Minimalist Footwear

I’ve been intrigued by minimalist footwear ever since I got my first pair of Oliberte shoes several years ago and found the soles to be thinner than anything else I’d worn. Being leather, they had a breaking-in period where they “learned” the contours of my feet and now fit like a glove. Even the natural rubber soles have shaped themselves to the bottoms of my feet.

At first I was skeptical about their comfort, having pronated feet and long since being a wearer of insoles to protect my (already damaged) knee. But they were an unreturnable clearance item, so I was determined to make it work.

I was sold on them after spending a month in rural Oregon while I was helping to take care of my grandmother who’d broken an ankle. She and I were staying at my uncle’s small ranch, which butted up against the BLM – public land. I’d go for long walks out in the bush when I needed a break from running errands and cooking meals, and much to my surprise, I found that the Olibertes were, by far, the most comfortable off-pavement shoe I’d ever worn. They didn’t pound the dirt like hiking boots or thick-soled running shoes; they allowed me to feel variations in the path, and my feet were given an opportunity to make decisions about which muscles to use, which bones to put weight on, which toes to flex…

It was a domino effect. Suddenly, my ankles were making decisions, and my knees, my hips, my back were making decisions too. My whole body was engaged in a way that normal shoes, apparently, weren’t allowing. A dialogue was happening between my muscles and bones that they’d been previously shut out of.

When I came back 2 hours later and found that I had no pain or feeling of compression anywhere, I was brimming with questions. Everything my doctors and physical therapists had told me was now up for debate. What else about the common wisdom of footwear might be wrong? How did we arrive at these best practices when evidence towards the contrary was right here, in these glorified leather socks walking around on real earth?

I think the answer lies in the sort of thinking that got us a lot of other supposedly necessary garbage: that more, and more complex is better. Humans have been doing just fine walking barefoot, or with little more than flimsy sandals, for millennia. So who the hell decided that Asics were a good idea?

I’ll be honest: part of my motivation here is frugality. I shouldn’t have to buy $50 insoles to go into a pair of $140 shoes every year just to keep my knees from giving out or my back from caving in. Another part of my motivation is also a striving for self-sufficiency: there’s not much in the way of repairing or repurposing an average worn-out shoe, so when it goes, you’re stuck with buying another. And lastly, of course, there’s the environmental concern: a lot of energy and labor goes into making a single damn shoe. And all of these together imply a voluntary simplicity: if I’m trying to do away with my dependence on these, then clearly the alternative will look much more like this.

The end goal? To be able to make my own shoes and be able to wear them without injuring myself.

Walkers in regular shoes, I’ve come to find out, tend to plod. It’s a lazy, inefficient way of walking that outsources what the feet were designed to do and makes the rest of our bodies do it, which is why so many of us have bad backs, knees, and ankles. Typical walkers put all their weight on their heels, which is made all the more damaging by the fact that most of us do almost all of our walking on hard surfaces. This weakens leg muscles, encourages bad posture, and relegates our toes to little more than a footnote – pun intended.

I’m not especially interested in taking up minimalist running, but I will probably benefit from reading the books that spurned that fad. However, here’s a few internet resources I’ve found on the subject, and the video that really kindled my interest.

There’s more to ‘barefoot’ running than thin soles: technique is vital, too – The Guardian

The Art and Sole of Barefoot Hiking – Redefine Progress

How to Walk Barefoot – Xero Shoes: This link is cool because it talks about the biomechanics of healthy walking. This is a long article, but here’s a neat excerpt:

If I asked you to start walking, most people would basically swing their free leg out in front of them and, at the right moment, push off the toes of the back leg to pivot over the front foot, which has landed on the heel way out in front of you.

You basically walk “behind your feet.” One interesting thing about walking behind your feet is that you’re never really off balance. We’ll come back to that idea in a moment.

Now, imagine being on one foot again. If I asked you to contract whatever muscle or muscles you can think of that would move you forward, which one(s) would you tighten. Remember I said “move you forward.” Falling forward doesn’t count, so the answer is not “ankle” (leaning) or “abs” (as in, bending forward until you fall).

The answer is the muscles that are referred to as the “prime movers” in our body: The glutes and hamstrings.

Tighten the glutes and hamstrings and you’ll actually MOVE forward.

And stronger glutes and hamstrings protect the lower back.

But after you tighten your glutes and hamstring you will eventually get off balance and fall on your face… unless… you put your other foot down to stop you.

And here’s where it gets cool.

If you simply place your foot down where it’ll stop you from falling (rather than swinging it out in front of you like you usually do), it’ll land closer to your center of mass, more flat-footed, with a slightly bent hip and knee, and with the now front leg in a biomechanically stronger position. You will have planted your foot.

If you repeat this — using your glutes and hips to move you forward, and placing your foot instead of swinging your leg forward — you’ll be supporting your lower back… and your knees, and your hips, and even your ankles.

Your foot-strike will take care of itself.

What bothers me the most, perhaps, is that we’ve created a world that actively hates the natural state of our bodies. We peddle weight-loss cures because our food system is awash in empty calories and simple carbohydrates. We coat our nails in carcinogenic enamel because our nail beds aren’t blue (or whatever is ‘in’ this season). We cover everything in pavement, which ruins our natural gait, so now we pay $86 billion dollars every year in America on spine treatments. Pretty cool.

So this is me, learning to literally walk away from all that dubious medicalizing, marketing, and flashy neon on this year’s line of running shoes. I hope my feet will thank me.

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