About a month ago, Merrell was kind enough to send me a pair of their vegan-friendly Pace Glove minimalist/barefoot running shoes, which I’ve been using several times per week since then. Over the weekend, I was finally able to get back to my pre-minimalist distance, and it was truly amazing. If my shoes and I were friends on Facebook, this would be the time when we went from “It’s Complicated” to “In A Relationship,” because, while I was iffy at first, I’m pretty sold on this style of running. And not because it’s “more natural” or because it’s hip to do right now–but because it’s hard.
While I wasn’t 100% sure I was into the idea of fake-barefoot (read: shod, and thus, not actually barefoot at all) running, I was immediately drawn to Merrell’s take on the trend– thin, flexible, and ultra-lightweight style, these cute sneakers didn’t look like what I usually pictured when I thought about minimalist shoes, which basically look like toe-socks with a sole. I broke them in by walking my dogs in them, and liked how comfortable they were to walk in.
And then I went for a slow, painful run and thought I was going to die. My feet had never worked so hard to make me move. My calves were straining. My legs couldn’t propel me forward. I felt useless, flustered. So, after soaking my legs and taking an Advil, I did some much-needed research.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its popularity in the last year, barefoot/minimalist running (and the shoes that come with it) has plenty of detractors, who snub this trend for all kinds of reasons. And if I hadn’t read up on the mechanics of barefoot running, I probably would have become one of them. Because while a lot of critics have a lot to say, none actually touch on what, through my experiment with these shoes, I’ve found that I both hate and love about my minimalist shoes, whatever you choose to call them: they make my feet do more work.
Which is the bottom line. That’s what I like about minimalist shoes–even if it also makes me curse them sometimes. Without the protection and guidance of clunky, thick-soled trainers, you’re forced to focus on the most efficient, least painful method of movement you can swing–which, in a lot of cases, is pretty divergent from what you’ve been conditioned to do.
Instead of leaning backward and hitting the ground heel-first (the dreaded “heel-strike”), in minimalist shoes or when completely barefoot, you’ve got to lean into the run, springing and landing on the balls of the feet. It takes a great deal of correction, and significantly reduces the distance you can go when you first start–but it’s totally worth it for the improvements to stride, posture, and effort once you get it down. Or at least, it was for me.
This wasn’t the lesson I expected to learn at all. Because barefoot running sounds like it should be easy–we’re all born with feet, right? Shouldn’t we all be able to run on them, without the shaping and molding of shoes? And yet, if you dive right in, you’re going to be in a world of hurt, which can make it hard to push ahead and get better, especially if you’ve been running just fine for years in traditional shoes.
But the fact is, barefoot and minimalist running is more challenging, and, as a result, requires more mindfulness. It is harder and slower and more painful at first–but it’s also more about your body, and less about what’s helping it. After finally getting used to my new shoes, my runs have become less about what they do or don’t do–and more about all the cool things my body can do when I want it to. But it took wearing next-to-nothing on my feet to find that.
Image: Mine, of my now well-loved shoes