If you've seen me walking around any time in the last month, you've likely seen (and commented on) the above. They are Vibram Five Fingers classics, a pair of so-called barefooting shoes. This all started about two summers ago when I broke my right foot for the second time. Going in to the Orthopaedist, I learned that, in addition to the break, I had bone spurs. I have still have the x-rays here. Then five months later, I had pain near my hip flexor. Another visit to the doc, another relatively clean bill of health, but this time with a warning that the spurs would worsen with time and more running.
Now, I don't run that much. Maybe 15-18 miles a week. On top of that, in the summers, I play Basketball once a week and Frisbee once or twice a week. Nothing too serious. I don't get shin splints or achy knees. Instead, the nerves in my right leg feel like they are tightening and pulling my lower back causing my gait to go off-center. That assumes, of course, that my form was right to begin with - something I cannot confirm having never been coached or analyzed by video or even watched by someone with a critical eye for this stuff.
Which brings us back to the orthopaedist. Now there on my third visit, I was following up on my hip and took the opportunity to ask about my shoe choices. Rockport - his favorite kind. Soft and -- good for an orthopaedist -- with removable insoles. The doc recommended inserts. Not custom, at $300+, but still $95 a pair. For 4 pairs of regular use shoes, I bought 3 pair, turning every $50 pair of New Balance into the equivalent of a top-of-the-line running shoe. And I'll need to start replacing them soon, along with the new Size 10 shoes that I needed to buy to accommodate them. My old 9.5s just couldn't contain all that cushioning.
Perhaps you are starting to feel the same sense of bafflement that I did at this point. Why is this so complicated? How much equipment do I need just to walk? Worse yet, if I need this much now, what will I need at 40 and 50 and 60 to ambulate?
So I started looking into other options. I had seen the Vibrams on the Frisbee fields the previous year and asked about them. How could I not? I learned they were basically a rubber sole on a bare foot and very comfortable despite that. Digging a bit further, I found a community of barefooters. These folks are hard core and a little quirky. Not a lot of credibility there. Still, they loved the Vibram. And they linked to a Runners World article on barefooting: http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-240-319--6728-0,00.html. Great runners run barefoot. More importantly, amateur runners who run without shoes see no ill effects of going barefoot. Then I read Born to Run, which is more fun than fact intensive, but still contains about 2 chapters of the science of barefooting. I was sold, at least to try a pair of shoes that cost less than one of my orthopaedic inserts, with the promise that I might be able to one day do without the inserts altogether.
The results so far are as promised. The shoes take a bit of getting used to. It took me 3 hours. Not because of the shoes, but because I don't walk barefoot very much. It is amazing how different the gait is. Much more forward without nearly as tough a heel strike. I find myself using the rise of my foot when I strike the ball as a shock absorber. The movement uses a different set of muscles than do shoes, making the first few weeks a workout, but now I walk 2-3 miles in them without noticing. I spend all day in the now on paternity leave and feel better at the end of the day than I did in shoes. No more hot feet, squished toes, blisters, or the more serious and important leg and hip strains.
While they may not replace my running shoes, I have seen improvements there as well, where a forward tilted step is the ideal. That, and going out for a run without having the leg and hip pains to work out in stretching or warm up is a real boon.