Barefoot vs cushioned vs stiff soles
I read an article about sisters who hiked the Appalachian Trail barefoot. That’s hardcore! I have absolutely no intentions of going with bare feet (my HSP has a physical manifestation in that I have a very sensitive skin), but I am intrigued by the minimalist (=barefoot) concept. I just simply believe that my feet will benefit from working harder, when the shoe doesn’t provide a cushion or ankle support. It’s actually quite a lot of fun to feel the ground under your feet – every little bump and pebble, and the sole forms itself along every contour. With thicker and/or harder soles, you just step on whatever is the highest point under your foot so the ground contact can be quite small. With a barefoot sole, the entire sole makes contact, every time, which brings a new dimension to walking.
Another point in favour of the minimalist concept is that it gives you a better balance. Simply put, the closer to the ground your feet are, the better the balance. You also have a better contact with the ground and your toes have room to work (the toe box is big enough for a hobbit to feel comfortable), so your feet are sending tactile feedback to your brain about the ground which allows you to adapt to it.
An example of the opposite of close ground contact, I have a pair of low-cut Gore-Tex hikers which are as comfortable as hiking boots can get (big reason why I got them), but which have turned out to be less than great when you’re actually hiking. The comfort comes with a price, which is that my foot is not as tight in the boot as it normally is, so I’ve needed to put an extra insole to prevent my foot from moving inside the boot. This means that the sole of the boot as a whole is quite high, and I often feel unsteady in the boots and I’ve rolled my ankle a good few times. Not enough to get hurt, but enough to get annoyed by it. I haven’t experienced the same with any other boot or shoe. So I’m no longer using those boots for hiking, only for walking on roads or good trails.
The running shoe manufacturers do their best to convince people that they need cushioned shoes to prevent injuries, or a special insole that fits your foot type. But let’s not forget that the foot is beautifully constructed to act as a shock absorber on its own, so if you don’t want to get the latest and greatest “innovation” every year, you should look at your running technique to see how you can best make use of the natural qualities of your feet. More of that in the next chapter.
If you are wearing minimalist shoes, you need to pay more attention to where you set your foot so you can avoid stepping on things that will hurt your foot. The bonus of doing this is that you can also avoid tripping and slipping, thus reducing the need for increased ankle support. If you have thick soles, you can pretty much step on a spike without getting hurt, thus you’re not so worried about where you set your foot.
But speaking from my own perspective, I’m doubtful that the barefoot concept will work for me when the hiking gets tough. There has been countless of times I’ve blessed the stiff soles of my boots when walking over rocks and sometimes stepping on sharp, pointed rocks which would be excruciatingly painful with bare feet, even cause injuries. So while I really enjoy my Vivobarefoot boots, I cannot see myself doing difficult or long hikes hikes with them. I will obviously try them next summer, but at the moment I’m almost sure my feet will thank me for using thicker soles.
If you’re tempted to try minimalist shoes yourself, keep in mind that there’s a learning curve. I have two years of mobility training behind me, and it paid dividends in that my body had no issues when I started walking with my Vivobarefoots. I’ve done walks up to 10K without suffering any aches afterwards, but your mileage may vary. So start with short walks to allow you body to get used to barefoot walking, and most importantly, don’t run until you learn to walk!