Walking in Minimalist Footwear / by Kevin Swantek


Back when I was 25, I was doing a lot of bodyweight exercise, but I wasn't really a runner, and somewhere in my brain I thought I needed to be a runner to be healthy. When I first started, I ended up with some relatively uncomfortable knee pain after every time I ran. My first thought was, how am I going to run for the rest of my life if this is what's going to be like. I then went to the internet to look for a solution. I first came upon the benefits of barefoot running, and then found Vibram Five Fingers. For anyone who doesn't know what VFF's are, they are the funny looking toe shoes that you always do a double-take at, when you see someone running in them. Needless to say, I bought a pair (because I suffer little from vanity or pride, and I didn't kid myself into thinking these weren't going to be chick repellents).

The instructions that come with Vibrams, pretty much tell you to take it slow, and work your into wearing them a little at a time, so to give feet the opportunity to adapt, and to allow those unused muscles in your feet the opportunity to strengthen. I walked in them for about an hour a day for two weeks, before I went on my first run. My first run was 1.5 miles on a flat indoor track. I had originally intended to run 2 - 3 miles, but I hadn't counted on all of the muscles in my legs getting so fatigued that I just wouldn't be able to run any further. It was a solid 5 days (and in reality, probably more) before I could walk up a set of steps with out my calves feeling like tight balls of fire. My calve muscles probably could have turned coal into diamonds, had I the ingenuity. But I kept walking and running in my Vibrams, slowly building up the strength in my feet and legs. From the get-go, I didn't have any of the knee pain that I had from my running shoes.

Flashforward 12 years, and not only do I own my original VFFs (in good working order), but I also have 4 other pairs, plus a couple pair of other minimalist shoes. Just to quickly list them, I own: Merrell True Gloves, Merrell Embarks, Merrell Run Bare Access 2, and the Topo RT (tabi style shoes). All of these shoes, minus the Merrell Embarks, are porous and incredibly susceptible to wet weather. Getting wet feet doesn't particularly bother me, but the time it takes for any one of those pairs of shoes to dry is semi-annoying. In fact, the reason I bought the Merrell Embarks was because they were the first minimalist shoe at an affordable price that offered protection from the rain. I found a 50% off sale that allowed me to make that purchase. In hindsight, they were one of the least satisfying purchases I've made. I expected them to feel like the Merrell True Glove, because they seemed to have the same chasis, and a similar construction, but they were hard and stiff in every way. I didn't get any of the ground feel that I get from my True Gloves or VFFs, and they were just uncomfortable. I went for an average walk that would normally cause me zero issues in my VFFs or True Gloves, and by the end of the walk my feet weren't happy. Also, their traction just isn't good. During a Seattle winter, when the wet sidewalks can be icey, the traction on these shoes are a liability.

*As a quick note, VFF does have a taped & sealed water resistant shoe now. Alsok there are a couple of other brands of minimalist shoes that offer solutions for wet weather. (Vivobarefoot, and Belleville).

All of that is to say that up until this year, I've been walking in minimalist footwear seasonally, taking autumn and winter off, then slowly working my way back to barefoot shoes in the spring and summer. My goal has always been to wear minimalist shoes year-round, and not have an off-season, but I've come to find that most of my money is tied up in food and rent, so I can't just by shoes willy-nilly when I want them.

I have been lucky with the Seattle weather this year. It has been unusually dry throughout the fall, and into the beginning of winter. I've been able to wear my normal minimalist shoes without having any problems with wet feet. I suspect I'll be able to make it through to next fall before I have to consider making any new shoe purchases. Which is good.

I suppose this might be a good point to also say that I don't run anymore. I haven't run in two years, since participating in the Hood to Coast run and a Warrior Dash with months of one another. I ran both in my VFFs, and they were both an awesome experience. There were no tragic injuries, or nagging pains, I apparently just ran myself out. 

After the both runs were over, I told myself that I don't care if I don't run again for two weeks. Two weeks became a month, and then a month became a year, and now we're here. I came to the realization that I personally don't get the same value from running that I do from walking. I use H.I.I.T. and Tabata training with the my weekly workouts (and the occasional sprint training), but otherwise I don't want to run.

I've known several close acquaintances who dove into barefoot running because they heard it was healthier, but didn't take the time to work into it, and hurt themselves. They ended up cursing barefoot running, and dismissing the health claims that come from it. For anyone who wants to walk or run in minimalist shoes, I can only suggest that you make the transition slowly and carefully. Listen to your body, and don't over do it, because you will only hurt yourself. The goal is build a healthy body, free of injury. If you are a strong walker, or an experienced runner, don't delude yourself into believing you can just jump into it, and be fine. Take it slow.

I know that most people don't groove on the toe shoes. For many they are probably a deal-breaker. I'm happy to say that there a lot of great companies making awesomely stylish minimalist shoes now (Lems Shoes, Vivo Barefoot, and The Professional Primal). So don't let the toe shoes frighten you away from the concept of barefoot walking/running. 

For me, walking in minimalist footwear makes my feet feel good, and gives me the sensation of feeling grounded to the earth, yet still protected from the elements... and broken glass.

Just remember, if you're thinking about going minimalist, take it very slow and gradually build up your strength. It may take longer than two weeks to adjust. Move at your own pace,  and listen to your body. 


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