At this point there is nothing new about the whole minimalist running phenomenon. Books like Born to Run have sold well, there was a special on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, the Vibram Five Fingers had their day in the sun, and the most popular shoe brands have their own versions of “barefoot” running shoes. If we want to get real, barefoot running is as old as human history, so the recent idea that it is “new” is sort of preposterous; but I digress.
I read the book mentioned above and watched the Real Sports special. I agreed with the science behind potential benefits of running barefoot and decided to give it a try. I waited until night fell and headed to a little paved track near my house. I took my shoes off and went straight barefoot for about two miles, and was pretty much hooked instantly.
Most of my running over the last few years has been in Philadelphia and the more urban sections of Chester county, so I experimented with many different forms of minimalist footwear in order to have protection from various types of debris that might be on the streets. I started with the Vibram FiveFinger KSOs, then tried the Bikilas, and eventually the SeeYas. All of which were comfortable in some fashion, but I always struggled with the right fit and suffered through many nasty blisters and ingrown toenails during my stint with this type of footwear.
I then went with a Merrell barefoot running shoe with a zero drop Vibram sole, which was a great shoe. A couple of years ago I wore them for a half marathon, and was satisfied with my time. Result are below:
Despite liking my Merrells, they still weren’t completely satiating my desire for a true minimalist, or traditional, running experience. I wasn’t even sure exactly how to define what I was looking for, but there was just something missing for me. After doing some further research I came across the Luna adventure sandals. I was already familiar with origins of the sandals from reading Born to Run and was intrigued by the legends of the Tarahumara Indians.
Needless to say, I didn’t have work too hard to convince myself to order my first pair. I opted for the Venados because they were advertised to be ideal for road running, and they were the thinnest pair they offered. I had to watch a couple of youtube videos to figure out how to lace them up, and it took some experimenting for me to find the lacing technique that worked best for me. Once I got the lacing method down I was off and running. In my Luna sandals I have found my preferred running vessel.
What are the benefits?
Connection: In the Lunas I am able to make a connection with the terrain that could only be enhanced by walking completely barefoot. For example, I was hiking in Vermont with some friends, and as we were traversing down a portion of the trail, I looked up at a couple folks and said, “Do you feel that?” I got a couple of funny stares back, as they had no idea what I was talking about. The ground beneath us totally changed. The hard surface on which we were walking suddenly became spongy. I could literally feel my feet sink into the ground and bounce back up. It was an amazing feeling. I felt like a kid again experiencing this new sensation, bouncing around the trail, unable to hold back my smile.
I can’t know all of the potential benefits of this connection, but at minimum It helps me adjust my strides or running technique to traverse a terrain more intelligently. Also, I figure that many more signals are being sent to my brain while I’m wearing my sandals vs. a much more padded shoe. I can only imagine this brain activity has to have some sort of benefit that I wouldn’t be getting otherwise.
Freedom for the Foot: Apparently the foot is some complicated miracle of human evolution with a bunch of bones, tendons, and muscles working together to give us the ability to run- like really long distances. And this evolution and intelligence has developed over thousands of years, which is a few years longer than Nike has been trying to design the perfect shoe. These sandals acknowledge the perfection of the foot by saying, “hey, do your thing foot. I’m just here for a little extra protection from sharp stuff.”
Low maintenance: When you run in sandals taking care of the shoe means nothing. It’s all about taking care of the foot, which is how it should be. You might have to replace a lace on the sandal, and of course the footbed is susceptible to normal wear and tear like anything, but there is essentially no maintenance. If you run through a puddle- they dry. Trust me, getting your shoe wet halfway through your next run will have much more negative consequences than getting your sandal wet. A human foot will dry a whole lot faster than a shoe will.
Super Fashionable: I mean come on, what’s looks better than a leather footbed secured to the bottom of ones foot by a uniquely tied rope around ones ankle and foot? In all seriousness though, I wear my Venados with a hemp lace everywhere that I can, and get lots of compliments. People honestly dig them.
What are the Concerns?
I’m going to be honest by saying I totally recommend these to anyone and everyone, but there are a couple of things to consider if you’re just getting started.
Learning to Run Again: Your gait will change, if not majorly, at least slightly. If you’re like most people, you will become more of a forefoot striker, which means you will have to strengthen up the lower legs before you can handle long distances. If you push too hard too early, you run the risk of injuring your calf or achilles tendon. So start slow and get comfortable in your new style before entering your next ultra.
I will also say that even if you give yourself ample time to transition before your next race, make sure you do some speed work in a minimalist shoe, because if you’re like me your competitive nature will kick in on race day and you will push yourself harder than you’re used to, which could also cause some injury.
What About the Cold?: Running with sandals in cold weather is something you will have to play by ear. There are good socks you can wear to keep your feet pretty warm in cold weather, and I personally wear my sandals without socks as long as the temperature is at least 32. Here are a couple of links to the aforementioned socks: Polar Feet- Tabi Socks, Injinji Toe Socks
The Funny Stares: This could be a point for the positive aspects of running in sandals, but if you’re not used to a little extra attention there might be some mental hurdles for you to get over. I’ve been asked hundreds of questions about my sandals and why I run in them. I had a guy take a picture of my feet on the subway and I get called Jesus a lot. Mostly it’s all positive attention, but I’ve had some unpleasant things shouted at me as well. I say be brave and rock the sandals every chance you get. For me, I like the way my feet feel in my Lunas so much that I could care less if people like them or they don’t. I love them and that’s what matters.
The most important thing to remember is that the spirit in which these sandals were made was to encourage people to get out there and have an adventure, and to just have some good old fashioned fun. If you have the itch to experience something new and become part of a movement of people trying to get back down to the basics, then by all means give these things a go.
And the answer is no, I am not getting paid for this. This is just me being honest about a part of my life I want you know about.
(Also, if you’re into running long distances I recommend reading Eat & Run by Scott Jurek and watching the documentary Desert Runners.)
As always, thanks for reading.