2010-06-11

Minimalist footwear (5-fingers, huaraches, and boots)

There has been a lot of movement in popular culture towards more minimal footwear. This has made Jess and I very happy as it's given a lot more options for us. Admittedly it's slightly annoying since it's also created a lot of things that appear minimal, but really aren't.

Here's my story:

I in highschool I ran cross-country and track, and, like so many, I a lot of shin-splint problems. I really got into backpacking around the same time, and discovered that the outside of my right foot always hurt when I walked a long distance. As it turns out my arch goes all of the way across my right foot. A little odd, but everyone has something. In college my knees started causing me enough trouble that I could barely run at all. My girlfriend at the time noticed that I walked and ran duck-footed (feet pointed outwards). I had no apparent bio-mechanical issue (I hoped), so I did some research and retrained myself to walk with my feet pointed forwards. This also involved changing my normal spine alignment and basically my entire posture. I also training myself to run toe/forefoot strike style. The toe-strike running solved my shin-splint problems, which (as I discovered after a 50-mile day and subsequent hospital visit) turned out not to be bone fractures at all, but were actually a complaining overstressed tendon.

While learning to toe-strike, I read that you should practice bearfoot running to improve your running form so it's less damaging to your joints (it hurts if you do it wrong barefoot). I started running barefoot and it felt good. I figured maybe I didn't need shoes and got up to running 2 miles or so barefoot. Then one time I hit bad rocks on a sidewalk and got blood blisters deep in my heal. At that point I realized my feet couldn't easily get tough enough for barefoot running anywhere, and I did in fact need shoes. I also realized around this time that cherts (the stone) exist in many places, and can be razor-sharp. No matter what, shoes will take that better than my foot.

I needed footware.


Okay, but what KIND of footware? By this time I had found that the higher the heal on my shoe when running toe-strike, the less well I could run. In my experimentation I had also discovered that if I ran in a non-supportive shoe and then hiked in the same shoe, my feet hurt far less than if I ran in a supportive shoe and then hiked in that same shoe. Basically, my feet were better at taking the force than the shoes were - if I gave my feet practice.

So, ever since then I've been on the hunt for thin-soled non-supportive shoes without extra "features" that add weight, and make a natural stride less comfortable. In the process I have discovered numerous other advantages. For example the lower the heal on the shoe, the harder it is to roll your ankle, and the less material in the shoe, the faster it dries.

The Shoes


Trail Racers

The first type of shoe I discovered was the trail racing shoe. Trail racing shoes, as it turns out, come in quite a wide variety. As the "minimal" thing got popular a lot of not-at-all-minimal shoes started getting marketed as minimal lightweight trail-racers. I didn't like those, I liked the ones with almost nothing - like this:

I've had a few pairs that were even more minimal, but those shoes always got more "shoe" added in the next model year, these are the best I've found that have lasted any time. I also tried road-races, but I found that they wear out a bit too fast.

Leather Boots

Jess wears mostly high-ankle leather boots, similar to older forest combat-boots (I haven't found any that fit me well yet), kind of like this:


The key is that both of these solutions have a wide sole so they are stable, little to no padding to absorb water, a flexible ankle to aid in natural stride, and NOTHING ELSE. The leather boots are heavier, but last longer and shed water better.
Either of these solutions can be used in cold weather with the addition of waterproof socks
, and warm socks.

5-fingers

Jess, myself, and several of our friends have been wearing 5-fingers regularly for a while:


Overall we find they're like being barefoot. The downsides: they stink after a while (you can wash them, and wearing toe-socks helps), and the cloth on top wears out too fast. A friend at work found that the KSOs are worse than other models and theorizes that its due to added tension of the upper. In any case, they seem to wear out, and they are not cheap. The upsides: Jess and I have both actually backpacked in these (though on shorter-distance trips) and found it to work extremely well even on rock. The only issue is that the ball of your foot has to be a little tough. They are absolutely attached to your foot, and get incredible traction. As a result 5-fingers are awesome for running, parkour, rock scrambling and hiking. I'm a pretty big fan overall, but expect to spend some moeny.

Huaraches




Recently I was talking to someone who pointed me at this website: http://www.invisibleshoe.com/. This site describes how to make Huaraches. Well, we had some decent chap leather in the house, and some twine. So Jess and I immediatly made pairs of our own... and we love them!

I'm wearing them now. I've been wearing them to work a lot lately, and find them great for work and city use. Jess and I have also now both worn them for some miles while backpacking. Jess loved them even for backpacking. I found them to work *okay* but they picked up a lot of rocks. Our feet got sore of course, as they're still toughening up, but they protect you from bad thorns and sharp rocks. Basically, imagine a super-light teva sandal you can make at home for no money, with an ultra-flexible soul that pretty much stays perfectly on your foot through a normal step. The other downside (besides the rocks) is that when you do slide on the sole, the ropes can be a bit uncomfortable; though, this only happens when on very steep hills and in certain types of mud. We had no problems bushwhacking down river-beds (and didn't need to care about our feet getting wet).

Conclusion

So, that's what we've found to work. Your mileage may vary, and keep in mind that some people really do have bio-mechanical problems and need supportive shoes or orthotics. That said, you'd be amazed what your body can do when left to it's own devices for a while, and made to toughen up a bit. There's nothing like walking and running the way your body was meant to do it. It quickly becomes clear that foot-based locomotion is what human's are good at, one of the best in the animal kingdom in fact. It just feels good. If you can, give it a try sometime!

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