*Coach Helder may earn money or products from the companies mentioned in this post.
As a young United States Marine, training in combat and jungle boots wasn’t just routine, It was an order! When it came time for standard PT (Physical Training) we were able to slip on a more comfortable pair of go-fasters (standard running shoes) that had a padded heel and soles that incorporated shock-absorbing gel. With all of this new technology being implemented, why were so many of my fellow Marines experiencing knee issues that were taking them out of commission?
It wasn’t until many years later that I received the answer to that question.
Once I left active duty, my fitness level was certainly not a priority. I gained weight and spent most of my waking moments seated behind a computer screen. I became de-conditioned due to the mental battle that I was experiencing as I tried to adjust back to civilian life. Things went on in this fashion for over a decade. One day, I woke up and stared at the mirror… A feeling of embarrassment overwhelmed me. I made a commitment to myself that from this point on, things were going to change.
I went out and got myself some new PT gear. Part of that gear was a high-speed, expensive, pair of running shoes. I started using a treadmill and lifting olympic weights. I began shedding some fat and was feeling pretty good about my decision. A couple months later, I was asked by my cousin to join him on the soccer field to practice with his team. I felt like I was up for the task and took him up on his offer.
Once I arrived at the arena, we started off with some warm-up drills. We began to pass the soccer ball around and on my first strike… I heard a loud POP in my right knee. I headed to the sideline in a bit of a daze, trying frantically to just- walk it off. My knee began to swell so I headed to the hospital. After some time and a battery of exams, the diagnosis was a full tear of my ACL and complete loss of my meniscus.
I was told by the various doctors that I needed surgery. Basically, they would take a ligament from a cadaver and place it in my right knee. I realized that this was a routine operation but something didn’t sit right with me. First off, I was no fan of having surgery… Secondly, there was the source of the ligament. My doctor’s all commented on my hesitation and warned me that without surgery, my active lifestyle would be non-existent.
But I knew that there had to be another way…
As I researched other options to surgery, I kept stumbling upon information on barefoot and minimalist footwear. Basically, people were “fixing” their knee and other issues by removing the technology from their footwear. This was counter-intuitive to what I had come to believe. However, I had been a lifelong martial artist and we were always barefoot in the dojo. I also reflected back on the knee issues that my fellow Marines were having while on active duty.
Things began to click…
What I came to learn from this experience was that we were allowing technology to do the work for us. By adding “high heels” and other technology to our footwear, we were masking the sensations from the activity that we were performing. Instead of strengthening our bodies with each workout, we were in fact becoming weaker. We are basically telling our running shoes to do the work while our muscles, tendons and ligaments take a back seat and rest.
I began training barefoot whenever possible and picked up a pair of minimalist shoes. These shoes resembled gloves for feet and certainly brought lot of attention while I was out in public. I had various friends tell me that I looked like a duck when I wore those shoes. My reply was that:
I will take function over fashion any day!
Once I made the switch to training in minimalist footwear, things began to change. There was certainly an adjustment period but I knew that I had very few choices if I wanted to avoid surgery. I began to feel stronger and had much more sensitivity throughout the activity that I was performing. I was getting lots of feedback from my workouts that I had never gotten before. It was working wonders on my physical being but surprisingly, it was also increasing my awareness when I was out in the field.
I continued training in minimalist footwear and contrary to what the medical doctors had advised me… I completed the NYC Marathon in 2011 while wearing my duck shoes. 🙂
This experience changed a lot on how I address my training for emergency preparedness. In addition, there were some interesting by-products that I gained from incorporating minimalist footwear. I’d like to share a few of those insights with you now.
So let’s delve right into it…
Compact & Lightweight:
Since the footwear is designed to be minimalist, they are extremely convenient to stow away in your pack. You can easily roll them up in the palm of your hand. The fact that very little material goes into their construction makes them lightweight whether they are on your feet or stowed away in your kit.
Keep in mind that the minimalist design does not mean that they are inferior in their construction. As a matter of fact, most of my minimalist shoes have outlasted other footwear that I own; even when the conventional shoes have gotten much less use.
Great For Water Activities:
Once again, less material means that they can dry much quicker than standard footwear. Whether you are wading through a pond, fishing from the shoreline or hiking through puddles… Minimalist shoes, on a whole, tend to perform much better than hiking boots in these instances. I wouldn’t exactly say that all minimalist shoes that I own are designed for water activities, but when compared to their non-minimalist counterparts, they tend to come out on top.
Build Up Your Body:
Less material in your footwear allows your body to participate much more in the actual work being performed. Taking away the “high heels” that most running and trail shoes feature, enables your body to maintain proper alignment. In addition, your muscles, ligaments and tendons get more activation as you continue on with your task(s). Not only will this build your physical preparedness but also aids in keeping you injury and pain-free.
Wearing minimalist footwear allows your feet to move around freely. The lack of restriction brings a level of comfort that is not matched by standard footwear. Initially, the experience may actually feel like the opposite of what I am stating here. After all, we spent a lifetime wearing restrictive shoes so we need to take that into account. But if you take some time and implement minimalist shoes into your lifestyle, your natural movement will once again become prominent. You will experience a level of comfort that will bring you back to your childhood days.
Minimalist footwear allows you to feel the environment with each passing step. Twigs, rocks and other debris are easily felt as you continue on with your mission. Maintaining this awareness allows you to gauge the amount of pressure that you will place on these obstacles. This will directly correlate to the amount of disturbance and noise that you will cause as you interact with the trail. Traditional footwear allows you to barrel over obstacles, barely realizing that they are even there. This can easily give your position away whether you are stalking prey or just trying to remain under the radar.
Long Lasting Soles:
Most of today’s minimalist shoes are designed with running and hiking in mind. A large number of manufacturers choose to use a sole made by Vibram. Vibram has been providing soles for the U.S. military for decades and are quite the trusted name. The soles of the boots that I wore in the Marine Corps were made by Vibram. Also, the duck shoes that I referenced earlier… Their soles are also made by Vibram.
Other companies such as XERO Shoes offer a 5000 mile warranty on all of their footwear. That alone is a pretty good indication of the durability offered by minimalist shoes that are available in today’s market.
Let Your Feet Breathe:
Unlike most conventional shoes, minimalist footwear are designed to be worn with or without socks. This gives your feet the ability to breathe while you are performing work. I have the tendency to sweat and sweat a lot. Wearing conventional footwear usually results in me having to change my socks a few times while I’m on the trail. If I don’t, the annoying blisters and “hot spots” begin to form.
Wearing minimalist shoes greatly reduces the sweating and need for frequent sock changes. This allows me to pack less gear and alleviates the need of carrying stinky, sweaty socks while I’m working on my current mission.
In a recreational camping environment, there are usually shower facilities available to the public. However, they may not be the most sanitary place to clean up. Wearing shower shoes is recommended and some may say… A Must! Unfortunately, including shower shoes in your kit is either bypassed or just simply forgotten. But with most minimalist shoes, especially sandals, there is no need to pack additional gear.
As we previously discussed, minimalist shoes tend to dry relatively fast. I shower with my minimalist shoes on which works for me two-fold. I maintain a barrier between my feet and unwanted bacteria and I also get to clean my shoes so that they are ready for the following day’s adventure. I can then place my shoes by the fire or other heat source and in no time, they are dry.
In Tune With Nature:
As I mentioned earlier, wearing minimalist footwear allows you to feel the environment around you. Each step provides valuable feedback to your nervous system about the terrain that you are operating in. This insight enables a much more positive experience with nature because you are paying attention. This will help to pull all of your senses together making your activity more enjoyable.
Minimalist footwear is not for everyone. As I eluded to earlier, there is a bit of a break-in period that many do not have the patience for. Most of us have been wearing conventional shoes for the majority of our lives. We certainly cannot expect to snap our fingers and return to our natural movement overnight. Just like most things in life… If we try to force it, injury usually follows.
If you are interested in giving minimalist footwear a try, Just remember… Baby-steps will always get you there the fastest.