Sometimes, A Shoe Is Just A Shoe

Sam Wilkinson

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

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81 Responses

  1. morat20 says:

    One problem with barefoot running is the faddish aspect. And something as intensely physical as running, switching to a fad (even if it’s a working fad) is dangerous and very hard on your body.

    Even if barefoot running is the bee’s knees, the holy grail of running, if you’re a guy that does 15 miles a week in running shoes, trying to do even 5 miles a week barefoot is going to break you.

    Your body is conditioned for running shoes, not barefoot. The same tedious, annoying process that it takes to get up to speed running (which conditions not only your heart and lungs, but muscles and tendon and bone) to that level and type of activity has to be done all over again.

    Sure, you’ve got the cardiovascular system to do it with ease — but your feet and calves and ankles aren’t.

    The second I heard about barefoot running I thought “Half the people that switch to this are going to try to do a ‘light run’ in them and kill their feet” when they should have acted like they were newbies to running.

    And that’s without even determining whether there’s any benefit or not. Just pure bio-mechanics and people being people.Report

    • Kim in reply to morat20 says:

      If so, that’s because running is inherently injurious (“kill their feet” taken as not “make yourself sore”). I’ve gone from a decent 4 mile walk in a park to a 15 mile hike on a toejam trail, and mostly come out… sore, sometimes very sore, but that’s also known as “building those damn muscles quickly.”

      Or maybe I just have more tolerance for “kill yourself” than most people do. Gyms tend to teach folks that conditioning is best done slowly.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        Feet, ankles, and knees take full body weight impacts, and it’s pretty much impossible to keep ‘off your feet’ for weeks to let an injury heal.

        Walking’s a lot easier than jogging on the whole setup — I could easily go several times the distance I jog at a walk, and have less soreness after.

        Oddly, my knees (I’ve dislocated each one once — got a little screw-up that makes them a tad easier to dislocate than normal) complain about stairs often, but not jogging. Dunno why. 🙂Report

  2. Troublesome Frog says:

    I changed over to the Five Fingers to see if it would help with the tenodnitis I tended to get when running. I think that my story is one of floppy weak legs that were not acclimating well to running. Better running shoes with better support let me run farther without feeling foot or leg fatigue, but I ended up with ankle pain and other problems. I put on the Five Fingers and within a few hundred yards, my calves and shins were on fire. I was using muscles that were way underdeveloped. So I stopped and tried again the next day. After a while, those muscles got a lot stronger and my stride improved. Suddenly, I was running without pain.

    I suspect that going back to regular running shoes would be just fine now. I wasn’t battling any sort of fundamental problem with a modern non-caveman gait. The minimalist shoes just helped me ease into it and build my legs and ankles up at the right rate by making it pretty much impossible to overdo it. I think the same thing could have been done with “regular” shoes by carefully enforcing a very slow ramp-up to longer distances. It’s just easier to do that when your body gives you feedback now instead of the next morning.Report

    • greginak in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

      One thing runners, or prospective runners, don’t do enough of is strength training. Doing a handful of body weight strength exercises does wonders for building up legs and core so running is much more fun.Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to greginak says:

        I’ve long since changed over to yoga, which has been really great. If I need cardio, I swim. Both of those build a lot of little muscles in places that normally get really weak, so it has been a good combo. Major quality of life and no injuries.Report

      • Kim in reply to greginak says:

        My problem is balance training, honestly. Stand on one foot for two minutes. Switch feet. Attaining better prioperception is really, really useful.Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to greginak says:

        Yeah, yoga has been insanely good for my balance. And my calves are bigger and more muscled than they’ve ever been. Doing all of of that balancing on a soft mat when you’re 190-200 pounds builds up little foot and lower leg muscles fast. Doing it with your eyes closed is a crazy foot workout.Report

    • Brooke in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

      The people I know who wear them use them because they like the feel or the style, not necessarily because of the claimed benefit. They’re not avid runners, either. I wonder how many of Vibram’s customers fall into this group.Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to Brooke says:

        They feel awesome. I wear them all the time for just that reason.

        I think it depends on the shape of your foot. If your foot is shaped like the shoemaker’s model of what a foot “should be” you probably like those shoes.Report

      • Kim in reply to Brooke says:

        oh god, that’s so true. Of course, every damn shoemaker thinks that your foot should be “average”.Report

  3. greginak says:

    Ha. I just bought a new pair of running shoes last night to replace my old ones which were getting worn. In general i agree, people obsess to much over this bit of gear or that. Gear matters in the broadest sense but little details rarely do. Or if it matters, like with running shoes, it is a personal thing like fit. Some shoes just fit my foot better than others. Same deal for my other gear oriented activities, cycling and xc skiing, people get way into tiny details that at most could only make a tiny difference.

    Party i think that is motivation, people want to feel their gear is helping them or they have something to make it easier. If you think your gear is slow then its easier to feel dragged down instead of energetic. One thing with the finger shoes is the magic concept of “natural” was deployed which just hypnotizes some people into thinking some is good. Especially with running being fairly hard on our bodies, its easy to think tech will save us. The biggest thing to make running easier it to get in better shape, that really is it.Report

    • morat20 in reply to greginak says:

      I go to a nice store local store for my shoes — half the clients are marathoners, the other half people with foot problems. They asked about my feet, my history of foot problems, what I wanted to do — and then helped me pick a great pair of shoes. They cost about three times what I would have paid, but have lasted far longer — and I haven’t had foot problems despite going from couch potato to actually lumbering through a few miles a week.

      They were horrified by what I was wearing — excellent shoes for the foot problems I was having when I got them, but absolutely wrong if you’re wearing custom inserts — which explained the foot pain i was getting.

      The shoes I’ve got now are padded, typical running shoes — except they’re more ‘minimalist’ than many brands, and supposedly promote a fore or mid foot strike when running. I haven’t really noticed, but I don’t run enough to really pay much attention to my gait. I’m still working on getting muscles and heart up to speed..

      (Seriously, I’m still lumbering towards jogging a full mile. I mean I can jog a mile during a workout, but I mean without slowing down to a walk in the middle. My current three month goal is to get up to 2 miles of jogging a session, three times a week, at a very slow jog — about 4.5 mph).Report

      • Dave in reply to morat20 says:

        I’m lucky because I can buy a relatively cheap pair of New Balance running shoes for $50-$60 and get 750 miles worth of use out of them, at least I did with my last pair. I run between 15 to 20 miles a week and it works for me.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to morat20 says:

        Hey, New Balance is what I’ve got. 🙂 They weren’t much more expensive than 75ish, but I was buying like 20 dollar shoes before.Report

      • Dave in reply to morat20 says:

        My second pair of NB was exactly like the first pair except a different color with green neon laces. It was all about the laces.

        I ran on that pair so much that I wore a hole through the mesh on the top of the shoe.Report

  4. veronica dire says:

    The idea that shoes are only shoes is preposterous balderdash of the veriest sort.

    Contrary evidence:

    In life, there is nothing but shoes.

    (With the possible exception of HANDBAGS!

  5. Jim Heffman says:

    Remember Vitamin Water?Report

  6. Kazzy says:

    First, it is important to note that “barefoot running” isn’t just about what you put on your feet, but also about how you run. As @morat20 notes upthread, one can’t just slap on a pair of barefoot-style running shoes and expect immediate results.

    I’ve only really gotten into running in the last 4 years. In the beginning, I just wore whatever cross-trainers I had at the time. The pair I had then was one I had had for years and which I beat to hell but which perfectly conformed to my feet. Much of the padding had been run out of them so they were far more minimalist than initially intended. But they worked for me and I ran decently well and that was that. After destroying those in a mud run, I picked up a new pair of similar shoes and immediately began having some difficulty. Nothing major but more tweaks here and there than before. Shortly after that, I severely sprained my ankle and was inactive for a few months. I eventually went to a PT to address the injury, who himself was a hardcore devotee of barefoot running (as well as Kettle Bell training and other similar fads; he was exactly the sort of guy Sam decries above). The guy did wonders on my ankle, for which I am eternally grateful. He also pushed me hard into barefoot running, training me in the basic form and recommending some shoes. I didn’t like the form. It felt awkward and unnatural (as most things will the first time you try them). More importantly, like Sam, I’m not one for “training”. I just go out and do and then adjust as necessary. But I did get the shoes — Merrell’s — and they were an instant hit. Not necessarily because minimalist shoes are the best but because I had gotten used to running with less shoe on my foot (the previously mentioned beat-to-hell ones) so my body seemed to respond best to them. I’ve been running in them for almost two years now and have had nary a twinge of pain. They work for me. I love them. I will buy the same pair or a similar pair when I need to again.

    But, hey, that’s me. My wife also loves them. Some people hate them for one reason or another. To each their own.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

      Oh… and I’ve got my first half-marathon this Saturday in Brooklyn. Pretty pumped for it. I’ve covered a similar distance before — both in training runs and in Tough Mudders — but this will be the first time I do this sort of race. I did a 5K and 10K in preparation. I’m worried I might get bored but hope laughing at hipsters as I run will be sufficiently entertaining.Report

    • greginak in reply to Kazzy says:

      I think form is really important. Last year i felt sluggish and wasn’t seeing an improvement in times so i watched a few youtube vids and gave myself one simple cue to change my stride slightly which immediately led to 30 sec faster per mile and more enjoyable runs.

      Each person might have one form that works for them, they just have to find and have the gear that matches it. It wouldn’t’ surprise me if many of us could have two or three styles of running that would work as long as we trained right.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to greginak says:

        For me, the best thing I did for running was lose weight. I was never heavy (topped out around 210 on a 5-10/5-11 body, but I have a muscular build) but I lost 24 pounds and counting over the last 5 months and running has gotten SO much easier and better. I’ve shaved minutes off my pace and can go for longer stretches with more energy.

        But form was big as well. In rebuilding my ankle, we worked out some kinks up and down my leg. Could I run in the barefoot style? Maybe. I dunno. I run a way right now that feels really good so that works for me. I guess it is possible I am doing some unknown long-term damage to my body, but that’s kind of always a threat no matter what you’re doing.Report

      • greginak in reply to greginak says:

        Yeah getting in shape is the “real secret” to running better. I’m at 185 and 5 ‘ 11’ but have been heavier. Running is much more fun then when i was heavier. Just losing weight and being in better shape covers about 90% of my running tips.Report

      • Sam Wilkinson in reply to greginak says:

        At my size (247 right now), down twenty pounds since January, I struggle mightily with both exercising intensively and not wanting to eat several houses. I’ve never worked out a good balance. I’ve also never figured out how to get anywhere close to the government’s recommended weights for somebody my height (180-200). The most in-shape I’ve ever been coupled with the best diet I’ve ever maintained got me down to 220. My doctor just told me that I really shouldn’t worry about my weight, other than wanting to take it easier on joints. In terms of overall health, the relationships are scant at best. Allegedly.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to greginak says:

        I tend not to look at “recommended” weights. I’ve been overweight or obese my entire life by those standards which, at the risk of sounding arrogant, is absurd. Judging from the few pics I’ve seen of you, @sam-wilkinson , you have a solid frame.

        I struggled early during this recent round of weight loss. What kick started the process was actually a bad stomach bug coupled with some work-related stress. Both of these served to reduce my appetite, which is really what I had to do first. I have a *huge* appetite and am fortunate to be active enough/have a fast enough metabolism that it doesn’t cause me any real weigh issues. I mean, I don’t drink soda, coffee, or really anything besides water AND I’m very active, yet I’m still no string bean. Getting my meal sizes down to “hungry human” from “starving giant” was key.

        My advice is to focus on one thing at a time. In the past, I’ve tried to start exercising AND dieting on the very same day. This never works. Too much shock to the system. So I try to get one piece in place really solidly than ease into the second one. For whatever that is worth.

        Now I’m content with just one value meal at McD’s. I used to have to supplement with some dollar menu items. Of course, that was also when the goal was “Eat until your sick.” I never really grew out of the eating habits I developed as a 16-year-old three sport athlete (and, again, am highly fortunate to have not had this bite me in my fat ass).

        Per your comment below, yes, the pigeon deer run was exactly what I was doing and I ceased it immediately.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to greginak says:

        Right. If I ever fall out of “overweight” range, I’ll worry that I’m wasting away. Unless you have a very high body fat percentage, weight just isn’t a good proxy for adiposity. When trying to lose fat, you should track your progress with waist circumference or skinfold calipers, not a scale.Report

      • Murali in reply to greginak says:


        I can’t believe you are even in the range. The last time we met you looked like you were wasting away.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to greginak says:

        Aside from an extended trip overseas a few years ago, my BMI has not dropped below 25 for ten years.Report

      • Kim in reply to greginak says:

        Central adiposity isn’t best measured with BMI. The only reason folks use BMI is it’s cheap. Any decent measure of bodyfat will tell you how well you’re doing. (Personally, I’d worry about running at weights like that, but I’m lucky and can go up and down a thousand feet in my local park (okay, that’s a couple of hills, but still…))Report

      • Morat20 in reply to greginak says:

        Least I ever weighed since high school was 225 or so. (A weight I’m trying to get closer to — my goal for the year is cut another 5% off my body weight). Which is well over my recommended weight, according to those pointless charts.

        And at that point, I could see my abs. Not like “ripped” but for the first time in my life I was aware that, somewhere under my stomach, I had muscles. 🙂

        And that was when I was 24, doing intensive cardio three or four times a week for 90 minutes at a time. I wasn’t heavily muscled.

        I’m just tall, broad shouldered, and pretty solidly built. My ‘recommended weight’ would be unhealthy — I’d have had to lose the rest of my fat AND quite a bit of muscle to get down to that.Report

      • Dave in reply to greginak says:

        I never pay attention to BMI.

        I stand at a towering 5′ 5″. My weight is 175 right now. I’m still in the process of losing a few more lbs and will probably level off around 170-172. According to the BMI index, I’m between a 28-29.

        In order to get to the “recommended” weight, I’d have to drop to 145 lbs. That’s going to be impossible. I’ve had testing done and my current lean body mass is 150 lbs. At 170 lbs, that puts me at approximately 12% body fat. Given the amount I exercise and a decent eating regimen, I don’t think I need to worry about BMI or obesity.Report

      • zic in reply to greginak says:

        This subthread fascinates me.

        I have absolutely no idea what my weight is; I’ve never owned a scale. (But I’ve never been particularly overweight, either, though I was pleasingly plump for a couple years after my children were born.)

        But I do eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much. Mostly cooked at home. And I walk a lot, mostly in the woods.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to greginak says:

        When I was at my “BMIdeal weight” I was way too skinny. Like, I couldn’t keep my pants at the right height because bones got in the way. I am big boned. Which is sometimes used as an evasion to confronting overweightness. But I will admit that I am overweight in addition to being big boned. It’s just that the bones do allow me to carry the weight a little better than I otherwise would, and that if I get back to my target weight I will still be on the cusp of being overweight according to the chart.Report

    • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Kazzy says:

      I am relatively lucky in this regard, in that I generally run up on my toes, the move that these shoes are supposed to work best with. I do remember however somebody who was trying to teach themselves to run up on his toes, and he literally looked like a prancing deer. It looked so profoundly strange and uncomfortable and unnatural, especially for him. What’s the point in that? I don’t get maximizing what we’ve got, rather than forcing ourselves into something we might want.Report

  7. Shazbot3 says:

    A shoe is not a shoe and the hippies who vote for Democrats are the real sexists.Report

  8. I will just say how much I earnestly enjoy the image of you teeing off in flip flops.Report

  9. Stillwater says:

    People desperately want right answers in all things.

    Yes they do.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Stillwater says:

      The most comfortable pair of shoes I ever tried on in my entire life were both the most expensive shoes I’ve ever tried on and the ugliest freakin’ thinks any offspring of man ever designed as footwear.

      Sometimes you can’t have the right answers in all things, all at once.Report

  10. Dave says:


    That’s not what it is though. It’s a victory for the idea that companies can’t claim a benefit that hasn’t actually been proven.

    By the time the sports supplements industry gets this memo, hell will have frozen over.

    “Crossfit is best you losers!”

    Was that quote from a crossfitter or a chiropractor treating Crossfit injuries? 😉Report

  11. Damon says:

    Yah, I just can’t seem to get excited about this. Like you said Sam, wear what you want. It’s a process. My only real comments on the shoes is I always thought they looked stupid or dorkey. But hey, I’ve occasionally worn a straw hat, so what do I know.

    Sam–you do look a bit dorkey in those shoes.
    Veronica-would have liked to seen some stillettos in those pics 🙂 but I liked the first ones too.Report

  12. Kazzy says:

    How much time do most people spend barefoot? I hate shoes. Always have. Well, let me correct that: I really enjoy wearing fun shoes. But I would almost always prefer to have less on my feet than more. If I can wear flip flops instead of shoes, I will. If I can go barefoot, I will. I’ve been this way since I was little.

    I do know some physical education teachers and occupational therapists who sing the praises of spending time barefoot. There are apparently lots of benefits the body — particularly a child’s developing body — can realize from interacting with the world barefooted. I wonder if the frequency people spend barefoot versus in shoes (and in different types of shoes, at that) impacts how they respond to running with more or less support/protection.

    But, seriously, fuck shoes.Report

    • Troublesome Frog in reply to Kazzy says:

      I used to pretty much live in hiking boots. Loved them. Nice hiking boots with custom molded footbeds. I would have slept in them if I could have, sheets be damned. Married an Asian woman. Put a stop to that double quick. Now that I don’t go into an office, I only wear shoes with laces when I take the dog for a long walk, and even then I wear my Five Fingers more than half the time.

      My wife cleans the dog’s paws with wet wipes before she lets it back into the house.Report

    • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

      I spend every minute at home barefoot while I’m inside (except when it’s below 65, inside. then slippers or chilblains. i choose slippers!).Report

    • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Kazzy says:

      There is a stereotype about West Virginians that we’re barefoot. (Well, there are lots of stereotypes about West Virginians.) I suppose we’re meant to be ashamed at that, but people around here have remarkably tough feet. Tough enough to very casually walk on gravel. Sadly, I do not have them. I am shamed about that.

      I prefer flip-flops to anything else.Report

    • Damon in reply to Kazzy says:

      Yep, I go barefoot as well. Except when it’s cold. I can also walk short distances on gravel and do to get the mail.Report

  13. Lenoxus says:

    I think a lot of the gleeful derision comes from what might be called the “science partisan” subculture (there’s probably a better term), of which I am a member of sorts. These are people concerned about things like evolution denial, climate-change denial, belief in the paranormal, conspiracy theories, fears of GMOs, and alternative medicine of all kinds.

    For that crowd, this story felt like a victory in a world where (although it’s nice to have an FDA) there’s still a whole industry based on selling “medicine” that is literally just water, albeit water whose molecules once touched something deadly to humans. (By simple pseudo-logic, the no-longer-there chemical will have a “like cures like” effect, healing the same conditions whose symptoms that chemical would normally cause.)

    Anyway, this is a few notches from that, though not too far indeed if wearing these shoes actually caused an increased rate of injury. Hence the answer to people who ask “But what’s the harm?” And that’s why it’s a huge mistake to call anyone a sucker. No one should be identified so closely with their buying decisions. Although it’s good to make well-informed choices, it’s the sellers who have the responsibility to be honest, and the regulators who should help keep them so.

    Vibram knew that and offered it to them, asserting that its shoes represented the right answer for runners. Vibram’s critics disagreed, believing that it was they who had the right answer. But maybe the best answer is the least satisfying one: that a right answer doesn’t exist. That fitness, as with all things, is a process, one very much informed by individual preference and discovery, one in which what is right for one person is wrong for another, one in which there is enough room for all of the possible answers.

    I don’t recall any critics offering a “solution” to the problems runners face, nor would they have to. If Vibram said their shoes cured cancer, would their critics have to suggest a real cancer cure if they want to make a decent point?

    And in a way, that’s not hyperbole. Vibram in particular would never make such a claim, but lots of pseudoscience-peddlers have. Others have advised people against vaccination, a belief which increases the rate of preventable diseases among children. Your rhetoric, if taken at face value, suggests not drawing a line there because we all have to find our own path. In fact, sometimes it’s better to stand on the shoulders of giants.Report

    • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Lenoxus says:


      No idea if you’re a runner or not, but if you think there wasn’t an answer behind the criticisms being offered by Vibram’s critics, you weren’t paying attention. The “answer” being given was thick-soled shoes (the kind we tend to think of whenever we imagine modern sneakers). Those soles, proponents argue, are good for us, desperately needed in fact. Vibram argued otherwise, stepping over the line by claiming that there WERE inherent benefits, when suggesting something less would have been more honest. Of course, few companies are going to spend money on a slogan like, “This product might work out well for you. Or it might not. Such is the complexity of life. But give it a shot in case it does. Even though it might not.” For the record, I’m not against the money being put aside, nor am I against the idea that companies lying should be hauled in front of a court and made to pay. That though doesn’t mean that there are some people for whom barefoot running has been better. Nor does it mean that there aren’t some people for whom barefoot running has been worse. The answer is somewhere in the middle. There are plenty of runners who succeed barefoot. There are runners who succeed minimalist. And there are runners who succeed in thick-soled shoes.

      As for these giant shoulders you’re talking about, which ones should I stand on? The ones of the very successful barefoot runners or the ones of the very successful thick-soled runners? SO MANY OPTIONS! It’s almost as if maybe there are multiple ways to approach the concept of fitness and what makes more sense than forcing yourself into a particular approach (because of some alleged scientific claims about that approach’s superiority) is figuring out what works best for you on an individual level. Unlike vaccination, which is extremely polarized in its approach, shoe selection is widely varied and can, in fact, contain several correct answers. And also unlike vaccination, my choice of shoes doesn’t, even potentially, have any impact on your life whatsoever.

      But, by all means, if you’ve got answers for me, please let me know.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        I’m not a runner, so I entirely defer to your expertise there. I’m saying that for some people, their interest is not so much the content of the debate as the symbolism (pseudoscience vs duped consumers) and the tone (free spirits vs close-minded mean ol’ scientists).

        You just now said “The answer is somewhere in the middle”, a phrase known to trigger berating from both sides (well, from the left in particular) as an attempt to be above the fray or an unwillingness to point out true wrongdoing in instances where only one side is “doing it”.

        This phenomenon also happens outside politics, in science. To some people, that’s even more annoying, because science is more about objective truths than politics is. It’s unreasonable to suggest that pro- and anti-vaccinationists are equally extreme and so everyone should just make their own choice, because hey, who can say, really? (If you do that, what happens is the viruses make the choice for you.)

        Of course, in the case of these shoes, I doubt there’s anywhere near as much scientific research showing the value of thick soles, so it does indeed seem to be a question of opinion. And it is silly to bring the same “pick a side already!” arguments into one’s approach to a hobby.

        All the same, I’m glad a company’s bluff was called.Report