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Barefoot-Curious: Is Your Footwear Making Your Feet Weak?

I am not, by any means, a minimalist footwear runner. If anything, quite the opposite. I often wear orthotics, the insoles that you can add to your shoes, and next week I plan to run the Philadelphia Marathon wearing the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%, with a sole so thick that I have to be careful with cornering, lest I tip over like a top heavy vehicle trying to take a turn too fast. But I am barefoot-curious. After all, there are a bunch of muscles in the foot, so we should probably use them. Why do so many treatments for foot conditions involve putting something external to the foot to shape or support it? You probably know someone who advocates, usually with zeal, for minimalist or barefoot running. My brother has transitioned to running almost exclusively in the minimalist Xero shoes. I’m not ready or trying to run minimalist, but I figured I would make some small entrée into the minimalist footwear world. Barefoot is fine around the house, but I really don’t want to step on something sharp outside, so minimalist sandals were a logical next step. Even this small step is a big departure for my feet.

Relaxing at Remedy Park

I used to wear sneakers to the beach. I wouldn’t go anywhere without my orthotics. My one concession to the sun and sand was to skip out on socks. How did I get there? How did I get out?

It seems that nearly everyone on one side of my family has had plantar fasciitis at some point. Many of these relatives have been runners at one time or another. But the irksome condition characterized by pain on the bottom of the heel has affected non-runners among us as well. If you’ve developed this common condition, you’re unlikely to have sought relief without at some point receiving a recommendation for orthotics, usually providing additional arch support and/or rigidity to the shoe. The intervention most supported by research is a plantar-fascia specific stretching program (non-weightbearing, as opposed to a standing calf stretch). But I would challenge you to find a doctor that treats plantar fasciitis that has not prescribed orthotics at some point.

Photo: Jan Romero via Unsplash

I certainly went down this path. At first I wore off-the-shelf orthotics. As the condition persisted, I went through a number of treatments including cessation of running and soccer, rolling a ball under my foot, steroid injection (which made it worse) and even cast immobilization, without relief. I ultimately opted for expensive, custom-molded in-shoe orthotics, but still the pain persisted. I had had heel pain for two years and had given up both running and soccer in an attempt to kick it. Ultimately, my return to soccer was occasioned not by the disappearance of pain, but by the fact that I missed soccer so much that I decided I would just play with pain. Before the first season was through, the pain just went away. Subsequently, I became dependent (or so I thought) on those custom orthotics – rigid, high-arched things. I couldn’t even stand to go barefoot around the house, and instead had a dedicated pair of Birkenstock’s to slip on after work. I wore the custom orthotics for more than ten years before deciding that they were rolling my foot out too much (supinating) and giving me pain on the outside of my foot (fifth metatarsal). Now I have a couple great pairs of orthotics from SE, and I can go barefoot or sandal-clad at home or at the beach.

I got even more interested in training my feet after reading Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. In it, he describes his experience with the Tarahumara, a people indigenous to Mexico, known for running incredible distances, seemingly effortlessly, all while wearing sandals. Reading the book will make you want to become an ultra runner. One thing at a time though. First I decided to up my weekly mileage north of 12 miles per week. McDougall also delves deep into the evolution of running footwear, noting, among other observations:

  • increased cushion is associated with increased injury,

  • worn shoes are associated with less injury than new shoes and

  • the notion of capping mileage for a pair of running shoes is an industry-driven invention designed to sell shoes.

Photo: Edgar Chaparro via Unsplash

I decided to try a pair of Earth Runners sandals. The design is inspired by the Tarahumara sandal, and 1% of all sales are donated to a charity that supports the running culture of the Rarámuri tribes. I selected the ‘Circadian Adventure Sandals,’ for their ‘performance’ laces and middle of the road (9 mm) sole thickness. The website has a sizing chart that you can print to check on your foot. Even setting my printer’s scale, I couldn’t get the scaling right, so I just went with my usual shoe size, and that worked out fine. At $88, these are on the high end for sandals, so I was looking for a premium product. I was not disappointed.

Out of the box, there are some strap adjustments required for a custom fit. The included instructions were simple enough, but it definitely required some trial and error to get the snugness at the right level, in the right places. I started off making everything way too tight. Lace security! I was thinking too much adventure, not enough sandal. Eventually I figured out where and how I wanted the tension. After a couple hours of initial wear, however, the webspace between my big toe and its adjacent partner was hurting! Had I made a mistake? I thought back to the first time I wore my Rainbow sandals though, throwing them into the suitcase for planned all-day wear on a beach vacation, and how they actually blistered me in the same spot, reminding me of their newness for weeks before becoming as comfortable as you like. Fortunately, the soreness with the Earth Runners, too, passed. After a couple days I was wearing them comfortably (no blisters!).

I made the Circadian Adventure sandals my default casual footwear for the latter part of the summer. The Earth Runners minimalist sandals promise “ample ground feel,” and I can corroborate that. I definitely felt like I was as aware of foot-to-ground contact as I could be without being barefoot and without feeling unprotected. I even tried chasing my kids around the yard in them, just to see if I could actually run in sandals. I’m not as fast as when I’m shod, but I was able to do it. I’m still, however, not used to it enough to shake the awareness that I’m running in sandals. I also can’t yet get over the concomitant desire to pick my toes up more than usual to ensure ground clearance. The sandals also boast ‘ground conductive laces’ to promote grounding with the Earth. I can’t comment on the effectiveness of this technology (or say that I’m well versed in grounding), but I’m all for promoting and enhancing our connection to the earth.

Dialing down your footwear is a convenient way to give your foot muscles a bit of a work out, without having to spend a bunch of time doing foot yoga or boring sets of toe curls. As with anything new, though, start small and incorporate gradually. I’m not expecting to marathon in sandals anytime in the foreseeable future!



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