mundane adventures in running
Barefoot shoes. The great oxymoron of modern running. When i first discovered barefoot running, i thought the idea of paying for shoes to mimic not wearing shoes was a scam. 4 years later, with myriad bits of glass and thorn pulled out of my feet later, I’ve softened in my opinion. I love running without shoes, but very few of my runs are truly barefoot these days (probably about one in five, but more in summer). Minimal shoes do work: sometimes (most of the time) you need a bit of comfort, the affordance to get lazy about your form on a long run, to not look like a freak, some protection from gnarly trails or dog poo ridden streets.
So barefoot shoes, I’ve had a few. For what it’s worth, here’s my tuppence-happeny on the ones I’ve tried.
I can remember when I first became interested in barefoot. A colleague had started talking a lot about it, and I found it intriguing. I’d stopped running for a while and was finding it really hard to start again, especially without overdoing it and hurting myself. Barefoot sounded possibly like the solution and at the very least, a silly, funny, weird thing to obsess about. It was something to focus on to trick myself into running again.
So, one day on a quick run from my office in Covent Garden, I took my shoes off on the embankment, and wearing them on my hands did a quick 4k run along the river. At the end of it, my hitherto soft, pampered and protected feet were covered in giant liquid filled blisters. My calves not accustomed to being so used, pinged, burned and ached. Still, I felt energised and excited. Immediately I knew I was on to something and had founded a way to get back into running.
Now, about five years on, I’ve built up some resistance. My feet and calves are tougher. I don’t tend to run so often barefoot, but not wearing any shoes is still my go to for short, gentle runs. I’ll run home from meetings in town shoeless just to avoid having to take multiple pairs of shoes with me all day.
Pros: cheap, durable, feel connected with the earth
Cons: poor traction, poor protection, spending hours in the bath with a pair of tweezers, looking like a freak.
Verdict: give it a go, certainly for recovery runs. You have nothing to lose except the skin off the bottom of your foot.
After a summer of running exclusively barefoot, I was hooked. As winter approached and the evening started to draw in, I started to worry that I wouldn’t be able to see the needle sharps, used condoms and dog poo on the street and that I needed some protection. On the advice of a guy in Ellis Brigham, I bought a pair of Merrell trail gloves.
They’ve lasted me about four years, which says more about how infrequently I use them than how durable they are.
They do what they’re meant to, just about: provide a thin, unstructured protection against the environment. But, they’re not cushioned at all, so they’re not much better than barefoot for long runs, the traction’s not all that. Not cushioned, but weirdly still very solid, so you don’t get much sensation from your feet.
Pros: you won’t get glass in your foot
Cons: a lot of the downsides of running barefoot, but without any of the romance, weird eccentricity or fun
Verdict: I think if I ra long term in these I’d injure myself.
Some moccasins I made
I finally got round to reading Born to Run, the bible of barefoot. The author talks a lot about the Tarahumara in Mexico, a tribe for whom running is an intrinsic part of daily life, celebration and culture. They run in huaraches, and these simple sandals are the go to footwear for lots of natural running enthusiasts.
I figured that the huaraches might make sense if you lived in the parched wilds of rural Mexico, with canyons and cactuses but that they were less appropriate for more temperate climes. I started to look at old European and North American shoes on the Internet, and settled on making some simple plains moccasins (which are very similar to the early shoes worn throughout the world). My wife gave me some deer hide for christmas, and i set to work making my first pair of shoes.
They’re not super well made, but I think are ok for a first attempt. I can just about get away with wearing them with jeans. My friend anna says they look like Leatherface shoes. I can see what she means, but I rise above.
For running, they work. They really are like going barefoot, but slightly warmer and slightly more protected. They do beat Merrell Trail gloves for barefoot sensation. In the rain, they’re horrible: slippery, sodden death traps of shoes. They also feel delicate, like they’ll tear any moment,
Pros: feel amazing in dry conditions. truly as close to barefoot without being barefoot. They look cool with a pair of cultural misappropriation navajo print socks
Cons: you have to take the trouble to make them.
Verdict: make some shoes. it’s funny.
Upping my mileage in 2013, i wanted something more reliable than barefoot, more comfortable than the Merrill shoes, and less likely to break than moccasins.
These inov-8 shoes were recommended to be by the same guy who recommended the Merrill shoes (weird that I went back to him). They are amazing shoes. They have a 3mm drop, and enough cushioning to keep you really comfortable on long runs. They stick to tarmac, so you corner, accelerate and decelerate in a zippy, responsive way. They’re also super light.
I was getting on really well with these shoes until they had an accidental encounter with a 60 c wash cycle. They shrunk and became unwearable, and i went on to new brands. I have since returned to inov-8. They are now my go to running shoes, and I am about to buy my third pair.
Pros: light, responsive, the new ones look cool. Really cheap online (£50)
Cons: don’t wash well, fall apart from overuse (I reckon my current pair have done about 1500km and have just become open toed sandals). They are not trail shoes, and can be frankly dangerous on muddy off road descents.
Verdict: I will be very sad when these shoes are discontinued. They are amazing.
Replacing my shrunken inov8 shoes, I looked into Vivo. I’d had a pair of vivo casual shoes for a while and liked them, so was quite excited to try a pair of Vivo Barefoot One.
They’re ok. super minimal, really thin, more so than the Merrel shoes (like you can actually feel what’s going on underfoot). There’s loads of space for toes to wiggle around, which makes more sense to me for promoting natural movement that the vibram five finger approach.
Now I just associate these shoes with over training. I massively increased the amount I was running that summer and ended up with painful, debilitating, achilles tendonitis. I blame myself for this, but zero drop shoes were a contributing factor. I think if i’d been wearing something a bit more substantial I would have staved off injury a bit longer, or just suffered a different injury.
Pros: the best super-minimal shoes I’ve bought: light, good traction, good sensation
Cons: they are quite expensive, and not especially well made
Verdict: a good alternative to vibrams and worth a look if you really want zero cushioning. Their kids shoes and casual shoes are worth looking at too, and frequently really cheap on the Internet.
I bought these as injury recovery shoes. I went to see a physiotherapist/ osteopath guy about my achilles tendonitis and, after lots of resting, stretching and strength training, he eventually gave me the all clear to start running again.
Run and Become recommended these shoes as a well cushioned shoes with a very forgiving raised heel. I appreciate their help, and think they were right at the time.
I needed to run so slowly. So slowly. My feet and heels were in agony. I had knock on pain in my lower back from compensating. Running had been prescribed as part of the recovery, but i needed to take it easy.
Let me stress, beyond not having support to compensate for overpronation etc., they are not minimalist or barefoot shoes. They are shoes to recover from the excesses of minimal and barefoot. And they work for that. They really helped me to get running again.
The irony is that the more these shoes helped me to recover from my injury, the more I hated them. They are restrictive, too tight on my arches, they don’t rock side to side, they force your feet to land flat in a weird way. They went from being nurturing and helpful, to overbearing and overprotective. I felt like a stroppy teenager rebelling against my parents. Punch the father.
Pros: great if you don’t want barefoot shoes. very cushioned.
Cons: I’m better now, I want barefoot shoes
Verdict: I haven’t thrown these out yet but they don’t get much use these days. I’m scared if i use them for anything vaguely serious I’ll hurt myself.
Xero shoes huaraches
I’ve written about these before. For a tenner, or whatever these cost, they’re worth a go. These are Xero’s response to Born to Run, their cash in on Tarahumara culture.
I read a discussion recently on some blog about whether, given that there are loads of barefoot shoes to choose from, huaraches still have a role. people generally agreed that no, they’re pointless now. I disagree: there’s something wonderful about the simplicity of these shoes. I love the fact that you make them yourself and they’re not made by children in factories. I love that they can be folded up and stuck in a running belt. I love that they act as a connection between me and ancient tribes: running in huaraches is like running with my forefathers. So, even though there are better options for any situation while your running, there’s still something really compelling about them.
Pros: cheap, sweatshop free, cool (I where them instead of flipflops in the summer), quite nice to run in
Cons: I’ve had moments with these. There was a time when I stepped in dog poo and the knot sheered off the bottom at the same dang time, which was smelly and horrible. Another time, running through Walworth, some guys drove up next to me, slowed down and took videos and laughed at me as I ran. Weak.
Verdict: if you haven’t tried them yet, give them a go