Let’s talk about minimalist shoes: What are they great for?
Cai enjoying a Peak District sunset in his Xero Terraflex
Have you ever been pummeled by nature? Surfers know what I mean. Whitewater kayakers know what I mean? Heck, just about every outdoor adventurer knows what I mean. One of the things I love about our tribe is we learn it is wise to work WITH rather than AGAINST nature. We have learned to take the side of the earth regardless if it is under-represented or we are ridiculed. Our experience, understanding and sheer essence tells us it is the right thing to do. If this describes you, then read on.
British Music Festival living. Who needs “wellies”? Anyone for Z Treks? Deershed Festival, Yorkshire, England.
The foot was made to move. That isn’t some trite or flippant statement so let me say that again. The foot was made to move. Did you know that the foot contains a 1/4 of all our bones and joints? Or, the the sole has more nerve endings than anywhere other than our fingertips or lips? When we put our feet in most shoes we pretty much incarcerate them. If my feet had seen the same prison movies I have, they would be glad their years of imprisonment had left them ugly. (Climbing shoes are the worse!) They certainly wouldn’t bend over in the shower. Either that or, they would beg me to put a key in a cake, bust them out and put them in minimalist shoes.
Swollen Airplane feet? Who cares we are wearing Xero Shoes. Love the big toe box.
Looking at the history of feet. Most were not enclosed in more than a moccasin until the Industrial Revolution. The earliest known footwear were sagebrush sandals. Some found in Oregon date from approximately 10,000 years ago. The scandal is that over the last few centuries we have lost the ability to walk and run the way nature intended. So why are we talking about this? Well it doesn’t have to be this way. Minimalist shoes could be a real solution to a lot of body ailments. Bunions, flattened arches, plantar fasciitis, bad posture. Most of these conditions are at the very least exacerbated by our footwear. So what are minimalist shoes? Well, they all have four things in common. Three of which contribute to making a light shoe.
A thin sole. This gives your feet more context than a standard shoe. You stand a chance of feeling the ground beneath your feet. All those sad, unfulfilled nerve endings may actually have a job. I imagine walking barefoot leads to those nerves singing a rousing chorus of “pro – pro – prioception baby”. You might even say less sole = more soul.
A wide toe box. When your feet can spread out they are far more agile and able to respond to uneven conditions. Ok if you spend your life walking on flat surfaces feel free to put them in the vice grip of your winkle pickers. For those who spend life on the trail and other uneven surfaces think about giving your feet space to spread out. It is a good thing.
Zero drop. Without a heal the muscles of the leg work in balance with each other.
A flexible sole. If you can roll your shoe up, imagine what your foot can do inside it. Time for a foot party.
Current running shoe designs absorb impact. The problem is that in a natural gait this is the job of the body from the hip down. Our modern shoes encourage us to stride out and heel strike. Our body wants us to land softly on the ball of the foot placed beneath the center of mass. This avoids sending a massive shock load up through the knee. Once we had all those bones and muscles in the foot shaping themselves to the ground beneath us. Now, we now land on a flat foot with an accompanying stabbing pain through the foam. Our force flattened feet are always going to find errant rocks or other sharp objects. The jolt is always going to travel through the leg. We are putting a huge load on our bodies because we are asking a shoe to do the work designed for our bodies. The muscles, ligaments and tendons in our feet, ankles, knees and hips now deal with increased forces. Just like climate change deniers, the shoe industry knows this and opts to do little about it.
Xero Z Trek and a Peak District sunrise. The right leg; which is now filled with titanium and has seen too many fractures, indicates why slowly building muscles to correct properly through minimalist footwear is a good idea. Two ankle fractures while using traditional shoes have left it pronating
Kayakers learn it is all very well learning efficient strokes. Yet, you only start to move well when you merge good strokes with an understanding of how water and wind work. Who cares if you can paddle at 4 mph when the tide streaming against you is flowing at 8? When a shoe prevents our bodies doing what they evolved to do, my lay suspicion is we will pay for it.
Keeping it light while visiting lighthouses. Xero Terraflex at South Stack, Anglesey, Wales
Barefoot shoes as they were called started to intrigue me over a decade ago. I will be honest it was not all plain sailing. The journey to feeling comfortable in them is often a long one. It was only last year that I committed to wearing them backpacking or on long days in the mountains. It took a long time to condition my feet. I took even longer to find a pair of shoes that had the right combination of durability and flexibility. It upsets me to have to buy a new pair of shoes every year. I do not want to tax the landfill with my consumerist desires.
Walking the line. Xero Z Treks enjoying a Peak District sunrise.
Most of the barefoot shoes I bought lasted me a year before the soles wore out. Some of these shoes I loved and I certainly modified my gait and strike patterns wearing them. Vivo Barefoot, New Balance Minimus and Merrell Trail Gloves all played a part in my journey. I wore all of them for trail runs or short days in the mountains. Yet, long days on rocky terrain left the soles of my feet feeling bruised. My breakthrough came when I took the rock plate from an old pair of Altra Lone Peaks and put them in a pair of Xero Shoes’ Terraflex. Whether I had done sufficient miles to be ready. Or, more likely the shoes hit the sweet spot. I felt good after a few hikes to test them on more committing days and terrain. The first decent sized journey involved leaving Denver after work. We hiked the East Slopes of Mt Massive to tree line under a strawberry moon. We then slept under a tarp before watching an incredible sunrise and summiting. We came down the Southwest Slopes into North Halfmoon a steep trail, littered in rock steps. My feet felt good. It was over 12.5 miles and 4,000 ft of gain and loss on a rocky trail. Next up, the Weminuche. A 44 mile lollipop route. We did this over two big days along with a few miles in the dark the night before and a few to exit the morning after. By now I was trusting the shoes. Since then I have taken the rock plates out and recently did the 10 Mile traverse. This is over 16 miles, has 8,000 ft of height gain and involves Class 3 scrambling. The first 4 of the 10 peaks covered are interesting to say the least. I also wear them when loaded up carrying my skis and boots for summer turns. These shoes are great. The best part though is that my first pair have lasted me a solid two years of heavy use.
First of all I want to say the customer service is fantastic. I bought my first sandals from them 10 years ago. They came as a kit. I used a template to choose how to cut and drill a Vibram sole. Then used the included cord and instructions to make a huarache sandal. Back then there was always someone on hand to give support. Now the company is much larger and they have a much bigger range of products. The service is still as good.
Secondly, as I stated before. They have nailed the balance between durability and minimalism. My two year old Terraflexs still function. The sole shows wear, they look tatty and I would not don them as dress shoes, yet they still do their job. They are usually in the car with my fishing gear and I use them for wading creeks with shorts. This also says a lot for how quickly they dry.
The soles in more detail
Thirdly, they are a local Broomfield, Colorado brand. They have grown organically. Have a strong sense of vision and purpose and come across as passionate about what they do and why they do it. I am always a sucker for this.
So here is a helping hand to choose from Xero Shoes’ catalog to find a suitable entry into the minimalist world.
Prio $89.99 – This is the shoe to get if you want an enclosed running experience. They are great on more even surfaces. They are also a great gym shoe or general sneaker.
Hana $79.99 – If you are looking for a shoe to wear to the office or travel in consider the Hana. It has the same sole as the Prio yet looks more formal. It has a super comfortable lining and is hands down my favorite shoe to wear on a plane. All barefoot shoes let your feet spread out or swell. The Hana can be tied loose so it is easy to slip on or off and the heal can be bent down to use as a slide.
Z-Trail $79.99 – A great entry into the world of minimalist sandals. Striking a good balance between comfort and feel, they protect enough to use as a trail running shoe. They also provide an intimate experience with the ground and look great.
Terraflex $99.99 – If I had to choose one shoe from Xero this would be it. They have a tread designed to keep you stable on steep and loose terrain. They grip like a boss scrambling on rock and have treated me well on verglas (black ice). These are what I now use exclusively for hiking and backpacking. I also use them as approach shoes on all but the gnarliest of scrambles.
Xero Terraflex chilling on top of James Peak, Colorado.
So there you have it. Some thoughts on minimalist shoes and why you might want to try them out. Remember, it takes a while for your feet and gait to adjust to them. So take the time necessary to build up the muscles and posture needed. Watch your injury rate decrease. Even better, your enjoyment will increase as you feel more in touch with the world within which you walk.
Wil was born in North Wales and steeped in its rich maritime, mountain and river folklore. In response to the request to “get a real job” he became first a teacher then professor of adventure education.
He then emigrated to where the sun shines for 300 days and snowfalls for 100 (Colorado). During more than 25 years as an outdoor educator, he worked Scottish winter seasons, taught canoeing, climbing, kayaking, and skiing throughout the States, Europe, and Australia. He also regenerated the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Outdoor Education program. His biggest adventure (by far) is fatherhood. It has also been the inspiration for his website www.wherethefruitis.com.
Things he likes to do include (middle) aging gracefully, and skiing (telemark) aggressively. He is happiest outdoors with a good view, good company, good weather/snow and the residue of self-powered adventure; sweat, a manic grin, and wild eyes.
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