Sunday, September 30, 2012

Invisible Shoes (soon to be xero shoes) - Every Step I take: A learning experience - review

Exploring the minimalist shoe experience? Looking for stuff that passes "the twist test" to make sure you're getting as much barefoot goodness as you can handle? This post is a wee review and endorsement of one of the cheapest (ie most affordable) high value options available: invisible shoe's  (soon to be xero shoes) customisable huaraches. Consider it an opportunity to rediscover walking, running and moving on your feet - even if you already do minimal footwear. Really. For 20 bucks, these offer a rather   amazing education

Huaraches - that's Sandals, right? For Running?

For those of us who have come of age on the miracle that is lateral, medial, anti-pronation, eva footbeds, mesh uppers etc etc, that more or less blare out that our feet are not to be trusted, and thank god almighty for orthotics, sandals may be the last thing one would think of as effective running kit. Perhaps even further away from possibility than a pure bare foot.

Tamahumara - From National Geographics report onbarefoot running research.
If you've been exploring minimalist footwear - like vibram fivefingers (me, here, daily vff wearer since late 2008) or newer shoes like merrel trailgloves etc, you may be making various signs now to ward off the evil flip flop eye: sandals may invoke images undesirable constant flexion/clutching of toes to hang onto the shoe. THey are the Anti Minimalist, minimal wear - the fake coin of of barefoot parties. Birkenstocks unbending soles be banished; flip flops constant clutching, back to the darks.

But wait, this is different.

Xero Huarache's - Not your cousin's retread tire sandal

a Tarahumara huarache
Sandals as lightweight foot covering (well, sole of foot covering) have a very long history, it seems, in our human history. Sandals as running wear were also made particularly popular in Christopher McDougall's book Born to run (and why is the kindle version more expensive than paper?). Here he features the Tarahumara Indians' huaraches: cut bits of tire tread tied to the feet with a lace.  These are in part the inspiration for Xero shoe's huarache kits.

If visions of your elder backpacking counsins' huaraches of the 70's are creeping into mental view, set them aside. Those rubber soled behemoths would likely *not* have passed the twist test. Xero's definitely do.

the invisible shoes huarache
A Xero Shoe Sandal is created from a size-specific sole that can be further trimmed to custom fit the wearer's foot. One can do the cut oneself from the basic sole closest to your foot size, or, Xero Shoes will do the cutting for you based on an outline drawing of your foot. Instructions on both bits are well detailed on the site, with text and video instructions.

New Soles. Once upon a time - about three years ago - the soles were simply cut from a sheet of Vibram outsole rubber. These kits can still be purchased, but the sized soles, the 4mm Contact and the 6mm Connect, offer particular advantages. For starters, the lace holes by one's ankles are pre-formed. They don't need to be punched into the sole, and they also have extra rubber around this area to ensure no lace is going to pull through the material on tying. Likewise the tread on the sole is designed to work with that size shape - there's a flow to the sole pattern. They also hold their shape better when tied - less flop.

The shape and texture of the sole is the brainchild of a collaboration with former running shoe design experts from rival major companies who shared a table in the home of invisible shoe maker, Steven Sashen. More on that in the following posts' interview with Sashen. For a preview, he demos and talks about the new soles in this youtube vid.

The new design also comes with a 5000 mile performance guarantee.

Mini Experience Review:

The question might be, if you're already doing the minimalist shoe thing, why think about sandals? For instance, i've been wearing one model or another of vibrams five fingers since 2008, pretty much 5 days out of 7, more recently interspersed with trail gloves, evo's or asics t'ai chi's. All full foot covers. And when not wearing shoes, i've well, not worn shoes, as per Mick Williamson's guide to actual barefooting.

Steven Sashan posted on the barefooting blog about a year ago to the effect that, despite what Gray Cook has called the 'self-correcting' of stride that putting on five fingers (or going foot naked) is supposed to incur, Steven has still seen people at running events run in harmful ways and where they leave hating the barefoot experience.

Putting on Xero shoes, Steven gently implies, is a challenge to just how good your barefooting talent is.

Learning Experiences. 

And that's pretty much what i've found. These sandals act like amplifiers of foot fall cock ups: hear them slap? it's you. Feel them catch the ground? More times than not, it's you. It's not the shoe; it's you. Well, me. It's me.

I've been wearing these pretty much non-stop since mid august, as my colleagues will attest.
Each of the past six weeks had brought some new learning experience. I confess, i haven't always wanted a learning experience in each step i take, but it seems to be paying off.

So if you want to free your feet up even more than five fingers or trail gloves allow, and improve both your walking and running gait, and feel the world beneath your feet even more - without going total bare - then Invisible Shoes now Xero Shoes are worth the effort.

If you'd like to see what these learnings are about, here's at least a map of mine:
  • Lacing
  • Re-lacing 
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Re-lacing

Lacing Up - Learning experience one

Two pair of xero's came my way: the 4mm connect, custom cut, and a 6mm contact foot form that i would need to trim and hole punch for the lace between the big and next toe. The hole punch is included in all kits: it's useful for refeeding laces through holes, and necessary for making a hole in a custom kit.

sole and top and tie of  custom
cut  XeroShoes 4mm Contacts
The shoes come flat in an envelop with instructions and links to videos for trimming and lacing.

Reader, i balked. I was super busy during the day, and when i got home the thought of facing learning a new way to tie a shoe and experimenting with tightness so it didn't fall off, never mind trimming another pair - yes, i quailed before what felt like an intrigued prospect. But finally time was made and the shoe'ing began. It began by grabbing said custom shoe and laptop for lace up video practice.

The shoes do come pre-laced but that just did not work for my head that had a very WTF moment (PhD means nothing before certain technological apparatus).

Also, on seeing one shoe modelled in a vid with what looked like paracord (turned out to be niteline), and having rather a lot of that with me, i abandoned the included laces and went straight to the paracord. Following a tip from one of the abundant videos, i trimmed out the core of the paracord for the between the toes bit to make it softer. While that works, i've since abandoned doing so.

Why do this? i like the look of the flecked cord better than the solid colour of the (yes softer which is nice) nylon laces.

Why Lacing is an Experience is on a couple levels:

First you're figuring out: do you want slip on and off tying or something that needs to be tied on and off each time you go?

custom: paracord in lieu of laces
Next, you're just getting used to the right tension and knot placement.

  • Tension is important for keeping the shoe on the foot; 
  • knot placement is important in terms of keeping where the lace that comes between the toes lies. 

It took the longest to get that between the toes thing just right. Not right and when running, i found the lace dug into the side of either toe. Interestingly a tie job could work well for running but not walking. Not right and when walking, it just bit. Blick. Likewise, having a knot to tie off the project fall on an awkward spot on the top of the foot can be uncomfortable. There's a fine balance of forces here, it seems.

There were a few times i felt like this huarache thing would be a failed enterprise. It was really based on the reviews on the invisible shoe forum and conversations there that encouraged me to think sticking with this would pay off. There was nothing particularly special about me that would make me an un-sandal candidate, so i figured i just wasn't in the zone yet and kept going.

Hence the lacing, relacing, walk/run, relacing bit above.

Who knew sandals took such commitment, eh?

Talking with another colleague i'd turned onto Xero's he said he'd had a very similar experience getting one with lacing but he too thought it had been worth it. He likes to run through streams and trails.

Learning Eperience Too: What's that slapping noise?

As part of getting the lacing to work, tension adjustments needed to be worked out to get the front of the sandal in particular sufficiently close to the foot through a stride without reefing on the top of the foot.  That lacing is part of it. But so is the stepping.

Now, as someone who's worn fivefingers for years, and nothing for sometime, i kinda thought i had an ok stride. But yup, these sandals are little amplifiers of imperfections. When walking and perhaps more so running - i can hear that i have these sandals on and not close fitting shoes.

Yes there is a way to walk that keeps the shoes far quieter. Yes there is a speed and shape to run that keeps the shoes much softer and closer to noiseless. And that takes effort to get that.

Before even getting to the sonic feedback, the first day i felt like i was really changing my gait in order not to let the front of the sandal act like a shovel - a very weird feeling that disappeared in about two days. That was the quickest sandal sensation to dissipate. Then came the slapping.

Initially i wondered why i should be getting myself to try to conform to the requirements of shoes. But since the results are a gentler and softer stride, i'm not sure why that would not be a good thing. I'm pleased that over the past 6weeks, the shoes are progressively quieting down walking, and also running. There is still work to do.

There are many tips on Steven's web site about softening up the stride. These articles and discussions are also worth perusing.

Every step you Take...They'll be Amplifying You

As said, every step with these shoes especially in the first few weeks (yes weeks not days) felt like a learning experience. I'd put on a pair of seeya's just as a break from that once in awhile. But as my stride and lacing and all get better i hear - well, less. That's a Good Thing.

What Else to Love What i really enjoy about the Xero's is that my feet are not in shoes. They sure got more vitamin d in august than likely they ever had since i don't know when. But meanwhile, they are still protected from the ground. I will only push my family so far, and they support me on so many things, that forcing them to swallow barefoot walking too, on concrete etc, all the time - it was just one too many. These sandals let me approximate that experience more than closed shoes do. And i'm learning new skills while stepping.

Death to Flip Flops The only other sandals i wear are vivo's Dopies. I do not run in doppies - they are effectively slip ons, without being flip flops. I've written about these elsewhere. The difference with Xero's is that i feel confident with the lacing that i can just take off - and have. Not something i can do in doppies, and i personally do not enjoy walking any distances in doppies.

But i do enjoy open air footwear - despite the usual questions.

The other day at an event colleagues asked me if i wasn't cold in them (it was 14C and raining; it's sept in the UK; normal).
Aside: some of my fave comments with FiveFingers have always been "are those comfortable" - The temptation has been to reply "No, they're horrible; i am wearing them as a penance for thinking bad thoughts about people in elevators" - That's not nice is it? I mean - really the question is coming from someone who is interested and can't quite figure out how something like what they're seeing works. "Are those comfortable" is just social shorthand. I must hear the tone more and the words less...Likewise comments like "aren't your feet cold" "yes i prefer pain and suffering" - i mean when was the last time someone said about 4 inch heels "aren't those causing you years of pain, discomfort and a host of other horrible ills?" Sorry. i digress.

My reply was, no, i'm not; i'm quite comfy. I was in fact giddy at the thought of not having to walk home in sodden shoes and socks; that my feet could move. And that indeed, during the event where there was carpet, i could take my shoes off discretely and move my feet even more. no re-socking.

Connected, but not Contacting. I'm still working on lacing - i have almost got it to the set it and forget it point. That's quite wonderful to slip on a sandal and know i can break into a run or just stroll. That's with the custom cut 4mm Contact.
I have not yet tried the 6mm Contact - i'm not quite ready to punch the hole and trim the sole, as it were, and i really do find the 4mm just dandy. When i try the 6mm i'll report on any difference in foot to ground feel.

Recommendation: Buy

If you think you're mentally and spiritually resilient enough and patient enough to go to the Next Level of minimalist foot'ing, then you MUST try Xero shoes. They're cheap enough at sub $20USD a kit (with international vendors popping up) to try the 4mm and the 6mm versions, and give to your family and friends for pressies.

They are a process, but that's cool. If you've been going from things like structured shoes, to Nike Free's to Vibram Five Fingers, you know that's an adaptation process, too. Xero's are one more, er, step in that process.

As said at the top, who would have thought sandals required such committment, but any skill does. A drum looks pretty durn simple, and while whacking it will get a sound, spending time to practice finger taps etc, creates some powerful expressions. Likewise it seems walking is a skill - and it is - we learn it; we practice it, and our shoes have really f'd us up (hence the cry of the wild for orthotics etc).

Going to Xero's is like respecting ourselves enough to want to recover our body's movements. Patience works. The best thing here is that *each* step we take, takes us closer to the perfect step rep. Xero's just let us know how our performance is going - and that kind of feedback is worth the price of a cheap lunch out for two, yes?

Next up: the b2d Invistible/Xero Shoes Interview

Yup, the affable Steven Sashen, Founder of and now kindly spent time with me in August to chat about the Invisible Shoes story while going through the madness of moving to a new building (not a kitchen table business anymore). Grace under pressure seems to be his Way. It was a pleasure contacting and connecting with Stephen, and i know y'all will dig the interview.

For a preview of what that will be like, just check out any of Steven's wonderful videos on the xeroshoes site. Though i confess i think my faves have nothing to do with lacing. For example:

Till then By all means, consider xero shoes - and if you found this article helpful, here's my xeroshoes affiliate link to use when you choose your xeros and feel the earth move.

(note about b2d affiliate links: if i don't test it, use it, like it, i don't endorse it)

Happy Trails - and please let me know how you get on with your Xero's.

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Xero Shoes said...

My wife, Lena, likes to describe the "lacing sweet spot," where it's "just right." Some people lace up their Xeros and find that sweet spot on the first try. Others take a few days to get the tension and angles just right.

The good news is that once you know where that sweet spot is, you can just slip your sandals on and off without having to re-tie them. OR, if you do decide to retie (because you want another lace color, for example), you can find it again right away since you know how it feels.

Similarly, some people start walking/running in huaraches without a hitch. Others discover little glitches in their gait.

And the good news there is that those glitches often work themselves out without a lot of attention (the feedback does the trick).

For example, when I get calls from people who say "Hey, I'm catching the front of the sandal, what should I do?" My usual answer is "Wait a week and let me know if you're still doing it." Almost always the response -- a week later -- is, "Hey, I don't know what changed, but I'm not doing it any more."

dr. m.c. said...

Thanks for the insight, Steven. And it is lovely getting to the set it and forget it place. Really and truly sweet.

Worth the cycles - for those who get it right away - awesome. For those a little slower, DO NOT DESPAIR! Persist! there is more than hope. There is REWARD.

all the best with the new locale, colours and near by donuts (approx 360kcals per - so many excuses for long runs)


Chris at Barefoot beginner said...

I read alot of reviews about Xero shoes and this morning pointed my Barefoot Beginner readers towards your Xero review. I was new to your blog but enjoyed it. You can find my 5 favourite Xero shoe reviews here
Yours is number 4.
Many Thanks Chris

dr. m.c. said...

Thank you very much for letting me know Chris.
Best in your practice.


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