If you are new to the barefooting movement, you have probably discovered that people generally fall into one of two camps: those who are proponents of being mostly barefoot, and those who predominantly wear some form of minimalist footwear. You may also be aware that just recently a study was published which found that for reducing the impact of running, barefoot is best.
My position in the barefoot/minimalist spectrum is to straddle both sides.
While I tend to agree philosophically that yes, barefoot is best, I still see footwear as a necessity. Though some people think footwear is a ball and chain we need to break-free from; I view it as a tool for enabling. Now before all you barefooters out there go and criticize me for selling-out, I encourage you to read on.
Gloves for your Feet
To start with, we need to look at footwear in a new way. The best analogy I can come up with is to look at shoes the way we look at gloves. Nobody (that I know of) has a problem with wearing gloves, we all wear them at some time in our lives for various purposes. We generally don't complain about having to wear them. In fact, we rather appreciate gloves because they enable us to do something that would have been much more difficult (or dangerous) without. There are many cases when wearing gloves is a necessity.
By the same token, we typically don't wear gloves unless we need them, and prefer to be bare handed as often as possible. If people wore gloves as often as they wear shoes, we would probably look at them as being somewhat strange.
The interesting thing about gloves is that they generally serve one purpose, and that is to protect the hands from adverse environmental conditions. Some protect the hands from cold, others from abrasion, and others from disease. We don't expect gloves to support or enhance the way our hands structurally work.
Gloves are designed for maximum dexterity and feel while allowing for the level of protection that we require - we don't think twice about this, we expect it. Why don't we expect the same from our shoes?
Let's return to shoes. I really appreciate them. They enable me to be out in cold, wet conditions that would could lead to hypothermia, frostbite, or worse. They make it possible to strap on snowshoes or skis so that I can travel across the snow. They allow me to wear crampons so that I can walk up an icy slope. They protect my feet from nails or other debris while working on a construction project. They provide a barrier to harmful bacteria and disease while walking in a hospital.
I want my shoes to be like gloves, providing only the protection I need while giving my feet maximum dexterity and ground feel. This doesn't mean that I need to wear shoes all the time, but like gloves, there are compelling reasons for them to be considered a necessity for specific situations.
That being said (most of you by this point are probably saying well DUH! of course shoes are necessary!), I do have significant issues with most shoes: their design. Instead of being designed like a glove, most modern shoes are designed like a helmet. They are heavy, rigid, padded, and provide a structure that encases the foot (and sometimes ankle) in a bombproof exoskeleton.
In addition to that, they often have things like arches and variable density foams that force our body to move in a very specific way. The designers of modern shoes view the human foot as poorly structured and weak needing to be fixed by technology.
Barefoot/minimalist proponents know of course that nothing could be farther from the truth. The human foot is a marvel in engineering design, perfectly made to support our body in all of our active endeavors. The less we can do to restrict it, the better off we are. If anything is broken, it is because we have become too sedentary in our lifestyles and have forgotten how to move with the grace and beauty that is our birthright.
Putting Shoes in their Proper Place (sometimes on your feet)
Footwear should enable us to operate in adverse environmental conditions and allow our feet to function as naturally as possible. This should be the goal of footwear manufacturers: to provide maximum feel and dexterity and minimum restriction while providing only the protection that is necessary. Modern technology and newer models should improve upon this goal, not move in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, we are not at that point yet. The vast majority of manufacturers are still producing crap. If you are new to the minimalist/barefoot scene, I would like to provide you with some tools for evaluating what you wear on your feet. These are general recommendations on how to apporach the subject of footwear:
- Get back in touch with bare feet. You will never be able to figure out if a minimalist shoe is actually good or not unless you are comfortable with being barefoot. Barefoot needs to be the baseline. Your goal should be to prefer going barefoot, just like most of the time we prefer to have bare hands. If you are not comfortable barefoot, any minimalist shoe out there will probably seem like it is not enough for you. If you are comfortable in bare feet, any shoe (minimalist or not) will feel like it is de-sensitizing, or restricting you in some way. You will not be able to effectively evaluate any shoe from a minimalist perspective unless you are in touch with bare feet.
- Think of footwear as protection. Whenever you put on a pair of shoes, ask yourself what environmental condition they are protecting you from. The goal should be to wear shoes that only provide the protection you need and nothing more. Environmental conditions can be social as well - you might have to wear shoes in the workplace or on formal occasions. But let's be clear about environmental risks; support and cushioning are not environmental risks, cold and chemicals are. One thing to be aware of is the perceived risk. That is to say some of the risk may just be in your head (i.e. irrational fear). Learn how to separate the irrational fear from the actual risks when determining the level of protection you need, which brings me to my next point...
- Be continually evaluating. Don't just settle for doing the same thing that worked last time. Just because the shoes "work" doesn't mean that you didn't over-do it. In fact, you should assume that you over-did it because it is our nature to do so (thanks again to irrational fear!). Try wearing a little less next time and see how it goes, you might be surprised.
- Go minimal everywhere. Don't be just a minimalist runner or hiker. Make it part of your everyday life. Running and hiking injuries don't happen just from running and hiking, but are the result of everything that we do to our body on a daily basis. Going barefoot whenever possible and wearing minimalist footwear for the rest will have a huge impact on your overall health and fitness.
- Appreciate the seasons. Just because barefoot season is over dosn't mean you should lament the fact that you have to wear shoes. Being able to fully function in all seasons and weather conditions is an incredibly rich and rewarding experience. The key to enjoying diverse conditions is finding activities that you love to do and having the right gear to do it, including minimalist footwear. One of the great benefits of experiencing seasons is that it gives you an opportunity to change-up the routine throughout the year, so take advantage of it! No matter what the season, activity, or sport the above points still apply.
Where I live in Maine it's impossible to go barefoot outdoors all year. I value the contribution shoes make to my outdoor activities. Let's encourage manufacturers to make minimalist shoes that work in more severe conditions, rather than just summer; the season for which most minimal shoes are designed (ironically the season in which we least need them).
Get out and be active. Don't let the fact that you can't be barefoot stop you.