Wild Feet, Wild Life - My 15 year Journey with Minimalist Shoes

Happy Footloose Friday, League! 

I’ve been on the minimalist shoe journey for 15 years now and it’s definitely changed my feet for the better. Shoes are a topic that come up often in every fitness space I’m in, so it seemed like a good time to share some of what I’ve tried and learned. 

It’s funny to think I’ve spent 15 years just figuring out how to keep my feet functional and feeling good. Our feet are just one small part of our body, but they have such a big impact. My wildness starts with my feet.

In 2008, I saw a podiatrist for frequent pain in my big toe joint. The doctor spent 5 minutes bending my toe back-and-forth before prescribing ugly, stiff-soled shoes with orthotics or surgery with a 50% failure rate.

I couldn’t settle for those options, so I went down the Google rabbit hole. Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” book was all the rage and it was where I first learned about the heel-toe drop that most shoes have. When you are standing flat-footed in the shoes, your heel is actually higher off the ground than your toes. This can lead to a shortening of your calf muscles and Achilles’ tendon over time. It can also cause an unnatural stance and stride that can lead to issues with everything from your feet to your lower back. I always wore running shoes and thought they were better for my feet. But it wasn’t true.

Going forward, in saying ‘minimalist shoes’ I am talking about shoes that are both zero-drop (no heel-toe drop) and with a thin sole so that you can feel the nuances of the ground underfoot, allow your foot and toes to splay without obstruction, and are very flexible so your foot, toes, and ankles have a full range of motion. 

So Many Shoes
Back in 2009, Vibram Five Fingers, or VFFs, were one of the few minimalist shoes available. I called them “monkey toes” because they have a pocket for each toe, similar to gloves. They had a sole so thin you could feel everything but still protect your feet from injury. They were all I wore for years. After wearing them regularly, my feet developed a wider forefoot, which meant I could no longer cram my feet into normal running shoes. I also developed stronger feet and ankles.

Over the years, I had at least 8 pairs of different VFFs, but then they changed the design and they didn’t fit well anymore. I became frustrated because there weren’t a lot of other options and I couldn’t wear normal shoes anymore, either.

Then in 2014, I saw an ad for a “foot-shaped” shoe made by Altra. I loved them immediately. They weren’t minimalist because they had a cushioned sole, but they were zero-drop, they fit my feet well and I could wear them hiking. I was just glad to have a shoe that fit.

In the years since, I have gone through at least 10 pairs of Altras. I tried their Olympus, Lone Peak, Solstice, Superior, and Timp models. The Lone Peak and Superior were my favorite for the lower stack height and great tread. I wore them for years. But then Altra changed their design. They narrowed the toe box and the midfoot which made them uncomfortable for my Flintstone feet. I went searching for new options again, as the minimalist shoe market had exploded with choices.

I experimented with Whitin, FitKicks, Skinners, and both Luna and Xero sandals. They all had pros and cons, but I wasn’t in love with any of them.Mostly they didn’t quite fit right and just felt wonky on my feet. I loved the look of VivoBarefoot, but most of their shoes are leather which doesn’t work in the wet forest. I wanted a shoe that “became one with my foot” so that it was as if I was barely wearing shoes at all.

2 years ago, I picked up a pair of EarthRunner sandals which were much closer to what I was hoping for. I wore them exclusively from April-November. I was curious if I would see changes if I wore minimalist shoes exclusively. That was the best my feet have ever felt. I wore them everywhere. My feet felt so free being exposed to all of the elements. If my feet got wet, they dried quickly – no soggy socks or squishy shoes! I tripped and stubbed my toes less often, which I didn’t expect. However, the strap system was troublesome to adjust. It was all one piece, so if the heel strap slipped, you had to adjust the entire sandal. The tread was not aggressive enough for effective hiking in more rugged areas. But for the non-winter, they were a good option.

Once the snow flew, I went back to Altra Lone Peak. I could hardly put them on! I was astonished how much my feet changed in 6 months. My whole foot was wider – the forefoot, the midfoot and even the heel was thicker after having the freedom to spread out naturally. I actually ordered 2 pairs of Altras a few months ago after some more changes they made, but only the hiking boots fit me well enough to wear.

Next, I snagged some Xero Prios which were super comfortable. They have almost no cushion/stack height so good ground feel, are zero-drop and best of all, they don’t have a hard support edge on the outside. That was my issue with Altras no longer fitting – there is a support structure on the outside of the foot that squeezes my midfoot and causes pain. The Prio has more “give” on the side. However, when I take the footbed out of Prio, and stand on it on the floor, my foot still overhangs by a half inch or so in the entire mid-to-forefoot. They are still too narrow but they don’t hurt to wear. Xero has a 5,000 mile warranty which is the most generous I know of. Most shoe companies, if they have one, are 400-500 miles. Despite being more than a year old and worn frequently, my Prios show no wear on the sole. If they fit your feet, Xero can be a great and more affordable option.

After walking about 40 miles in the Prios in DC in May, the pain in my big toe returned. I think this was just due to so many miles on cement which I don’t usually do. But I can’t wear the Prios for hiking, either. Back to the drawing board again!

After numerous recommendations, I got some Shamma Ibex sandals for hiking. They have an aggressive yet flexible sole. They also have a separate heel strap adjustment. They are made amazingly well and give me that sense of the sandal being “one with” my foot. I likely will pick up a more minimalist version in the fall for daily wear. 

That still leaves me looking toward winter when sandals aren’t an option. I have a pair of Sorels with a significant heel-toe drop, so even wearing them for brief periods makes my back sore. I have Xero’s Alpine boots, which work well when it’s not too cold and the snow isn’t too deep. They are perfect for my Hok skis and snowshoes. But they aren’t enough for temps into the -40s and deep snow.

In the hopes that the winter zero-drop footwear selection has improved in the last 2 years, I checked Anya’s Reviews for boot ideas and was excited she had a top-10 list. 

I actually laughed out loud.
The number one winter boot on her list?
Steger Mukluks, which are made in Ely, Minnesota, where we live. In fact, they are half a mile from our house. They’ve been here for decades and I never really thought about them as an option. Their boots are made for the kind of winters we have, are flexible, and zero-drop.

Come fall, I should have hiking sandals, everyday sandals, winter recreation boots and serious winter boots that are all zero drop and as minimalist as you can get for the jobs they need to do.

It’s not just the shoes though…
For the last 15 years I have made the assumption that either being barefoot, or in the right shoes, would magically fix my foot issues. I was wrong. I need to give proper attention to my foot strength, mobility and flexibility as well. All of the items below that are part of my wild feet tool kit:

It’s truly amazing how good Stoic feels after a long walk or hike, or just when my feet feel tired or sore. It really digs into all the nooks and crannies, and I can work on things like toe spreading and balance at the same time.

Massage ball

Any type of smaller ball will work. Golf ball, tennis ball, Fido’s fetch ball, whatever you have. The more “squish” it has the less you can dig into tissues but a softer option will be more ideal for beginners. All you have to do is roll the ball around under your foot and vary the pressure where it feels needed. Similar to a foam roller, when you find a spot that is tight or sore, you can dig in a little harder.

Happy Feet toe socks or toe spacers
I don’t think everyone needs these. But when I have to wear shoes that squish my feet, I find them really helpful for giving my toes a lengthy, needed stretch afterward. I love the socks because I can wear them around the house and overnight. I’ve been using them for a couple of years, so 8 hours is doable for me. I wouldn’t do that right out of the gate though or you’ll get cramps and sore feet. Always gradually increase the time.

Balance exercises
Doing one-legged exercises really helps build strength in your feet, ankles, and lower legs especially when you do them barefoot. Using a yoga block, a pillow, a balance beam, a cut-in-half foam roller or something fancier like a Bosu ball, you can increase the challenge by doing things like Pistol Squats or One-Legged Deadlifts or yoga moves like Half Moon or Eagle pose.

Barefoot walks
Just making a point to walk barefoot on a variety of surfaces while being conscious of my movement patterns helps a lot. I started doing this in the grass at a park and now can walk almost anywhere barefoot, including gravel. I love barefoot hiking on established trails. Our feet have thousands of nerve endings, making them sensitive to even the smallest change in texture. Walking on cool dirt and rocks, sunny logs and other surfaces is like a playground for your feet! After having to wear shoes and boots in the winter, there is a spring adaptation period and barefoot walks are one of the fastest ways to do that.

There are a lot of these out there, these are the 2 I do the most that I feel the most benefit from:
Piano Toes
Foot Scrunches

Other Resources
Foot Collective They have a lot of great info and exercises.
Anya’s Reviews She reviews every minimalist shoe you can imagine from around the world. She has a tool to help you find what shoes might work best for everything from dress shoes to winter boots.

This is already long enough, but please hit me up via email if you have some wild shoe recommendations or just want to shoot the breeze about minimalist shoes and foot health!

Live long and barefoot!


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