Category Archives: minimalist footware

Running in Berkeley

Sather Gate

Sather Gate

I was in Berkeley, California last month to attend the 2016 World Vegan Summit and Expo held at the U.C. Berkeley campus. It was three days of very interesting presentations and I attended almost all of them. Some resembled college lectures in their depth and delivery. (Many of the presenters were from academia.) Others were artistic in nature and included a poet, an illustrator, a comedian, and musicians, all of whom used their artistry to promote veganism.

I ran the first two mornings—barefoot the first day through the campus and surrounding neighborhood, then in minimalist sandals the following morning on and out-and-back route that took me up fairly smooth dirt trails winding through the wooded hills above the campus.

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Xero Shoes minimalist sandals

The barefoot run was nice because the sidewalks were largely free of the tiny, sharply textured decomposed granite gravel that I frequently encounter where I live in Phoenix. But compared to Arizona State University (ASU), where I’ve run barefoot a number of times, U.C. Berkeley had more asphalt walkways, and some of them included really rough patches that were uncomfortable to run on. I also came across some old, fairly rough exposed aggregate concrete paving. I did appreciate the hilly nature of much of the Berkeley campus compared to ASU’s pancake flat geography.

The second run was quite enjoyable, starting out in the fog then gradually climbing a few miles until I was looking down on a dense puffy layer of white. There was one short but very steep section where I walked. The surface was ideal for my thin sandals, and the frequent wide turns and elevation changes added visual interest. It was a very extensive network of trails and fire roads. No doubt, the U.C. Berkeley cross-country team uses it frequently for training.IMG_1242

On the decent I came across some human barefoot prints. I wasn’t sure if they were from walking or running. Later, I spotted what I think was a group of wild turkeys walking near the road just above the university’s football stadium.IMG_1243

By the end of the run my feet and ankles were coated with a fine layer of dirt that at a quick glance resembled a suntan. While sitting in the ballroom later that morning at the Vegan Summit, wearing the same sandals, I looked down at one point and noticed a small patch on my ankle where the soap and shower water had missed, and a thin layer of trail dirt remained.IMG_1240IMG_1251IMG_1247IMG_1252 IMG_1265

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“How Do You Run in Those?”

I’ve run the Jerome Hill Climb race many times, beginning in 1988, about one year after moving to Arizona. It’s a point-to-point uphill race on Labor Day weekend that starts in the small town of Jerome at an elevation of just under 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), then climbs approximately 1,100 feet (335 meters) along 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometers) of mostly little-used unpaved roads to the finish. It’s a very scenic course with splendid views of valleys and mountain peaks, and Jerome—originally founded to support copper mining operations and now mostly populated with artists and entrepreneurs and their employees who cater to tourists—has lots of old and weathered buildings with interesting histories lining narrow, twisting, and hilly streets.

2015 Jerome Hill Climb T-shirt.

2015 Jerome Hill Climb T-shirt.

This past weekend, I ran the Jerome Hill Climb again for the first time in 11 years. My friend Sandra was also entered in the race. We talked briefly minutes before the start when she asked me why after all those years I decided to run it again. I didn’t have a good answer at the time, but I thought about her question later that day and came up with two explanations.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the value of experiences over material things. Jerome is quite an experience with its challenging hills and altitude, and unique scenery, making it a refreshing change from my usual running locations in the Phoenix area.

And after 11 years things have changed quite a bit with my running. When I signed up for the 2015 race I was curious how it would feel running a very hilly, unpaved course in my unsupportive minimalist sandals using a different running form. But I was also a little wary of the event, not sure how sore I might be the day after, or of my memory of how rough the terrain was. And I hadn’t been doing any hill training to speak of.

Happily, my concerns proved to be unfounded. While as expected I walked two sections of the steepest grades, just as I had every other time I’ve run the race, I felt good. My minimalist sandals and improved running form worked great, and I managed to finish first in my age group out of 13 people!

These are the Xero Shoes 6 mm minimalist sandals I ran the race in.

These are the Xero Shoes 6 mm minimalist sandals I ran the race in.

Grinding up the steep grades with a pronounced forward lean at the ankles resulting in a smaller than usual angle between my feet and my tibias, plus the effects of running back down the hill to my car after the race, I thought surely I would be sore the following day. But I have excellent mobility and strength in my ankles and feet—much more so than 11 years ago when I ran with orthotics and motion control shoes. Honestly, except for the first minute walking around the house after getting out of bed, I wasn’t sore the next day.

It wasn’t the first time I was certain I’d be sore the next day from doing something out of the ordinary with my body, but was not. I’ve learned from experience that I’m not that prone to soreness. I suspect being a vegan plays a role, as plant-based diets are known to reduce the inflammatory response.

The two things about the run I found most significant though was the presence of a barefoot runner, and a question from another runner regarding my sandals.

Among the approximately 255 entrants was a guy in bare feet. I was impressed because the running surfaces were way too rough for me to consider running barefoot. He had a pair of Vibram FiveFingers tucked into the waistband of his shorts, but he was still barefoot when I ran past him just before the first mile marker. Seeing that made me even more confident about my plan to run barefoot in the upcoming Phoenix 10K which traverses city streets with relatively smooth pavement.

When standing around awaiting the start of the race, I noticed that a group of girls were looking curiously at my minimalist sandals. Each of them wore conventional running shoes in a variety of bright colors. They had the typical cushioned soles with exaggerated thicknesses at the heel.

“How do you run in those?” one of them asked me.

I explained how I landed on my forefoot, under my hips, lowered the back of my foot until the heel gently touched, and then quickly lifted the foot behind me. I also added that the sandals, because they provided no significant support, allowed my feet and ankles to strengthen.

The irony of her question quickly occurred to me. So indoctrinated are most of us in the idea that conventional running shoes are a prerequisite to running, minimalism throws us a confusing curveball. It would have made more sense if instead I had asked her how she manages to run in conventional running shoes. But I already knew the answer to that question, because for decades I ran in such shoes. Getting out of them was a necessary step in improving my form, becoming stronger, and having more fun.

Hypothetical Conversation About Minimalist Running

Being around other runners while wearing my most minimal running footwear—a pair of sandals consisting of nothing more than a six millimeter thick slab of rubber and a polyester lace—tends to spur curiosity, and subsequent questions and conversations about minimalist and barefoot running. I’ve put together a hypothetical conversation based on some of the questions and comments I’ve received in the past, those that I anticipate getting in the future, along with typical responses I’ve provided or might provide down the road. The questions and comments are in boldface type and my responses are in regular type.

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Whenever I see you running by me in those thin sandals I feel pains shooting through my feet, ankles, and up my legs.

The next time I run past you, take a closer look at how my feet are relating to the ground. You’ll see that I’m running lightly and not landing on my heels. By landing under my center of gravity and utilizing the elastic qualities of my lower extremities, I’m sending significantly less impact shock up my legs than I used to when heel striking in thickly-soled conventional running shoes. Also, I pay attention to where I’m running and step around or over rocks or anything else that would cause me pain if I landed on it. I assure you, I wouldn’t be doing this if it were causing me to experience shooting pains.

Did you make those?

Sort of. I assembled them from a kit I ordered online. I selected the color, thickness (these are 6 mm thick soles) and the appropriate size after measuring the longest part of my foot. I also choose a lace color. The kit came with a hole punch for making the hole between the first and second toes where the knot goes, and the website has videos illustrating various ways to thread the laces. I actually came up with my own way of lacing these, and I made an instructional YouTube video. Finally, I trimmed some excess material off the front edge of the sole with heavy scissors, and then they were ready to go.

Do you stub your toes?

I haven’t yet after running close to 900 kilometers in them. Actually, I find that the less footwear I’m wearing, the more I naturally tend to be careful about where and how I place my feet.

Those things look like they’d be bad for your feet.

It’s not wise to suddenly switch to minimalist sandals or minimalist footwear in general after years of wearing very supportive, cushioned, elevated-heel shoes. But with proper transitioning, and learning and mastering proper running form, they allow your feet to function better and get stronger. And with your feet so close to the ground, the chance of turning your ankle is reduced.

Do you also run barefoot?

I try to do one or two miles a week, as both a training tool and a way to have fun. I have no desire to do most or all of my running barefoot. It just isn’t practical given the surface conditions where I typically run.

I assume that when you’re running barefoot you’re on grass.

Actually no. I wouldn’t feel safe running on grass because it can hide significant surface irregularities and sharp objects. My preferred surface for running barefoot is smooth and clean concrete sidewalk or bicycle path. Second best is a rubberized running track or asphalt that’s in good condition. Old asphalt that has lost much of its binding material can feel quite rough depending on the surface texture of the exposed aggregate.

Can anyone run barefoot?

Certainly people with diabetic neuropathy shouldn’t be running around barefoot. Since they lack normal sensation in their feet, they’re more prone to injuries. And they often also suffer from compromised circulation, which results in slower healing, and a higher risk of infection. Other conditions can also make barefoot running a bad idea. I think that being able to run barefoot for significant distances both requires and reflects a certain baseline level of good overall health. Just what that level is, I can’t say. I would talk to your doctor or other primary care professional for advice.

I can’t run like that. My feet need lots of support.

You might be surprised. For decades I ran in motion control shoes with rigid prescription orthotics. I was conditioned to think that I had “flat” feet and could run no other way. Yes, I needed all that support, but only because I was a heel striker. Podiatrists’ never looked at how I ran or discussed with me proper running form. They just cast and measured my feet for orthotics and billed my insurance provider. I don’t blame them. They didn’t know any better and were merely doing what they were trained to do. Hopefully that’s changing because quick fixes are rarely as effective in the long run as getting to the root of the problem.

How long did it take you to learn to run like that?

It’s been around five years since I changed my running form and began transitioning into minimalist footwear. I made some mistakes along the way and got injured. Even though I took a gradual approach, I didn’t have the form and technique quite right. I was still reaching forward too much with my lead foot, putting too much stress on my metatarsals. Running with a metronome to speed up my steps-per-minute, and mixing in some barefoot running, really helped fix my form problems. I find that taking off the shoes and running barefoot for a stretch has a way of resetting my running form, because when I’m barefoot I automatically take shorter, quicker steps. One of the reasons I started my Intrinsic Running website was to help people learn how to transition without getting injured like I did. Today I’m thoroughly comfortable with my running form and how it feels. I don’t get injured as often and my legs feel better. I could never go back to heel striking and landing way forward of my hips. Yet I still consider myself to be transitioning. There is always more to learn, always more to perfect.

There’s no way you could do trail running in those.

It really depends on the nature of the trail and on the individual runner. I frequently run on our local canal banks in my minimalist sandals, and I recently did a 5-K race in them over trails that were relatively smooth. Obviously you have to watch where you’re stepping. Footwear should provide the appropriate level of protection for the particular surface you’re running or walking on. If you’re traversing a rugged trail, it’s perfectly fine to wear something with a thicker, less flexible sole.

Ken, that’s just crazy. I don’t know how you run in those things.

I suggest that you check out my minimalist running website, Intrinsicrunning.com, to learn how I do it.

Updated Running Shoe Selection Recommendations From ACSM

characteristicsRecently the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) published a brochure containing its updated criteria for running shoe selection. This is noteworthy because ACSM is the world’s largest professional organization for sports medicine and exercise science, and the recommendations depart significantly from traditional advice to reflect new findings that advocates of minimalist running have been talking about for years. Specifically the brochure recommends running shoes with little heel-to-toe drop, no motion control or stability devices, minimal cushioning, a roomy toe box, and lightweight.

“Foot shape or arch height are not good indicators of what kind of running shoe to buy.”

— ACSM

General advice on exercise is also included. You may view and download the brochure as a PDF, here.

Four Features of an Ideal Minimalist Running Shoe

A good minimalist running shoe seeks to offer the necessary level of protection while inhibiting as little as possible, the natural function of the foot. Two Rivers Treads minimalist running store owner, family physician, and Natural Running Center director Dr. Mark Cucuzzella describes, in this Running Times article, the four elements he looks for in a minimalist shoe: zero or near-zero drop, flexibility, a sufficiently roomy toe box, and less cushioning and thickness in the sole.

Four Features of an Ideal Minimalist Running Shoe

By Mark Cucuzzella

When I look at what I would consider an ideal shoe I base it on what’s ideal to complement natural foot function. The null hypothesis is that the foot is designed to work on its own without the need for modern bracing, cushioning and motion control technology. I may deviate slightly from this to compensate for a specific structure or strength issue. The goal is progressive rehabilitation toward the ideal: to get the walker or runner in the least amount of shoe that’s safe for them while they work on the functional corrections. This is my definition of minimalism.     Read More »

How I Lace My Xero Shoes Sandals

When I purchased my Xero Shoes, the standard tying method didn’t work well for me. After some experimenting I came up with a simple tying pattern that featured two laces diverging from the hole between the first and second toes. This seems to hold the rubber sole closer to the bottom of my foot, and I find tying together two lace ends easier and more familiar than tying off a single lace.

Study Looks at Muscle Adaptation of Transition to Minimalist Running

It is often assumed that running in minimalist footwear which provides significantly less support and control than conventional running shoes, will result in stronger feet. An ongoing study at the University of Virginia seeks to quantify changes in muscle tissue in the feet, ankles, and legs in a group of runners transitioning from standard running shoes to minimalist footwear.

The first phase of the study consisted of baseline mapping of the muscles in the runners, who had at that point run only in standard running shoes. The second phase, to begin shortly, will document changes to the muscles (volume and length) as the study subjects transition to minimalist footwear. Both phases utilize static and dynamic MRI technology. Stay tuned for the results.

Study Looks at Muscle Adaptation of Transition to Minimalist Running 

Newswise — For tens of thousands of years, humans ran on bare feet. Then we developed an assortment of specialized shoes, including – particularly since the 1960s – a seemingly limitless variety of running shoes. Despite the perceived advantages of foot protection, some runners in recent years have returned to barefoot running, believing it is a more natural way to run and therefore less injurious to the feet and legs.    Read More »

Chasing Down a Better Way to Run

Like a lot of movements, the case for minimalist or barefoot running seems to be based largely on anecdotes, speculation, and what countless people think makes perfect sense. Fortunately, good research and peer-reviewed studies exist, though at this point there is much catching up to be done. The study of minimalist running is particularly suited to an interdisciplinary approach; principally involving the fields of evolutionary biology, kinesiology, anthropology, and psychology, and including collaboration between research scientists, clinicians, and subjects and patients.

Harvard University is at the forefront in this quest, as Katie Koch explains in this April 2012 piece in the Harvard Gazette.

Chasing Down a Better Way to Run

By Katie Koch

Harvard Provost Alan Garber loves running—so much so that when he returned to his alma mater last year, he listed among the job’s perks a chance to resume his exercise route along the Charles River.

“I love seeing Dunster House as I’m approaching the end of my run,” said Garber, who’ll soon be pounding the pavement with nearly 30,000 others in the Boston Marathon on April 16.

But until recently, Garber described himself as “recidivist runner.” The cause wasn’t a lack of enthusiasm or even of precious time, but an all-too-common phenomenon for regular runners: repeat injury. “I was at the point where injuries were making it questionable whether I’d be able to continue to run,” he said.    Read More »

Running in Sandals

Earlier this month elite ultramarathoner and vegan Scott Jurek made an appearance at Tortoise and Hare Sports in Glendale, Arizona as part of a promotional tour for his book Eat and Run. The evening began with a 5K run through the flat, mostly residential neighborhood north of the store.

I had recently started running in a pair of 6mm thick Xero Shoes sandals. Xero Shoes are a vegan-friendly modern version of the huarache sandals that the Tarahumara Indians of northwestern Mexico have been running in for thousands of years over long distances on rugged mountain trails. Part of their appeal for me is their obvious simplicity. Consisting of a very durable one-piece molded rubber sole and a single nylon/polypropylene lace, they couldn’t be more minimal. They can be purchased as a do-it-yourself kit (which is what I chose) that requires that you punch the hole between the first and second toes where the lace is anchored, and then install and tie the lace in your preferred style. While the soles (available in either 4mm or 6mm thicknesses) come in about a dozen different pre-molded sizes to fit your foot length, it may be necessary trim some excess area from the front and sides.  But if you like, for a few dollars more the Xero Shoes people will do all that work for you, starting with a simple tracing of your feet that you can fax or mail to them.

It took some experimenting with different tying styles and lace tensions before they were snug and comfortable, but by the book signing event I had figured everything out and was ready to run in them. The non-competitive run started out at an easy pace. Jurek reminded us before we started that it wasn’t a race, then joked that “if you ever wanted to beat Scott Jurek, this would be your chance.” However, some of us at the front were itching to go faster, and when someone blew past us at the halfway point and opened up a big lead, we promptly followed. That proved to be a good test of my Xero Shoes sandals, which functioned superbly through the whole distance at different paces.

Andy, who is one of my few friends who are both vegans and runners, also attended the Jurek event. She shot this short video of me in the parking lot in which I show how the sandals appear with the tying style I came up with, and then demonstrate how I run with them. I plan on making another video in the near future, showing step-by-step how I tied them.

Currently I’ve run up to 8 miles (13 km) at a time in these sandals. I don’t use them that much for walking (I actually prefer something a bit thicker with a little cushioning for walking), and they would not be my first choice for track workouts or faster and shorter races, but for the ordinary long distance running that comprises the bulk of my training, they are already my favorite choice of footwear. The very minimal design allows the toes to splay out fully, and does not otherwise restrict the natural function of the foot.

I can see Xero Shoes sales eventually overtaking Vibram FiveFingers, at least in the running category. Not only is the running experience better, but also the cost is only one-forth to one-third that of a typical pair of FiveFingers. The price advantage is even greater when factoring in their superior durability. I’m clearly excited about this product and believe it is something that the world needs to find out about.

©2013 Kenneth Hopes