 

The sense I have is that we need arch support because we wear shoes, not we need to wear shoes because we need arch support. 

Spend your life without shoes and you won’t need arch support. The reason we need arch support is not because after 20 or more years of walking this earth, we just can’t do it anymore without help and, goodness, by the time we’re 40 or 50 or 60, we can’t spend any time barefoot because we need arch support. We don’t need arch support because we’re old or because our hormones have changed.

We need arch support because our feet are weakened. As women age and their muscle mass decreases, experts tell us to get out there and do some weight training. What we need, more and more especially as we age, is weight training for our feet. 

Our shoes disable our feet in such a way that our feet can’t function as they should. This is true even in great, minimalist shoes. If they’re not barefoot feel, if there is any support or cushioning, if there’s any structure, the shoe changes how our feet move. Our feet are inhibited from free movement. 

I know that sounds terribly anti-shoe. I’m not anti-shoe. Imagine your life if you wore gloves on your hands to do everything. How you type would change. How you tied your shoes or buttoned your clothes would change. It’s not anti-glove to note that they change how we experience the world. 

Since I’ve been spending time walking and running barefoot, I’m  more sensitive now to how my feet contact the ground. I’ve spent 13 years teaching a barefoot dance class. Walking outdoors barefoot and running miles barefoot has increased my sensitivity and changed my feet radically. Being a barefoot dance teacher was a good foundation but insufficient for me to change how I experience my contact with the ground as I walk or run. 

I’m telling you what my experience told me: those Vibram Five Fingers are absolutely not like walking barefoot. The Merrell “barefoot” shoes are narrow and do not feel at all like being barefoot. Not even close. They may feel different than the Standard Running Shoe (SRS). They may be healthier than the SRS. But they’re not barefoot and they may not help us strengthen our feet gradually because they do not provide the sensory input that going barefoot provides. 

Shoe manufacturers explain how to transition down to barefoot running, by which they mean running with neutral or minimalist shoes because they don’t really want you taking off your shoes full-time. They want you buying their shoes. But transitioning down doesn’t work. 

I tried minimalist shoes when I first began running in Spring 2012, and I was in miserable pain. Shin splints. Pain in the ball of my foot. Ankle pain. I thought, well, barefoot running isn’t for me. I did it totally wrong and then thought, gosh, I guess it’s just not for me. I read books that told me, quite clearly and explicitly, that I needed to go barefoot and I thought, well, maybe others do but not me. And then when wearing these transition shoes didn’t work, instead of figuring I was doing it wrong, I figured that I just was not capable of running in minimalist shoes. 

If you want to run barefoot, start instead from the ground up really. Devote ten minutes a day to walking outside barefoot. Keep adding some time and distance until you feel your foot change. Keep walking until you’re walking differently. 

Change you and then you’ll be ready to choose your shoe. 

I know; it’s easier to buy minimalist shoes than to go barefoot. Yes, they are better than wedges and high heels; what wouldn’t be better than high heels? The minimalist shoes are a tremendous improvement over the heavily structured, stiff, and narrow shoes that most of us have been taught to value and to wear. Just know what you’re getting and what you’re not, and consider investing in the real deal.

As of this revision on June 20, 2015, I have been running in minimalist shoes, no longer running barefoot or in barefoot feel shoes. For me and my running form, minimalist (flexbile with a low heel drop) works best right now. If youre wanting to try minimalist or barefoot style shoes, begin wearing shoes that are a little different than what you wear now instead of a lot different. Our bodies appreciate having time to adapt. 

Unlike the clothing reviews, I will post reviews that may be positive, less than positive, or mixed to the shoes section. I am not affliated with any shoe company.

A few more words about shoes. I recommend buying from REI. If you buy something and discover a few weeks (or months, up to one year) later that it doesn’t fit or feel right, you may return it, even if you’ve worn it. This is perfect for shoes since we often don't know until we've worn them a few times if they'll work out for us. Find REI online (both retail and outlet).  They ship your order directly to the store (there is one in both ABQ and Santa Fe, NM) so there are no shipping charges.  REI is a cooperative, and members receive a dividend from their year's purchases.  

A great online source is www.zappos.com, which has a huge selection and free shipping to and from your home (returns are easy and you have a full year to make a return). They carry different widths, from AA to EE, and many minimalist styles. I also like Planet Shoes.

For more information and reviews on minimalist shoes and barefoot running, my favorite website name and an awesome site is www.birthdayshoes.com

Here are two more words about shoes. Vary them. Don’t wear the same pair each day. Give your feet lots of variety to work with.

Second, I love shoes. They are fun. I like to look at them. It would be nice to live in a warm climate and go barefoot everywhere. Since that isn’t the case, I will enjoy searching for pairs that feel good and offer the warmth and protection I need.