About six years ago, my feet started hurting, enough that I went to see a doctor. He didn’t find anything particularly wrong with me, so he suggested some inserts for me to use; my memory is that that generally fixed things, but it also got me a little more actively curious about shoes and walking. Barefoot running was starting to show up in the news (e.g. Daniel Lieberman’s lab; also, I read Born to Run in 2010, here’s a position paper by that book’s author); that’s the sort of thing that appeals to me temperamentally from a conceptual point of view, so I figured I’d give minimal shoes a try.

I first started off with Invisible Shoes; they’re now called Xero Shoes, and they seem more usable now, but at the time they were super fiddly, making you tie string in strange loops around your feet every time you put them on. So, while I basically liked the sole, I didn’t like actually dealing with the shoes. Nike had introduced their Nike Free lines; I tried one of those and the sole was significantly thicker than what I was looking for and the shoes themselves were narrow, so I gave up on those pretty quickly.

But then I ran across Soft Star’s RunAmoc shoes, and those looked much more promising. Unlike the Invisible Shoes, they’re structured like normal shoes, just in a loose way that gives your toes room to wiggle around; and the soles were just as thin as the Invisible Shoes’s soles. So I tried them out, and they worked great! (At least once I switched to the 5mm soles: I liked the feel of the 2mm soles, but they wore out within a month.)

I’ve been using RunAmocs for about four years now; unfortunately, from my point of view they’ve gotten worse. For whatever reason, the company changed their sizing chart on two separate occasions; and the second time they changed their sizing chart, none of the new sizes really fit. Basically, even when I went large enough that my toes were kind of swimming in the front half of the shoe, the shoes still pressed down enough from above on my right foot that my toes felt like they wanted to start curling under; after maybe three weeks, the leather stretched enough that I had enough room, which could be okay, except for the other problem with those shoes: they start wearing noticeably thin (even with the 5mm soles) after 3-4 months, and have holes appear in them soon after that. So that meant that I was replacing them three times a year, and each pair didn’t feel right for about a quarter of that time. (Also, they cost $115 each; paying $350/year for shoes is more than I’d normally like to spend.)


Still, I really did like those shoes most of the time. But then something else happened: I’d had a couple of brief back pain flareups, but last summer back pain showed up and, instead of going away, got a lot worse. I really wasn’t sure what had caused the pain: the shoes were one possibility, but actually I generally felt better when I was walking, sitting down was more of an issue. (When the pain was at its worst, I was unable to drive for several weeks, and in fact there were some days when just being a passenger in a car was excruciating.) I went to doctors and physical therapists; after a few months, it got better. (Yay steriods.)

This winter, I felt fine: but then, a month and a half ago, my back started hurting again. It wasn’t bad yet, but I really really didn’t want a repeat of the summer. And my current pair of RunAmocs was starting to wear thin: normally I wouldn’t replace them when they’re at that stage, but it seemed possible that my back was reacting to that. I switched to some old running shoes that I had lying around, and my back got better; maybe it was just a coincidence, but I didn’t want to take that chance. (And I also didn’t want to buy new RunAmocs every three months instead of every four months: that’s expensive, and it would mean that they didn’t fit a full third of the time!)

So I went shoe shopping again, this time to regular stores; I ended up with a “Nike FS Lite Run 2”, and my back hasn’t been giving me any problems. I’m not in love with the shoes, but they’re okay (in particular, they’re not as crazy thin as the Nikes I’d tried in the previous iteration); and they’re also noticeably cheaper than the RunAmocs, so I can experiment quite a bit and still come out ahead financially.


I’m still not sure what to make of all of this. The basic reasoning behind the barefoot running folks still seems plausible enough to me; and I haven’t had foot or leg problems, just back problems, and for all I know those might have as much to do with the amount and way that I sit as with walking. (For what it’s worth, by the way, I generally walk 5-6 miles a day.) Also, I go barefoot (well, sock foot) all the time at home and much of the time at work; I don’t see any signs that that’s causing problems.

If I had to guess, what may be going on is that I spend most of my time walking on sidewalks, and concrete is a lot harder than most things people walk on in nature; given that, needing a bit of padding isn’t unreasonable? Or maybe the differential wear pattern on the RunAmocs when they’re wearing thin is encouraging my foot to do something unnatural, and that I’d actually do better if I really were walking barefoot? Or maybe this barefoot stuff is overblown: super padded running shoes are a late twentieth-century invention, but shoes themselves go back millennia.

I don’t know; I’m just happy that my back doesn’t hurt now. Maybe I’ll experiment with Xero Shoes this summer: the Z-Trek sandals don’t have the fiddly lacing (and they also seem to have introduced models with cords that don’t constantly need to be retried); and if their longevity claims are at all, the soles won’t wear out nearly as quickly as the RunAmocs have.

Post Revisions: