I’m often asked as the owner of a specialty running store, what’s your opinion on barefoot shoes? For the most part, I am a fan of the movement. I believe anything that helps connect people to their bodies is good. However, if someone wants to start running in minimalist shoes and eventually become a barefoot runner, it is something that will not happen overnight. I equate it to learning a new sport. You have to start slow and train in order to build foot strength. Increasing foot strength can come from walking barefoot on grass or sand, doing yoga and pilates, or simply by stretching, moving and using the muscles in your feet. As you start to gain strength in your feet, you can simultaneously decrease the cushioning and support in your footwear. Eventually, you can become a barefoot runner in the same step-by-step fashion it takes to train for any athletic endeavor.
The inspiration for this blog post came from my 15 month old son, Cosmo. He’s now walking and the improvement from when he started at 12 months to now is phenomenal. His balance and proprioception amaze me and I often have to stop myself from interfering and let him figure out his coordination. I find myself bracing to catch him from falling when he aptly recovers from a stumble on his own.
Recently, I decided to purchase his first pair of shoes. He learned to walk in leather-soled slipper style shoes that were as minimalist as can be. We went to a great store down South (that is jargon Eastern Sierra residents use for traveling anywhere in the SoCal region), that had a nice selection of shoes for a new walker. I opted for a pair of seemingly flexible Nikes with a rubber sole and Velcro closures. The next day Cosmo wore his new kicks and I watched his gait suddenly change. He looked like he had bricks on his feet. He struggled to keep balance and had to change his gait to adapt to this new shoe’s decreased sensitivity and flexibility. Specifically he had to lift his legs more to walk, just as we might if we were walking in ski boots. His foot muscles and joints were no longer engaged naturally in the stiffer shoes. This interfered with his proprioception and he stumbled more as a result.
I took the shoes off his feet, put him back in his flexible baby slippers, and had an “aha” moment relating baby feet to the barefoot movement. When I purchased the Nike baby shoes, I believed they met the criteria of flexibility without compromising durability. They had a hearty outsole so Cosmo could be tough on them. They were expensive too, $38. Cosmo’s gait in the new shoes wasn’t horrible, just different. After time, I knew he could adapt to the footwear and learn to walk wearing the shoes. The “aha” moment came when I realized my thinking is where the trap begins creating lazy, weaker feet. When the shoe is stiff, you don’t have to use your foot muscles. My husband is a mountain guide who sometimes spends the winter months with most days in ski boots. He says at the end of every ski season he has to retrain his feet for rock climbing. The feet literally atrophy from being immobilized. Many people who take the time to slowly adapt their bodies to minimalist shoes have said that they are able to go farther in these shoes in rougher terrain than they ever thought they would. Once your body adapts to more minimal shoes, your old shoes may feel like overkill.
Kids can adapt to stiff shoes and are able to walk, run, play sports, and have completely normal active childhoods wearing stiff shoes. At a recent family gathering, I noticed that my many young nieces and nephews all had relatively stiff shoes. I have to wonder if the shoes we put kids in these days will result in a manifestation of foot problems later in life.
Right now, Cosmo is still in slippers. Even though I purchased Nikes with a durable outsole, I have decided not to use them because I want his feet to grow up strong. Having him walk around totally barefoot is probably the best thing we can do, but when we can’t do that we are going to keep him in minimalist footwear whenever practical. Hopefully, as he gets older we will see more and more minimalist kids options on the market.