Learning to Walk in Zero Drop Shoes at age 36

Vivobarefoot Shoes

The waves of change are upon us, giants are about to fall (or change dramatically).  An Email from REI this morning hails this beginning of the end (of footwear as we know it.)  The headline was “Run Like You Were Meant To Run.”

Yes, a living hell has just been unleashed upon poor, unsuspecting shoe salespeople.   For fun, go ask one: “Tell me about these barefoot shoes and why I’d want to consider them?” and enjoy the answer.  Then ask something like “What about these traditional trail runners with motion control, to help my excessive pronation?” followed by “Which should I choose and why?”  You’ll notice a little river of sweat forming on their forehead as they are asked to step-up as experts of gait, kinesiology, podiatry and pathology as they try to guide you to the best purchase in the moment.  At this moment the Salesperson becomes Morpheus from the Matrix handing over a little red and a little blue pill, asking you to choose.  One offers the truth, a not-always-comfortable-truth. The other offers you illusion and continued ignorant bliss.  Which will you choose?  You probably just wanted shoes, not a meeting with Morpheus.

How fast can you get your feet off their crutches (“Crutches” is my nickname for the wedge-heeled, arch supporting, motion controlling traditional athletic shoes) and rehabilitate their natural state?  The only answer is: it’s different for everyone and depends on where you’re starting from.  This kind of answer drives runners nuts as they would often prefer to be given a quantified list of distances, times, exercises with reps and quantities, which if diligently performed, will equal results.   Focusing on quantity will hurt you.  Focusing on quality will save and heal you.  Rather than asking “Am I doing enough?” It’s time to focus on asking “How do I feel?”

Rehabilitating feet is about tuning in and feeling everything, and taking responsibility for it, which is in direct opposition to the philosophy of traditional athletic shoes: “Let us control that feeling for you.”

Really, who do we want controlling our own feelings? Us or Them?

An experience a few weeks ago drove home just how powerful the subconscious is, and how adept it is at controlling feelings on its own.  It handles all-important postural choices below conscious awareness – the important choices that factor in the equation equaling either inflammation or health.

I’ve spent the last 4 years rehabilitating my Natural Foot  – working to reestablish the foot strength, structure and movement I would have developed, had I grown up barefoot or without shoes altering my foot shape through the years.

This process has consisted mainly of not wearing shoes, but the last few years have brought about the rise of minimalist footwear and “Barefoot” shoes.  Vibram Five Fingers (those funny looking foot-gloves with individual toes) were the only brand of such minimalist shoes that I had tried and worked with, until last month.

I went to Pie PDX for my birthday and bought my first pair of Vivo Barefoot (from the UK). I felt the sensibility and comfort immediately.  The pair actually look like casual dress shoes, rather than the frog feet I’ve been used to. They are soft and flexible with the heel plumb and level with my toes (no wedge or slope dumping my weight forward onto my toes) also known as zero-drop, no arch supports encouraging lazy feet, ankles and legs, plus there’s plenty of room for properly aligned toes and all three arches to spread and lengthen as they absorb the shock of each step.

I knew they felt right but the more I walked, the more I knew something was wrong.  Fully grinning and laughing at me, my wife informed, “You’re walking funny!”.

Feeling like a baby moose taking its first steps, I was wobbly, lurching in my torso as weight committed to each foot. I felt misstep: thinking the ground will be there and suddenly it’s not, your foot dropping farther than you thought it would.

I’ve been walking for years, I’ve had tons of practice I swear, even barefoot, and it never felt like this!?!

I could feel tension through my calves and hamstrings, pulling my heels up into my butt, before each footfall.  I could feel my feet anticipating the presence of a wedge heel as my foot swung forward through my gait to set down.  (cont. below)

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(cont.) I was stumped for a bit as to why this was happening. -I’ve intentionally worked to cultivate feelings of relaxing my achilles and hamstrings, allowing my foot and heel to dangle free as they swing forward for the next step in practicing barefoot gait. So why were my feet acting as though they had shoes on that wouldn’t allow this freedom? Why was my nervous system pretending there was a heel wedge there, when there wasn’t?

Subconscious proprioception. That’s why.

Proprioceptors are nerves that tell our brain where body parts are in relation to our other parts, and our surroundings. Unless we make an effort to consciously feel what’s happening somewhere in our body, the act of proprioception remains a subconscious function of our central nervous system, its inertia carries on unless we act to change it.

My feet felt that they had “shoes” on! The traditional kind I grew up in: shoes with wedge heels.

They didn’t feel like foot-glove Vibrams and they certainly didn’t feel free like bare feet. To all the parts of my foot except the sole, the Vivo Barefoot pair felt just like the shoes that I’ve normally worn, that have heels higher than their toes. To my feet, it felt like the “right” thing to do: instructing my calves and hamstrings to pull up my heel, to avoid stumbling on the heel wedge as I swung my foot forward. Luckily, the ridiculousness of my walk and feelings of wrongness forced this problem to the surface of my awareness where I had to work with it.

I had to pay attention; it took the better part of the day to re-learn how to walk like I was barefoot, in these flat-soled shoes that felt like my old heel wedge shoes. This is the beauty of the subconscious, it carries on as-is, until instructed to change.

In the light of this consciousness, I worked on, and rewrote my program; I changed my code to read: You may allow barefoot freedom in your heel, even in these shoes that mostly feel like all the footwear that ever inhibited this freedom.” Once this software gets consciously updated, we can allow it to become a new muscle memory, a new operating system, that we can allow to fade back into our subconscious.

There is no quick-fix answer to this process of changing our operating system, or our connective tissues and tensegrity. It takes awareness, repetition and patience to rehabilitate and transition back to our natural foot, from life in “shoe culture”. It requires qualitative, diligent self-work to make any worthwhile lasting change in our self-awareness or posture. No product can help you be sustainably better, that doesn’t empower you to both understand and feel why it makes you better.

I wish I could say this lasting change came in pill form, and if you take it, you’ll feel completely different tomorrow morning. But I can’t, and that’s just a shoe salesperson trying to navigate armageddon unfolding in their profession, it’s not Morpheus. Whichever pill you choose, it’s yours to chew and swallow. If you choose your natural foot, you are not nearly as alone as you think.
Welcome to the ranks, we’re here to help.

I appreciate you taking the time to share in my story, and hope its relevant in your adventures of responsibly owning the feelings in your own two feet.

Enjoy comfortably, Happy Spring… in your step : ) Get thee some Zero-Drop shoes and start rehabilitating yourself today.


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