Aside from diet and exercise, one of the big ways that an evolutionary way of looking at daily life has influenced me is footwear. The whole barefoot running movement has a lot of overlap with paleo, since both seek to roll back problematic modern Western approaches to health by looking at how our distance ancestors did things. I’m not really a runner, but the idea of making changes to footwear makes good sense to me.
Modern shoes suck. They suck a lot. A generic modern shoe lifts your heels up, prevents you from striding in a natural manner, disrupts balance, and prevents most proprioceptive feedback to your feet from the surface they are in contact with. Our ancestors walked around barefoot or in the kind of handmade shoes worn by Otzi, the well preserved neolithic human found in Switzerland. “Primitive” shoes like that provide simple protection for feet without modifying gait and without attempting to provide “support” to the arches that, over time, weaken the feet—as any physical supportive device must do. It is only relatively recently that people in most societies began wearing the awkward things we think of nowadays as shoes. (Of course, things are worse for women. I really feel for the women I see tottering around on their toes looking “stylish.” Ack!)
Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to transition away from crappy Western shoes. When I can, I go barefoot. The rest of the time, I wear minimalist shoes whenever possible. I own a pair of black Vibram Fivefinger KSO Trek toe shoes. Those are wonderful in many situations, but when I don’t want to look like I have weird monkey feet, I wear Merrell Barefoots. I have a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves and a pair of brown Tough Gloves. I’ll talk about the Tough Gloves here.
Work for me is usually business casual. Since my job sometimes involves physical training (teaching staff in schools, hospitals, residential programs, and other facilities how to safely work with individuals with disabilities who sometimes become agitated and aggressive) it makes sense for me to have a pair of shoes that look businesslike but also a bit “sporty.” The Tough Gloves, with their leather upper, fit that description very well. They are less casual than sneakers and less formal than men’s dress shoes. They do have a semi-subtle Merrell logo on the side, which I don’t like but can live with. The back of the shoe has a loop that you can crook a finger into in order to make them easier to pull on. In a business formal environment, they would definitely not pass.
The Tough Gloves are minimalist “zero drop” shoes. That means the sole is relatively thin and the shoe doesn’t raise your heel any higher than the forefoot, so your gait is similar to what it would be if you were not wearing shoes. There is no support per se, although the sole is not flat—it hugs the contour of the arch of your foot. They are astonishingly light and flexible. The upper is thin but sturdy leather that provide some protection to the foot. (Not as much as regular leather shoes. If someone steps on your foot, you will really feel it.) The sole is made by Vibram (the same folks who make Five Fingers). It provides excellent traction while remaining very thin and providing fairly good ground feel. The back of the shoe hugs your heel and the middle is fairly tight to keep the shoe from sliding around. The front of the shoe is very wide, allowing your toes to splay in the same way they would if you were barefoot. I think that’s a good approach to keeping the shoe on the foot without inhibiting the front part of the foot from doing what it’s designed to do.
All of these features allow a natural walking gait. Walking in these things is very different than in “normal” shoes. I can feel the ground. If I plod along on a hard surface such as concrete or pavement, banging my heels into the ground, that means that it hurts a little to walk. Because of that, I naturally walk differently. My overall walking posture is improved, and the achey back I sometimes used to get is gone.
My balance is much better in these than in “normal” shoes. Really, I feel like freaking Spiderman. I am much more graceful in these things than in regular shoes. Compared to barefoot, I have better traction and, while I do need to be more aware of what I’m stepping on than with regular shoes, I can walk confidently on almost any surface without worrying about broken glass, small rocks, or other things that I would otherwise have to be very careful about. I find myself naturally walking on the tops of curbs, on rocks, and other terrain simply because I can. They are also great for running in, provided that you use a forefoot or mid-foot landing stride. Slamming down on your heels (which is not what your feet are designed to do) is not a good idea. They have plenty of traction for most surfaces, although they can be kind of squeaky on freshly waxed tile.
I have now had these for nearly a year, wearing them very frequently. Other than getting a bit scuffed up (unavoidable with leather), there are no significant signs of wear. I haven’t even had to replace the laces. They take shoe polish just fine. They are lasting better than a regular pair of men’s shoes would for me.
Are they expensive? Yes, they are. They list for $120, which is more than I am accustomed to spend on a shoe. If they were wearing poorly, I would regret spending that much. As it is, I expect to get another year out of them, which makes them cheaper than a basic pair of regular rubber soled men’s shoes.
The only bad part is when I have to go back to men’s formal shoes. When I do that now, I feel like I am being forced to walk on a weirdly unbalanced forward-tilted surface. The shoes feel clunky and I imagine that I am clomping around like Frankenstein’s monster in one of those bad old movies. I am much more clumsy and things start to hurt. At some point I’ll find an alternative for that situation, but for now these work just fine most of the time.