Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Go Barefoot in the Office

There are many benefits of barefoot running including: helping develop a natural gait (stride), strengthening muscles, tendons, and ligaments, improved balance, improved ground feel, and reducing injuries. But, as much as I would love to go barefoot all the time - most of us (including myself) have jobs that require us to wear shoes. But if you don't work from home (or have one heck of a hippy boss) there is still hope. The next best thing is a minimalist shoe. This is a shoe where the heel is thin enough so you can "feel" the ground, but thick enough to provide protection. An example would be Vibram's Five Finger shoes. They are minimalist in the sense that they have a 4mm sole, and yet they provide protection from modern surfaces (pavement, concrete). These work great but are pretty wacky looking.

When I'm at home, I love wearing my Vibram Five Finger Bikilas. I got them for running last June, and I will never go back to traditional running shoes again. They are fantastic, but they are also not work appropriate. Can you imagine Bill from accounting wearing a button-up, nice slacks, and some gorilla feet? They are eye catching, and while that's great for the track, or even the gym, it's not the kind of attention I want all the time.

Quest for a Classy Shoe
There must be other companies with similar shoes that I can wear to the office, yet, on first look, the options are limited and expensive. A company called Terra Plana has the most shoes with a couple of them bordering on being work-appropriate (Dharma and Oak for men). Yet, I think they are ugly, and if i'm paying $140 for shoes they better be pretty slick looking.

Is it too much to ask for a minimalist dress/work shoe that is both attractive and reasonably priced? It just may be too early in the product life cycle. These types of shoes are still in the hands of the fanatics and early adopters and have yet to hit mainstream. I can tell this from the reactions that I get when I wear my Bikilas to the gym. People have heard of them, but most of them have never even tried a pair on. Why not? Aren't you curious? Please don't tell me you're lumping them in the same category as those wacky Sketchers "Shape Ups"? Look at this ridiculous commercial.

Do it Yourself
After being disappointed by the lack of options for minimalist work shoes I decided to rip the soles right out of my dress shoes (disclosure: I've had these shoes for about 9 years, so I had no guilt what so ever). By removing the insoles I reduced the heel by around 3/4 of an inch. That's a considerable amount. I could tell right away when I stepped in the shoes. I felt like I was walking on the ground, and I noticed the height difference. They weren't nearly as comfortable as they used to be after years of molding, and the back of the shoe started digging into my heel. I wore these shoes to work for the past couple days, and I could tell it wasn't such a struggle to keep my posture in line. This was a fun experiment, but it was missing something.

Every shoe can be Minimalist
This got me thinking. What if we could design a heel insole that could mold to your foot, but would have a predisposition to be thin. Basically, what we would need is a replacement for the insole that we removed from our shoes. So, instead of limiting ourselves with the few and expensive choices available on the market, we could convert other shoes to mimic a minimalist feel. Granted, this will not work for shoes with heels, or some shoes where the insole is hard or impossible to remove. But I think there are a good number of shoes that have removable heels. You could just remove the heel as I did, but it is not very comfortable. I am thinking of an insole that would fill the gaps around the outsides of your feet, yet stay very thin. Ideally, they would also absorb some sweat, and maximize ground feel.

Now, I have no knowledge of shoe materials to know if this would actually work or not. But I think there is a market for it. This would open up the possibility of using a wider range of styles while still gaining the benefits of a minimalist shoe. It's just a different way of making money from the same paradoxical problem. Do we need shoes or insoles to become more barefoot? Normally no, but if your day is spent mostly in the office, I say yes.

Does anyone think this is even possible? Or do you know of any minimalist shoes that are attractive, and not overly expensive? Let me know, I would love to hear about that as well.