I spent three months running in minimal sandals. On the 4th of July in Marseille, I realized that I forgot my running shoes at a yoga studio in Peterborough. With limited selection, I bought a pair of Patagonia sandals on closeout at a local outdoor store. I have been experimenting with barefoot running techniques for several years, since reading “Born to Run” and running with the Raramuri in the Copper Canyon. Until buying these sandals, I’ve always run in normal shoes, often past their prime. I have begun to look at my shoes as a barrier from the hazards of the road or the trail, rather than integral to support or to my stride. I enjoy running barefoot on grass and on sandy beaches, when available. Excepting the racing flats of my school days, I have never bought minimalist running shoes.
The sandal design is simple and reminds me in many ways of huaraches— the sandals worn by the Raramuri. The sole is several millimeters thick and the synthetic, woven structure hugs my feet . The sandals don’t offer any structural support, serving mainly as a barrier.
Long term runners can experience heel and knee pain from impact. To run safely and effectively in the sandals, I run on the toes and the balls of my feet. It looks kind of like tippy-toe running. In one fluid motion, I spread my toes wide, evenly plant the balls of my feet on the ground, roll over the knuckles and push off the tips.
Short strides reduce strain on the knees and require quick leg turnover. To avoid stressing the knee joint, my legs assume similar alignment to isometric 90º lunges. My ankle is never ahead of my knee when it lands. This engages the muscles instead of the framework. Landing the foot is an active process.
On fresh legs and feet, sandal running is euphoric. The feeling is light and turnover is rapid.
Over three months, activating the muscles in my toes has built up the inner arches of my feet and strengthened the external shin muscles that support my knees. I have more awareness and strength in my feet, and both balance and stability have improved. However, after several consecutive days of sandal running on hard surfaces, my feet feel hammered and my legs like mush. It’s harder to maintain good form.
The sandals limit where I run. I feel everything through the thin soles. Europe was easy; the surfaces forgiving. In Corsica, I ran on sand and dirt and in Berlin, grassy parks. Colorado was more challenging and the sharp rocks kept me off the trails and on the roads. New Mexico is a mix– it has soft sediment, but also sharp goatheads and cacti.
I love running and I want to run everywhere. I try to run with physical and mental awareness to stay healthy. Experimenting with different footwear and form keeps me learning, but sometimes I just want to turn up the music and launch out the door. Sometimes shoes are convenient.