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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The MGBG Guide to Selecting Minimal Shoes (i.e. Which one dem dere barefoot shoes should I gets?)

Of all the questions that I receive, by far the most common is, "MGBG, why are you so awesome?"  My answer is always the same, "How much time do you have?  We're going to be here for a while."

The second most common question I receive is, "Which one dem dere barefoot shoes should I gets?"  My answer is this.  First, I tell people to please stop talking like Larry the Cable Guy.  Then I tell them the following.  You can't pick your friends nose, and I can't pick a pair of shoes for you.  Whether you'll like a pair of minimal shoes depends on a set of factors that is completely unique to you.

Then again, it's not like you can just pop down to your neighborhood Foot Locker and try on most minimal shoes.  They will have twenty different colors of Air Force Ones.  Some stores will have only a few different pairs of ugly toe shoes in bright pink, size 38 womens.  But most do not stock more than one brand and model of a particular minimal shoe.  You have to rely on the opinions of others on blogs, forums, or word of mouth in order to make your decision. 

Even then, how do you know that the shoe that I like will be what you like?  Besides knowing that I am incredibly awesome, attractive, intellegent, and funny, you don't know me as more than an the Internet's gift to the written word.  My criteria for rating and reviewing footwear may be completely different from your own. 

In fact, I doubt you even have a criteria for choosing good minimal footwear.  This is especially true if you've never owned a pair of said shoes before.  Unless you try on this stuff for a living like I do, your experience with minimal footwear is just too limited.  I know whether I like a shoe within a few hundred meters, because I know what I'm looking for.  Today's lesson is to give you an idea of what you should be looking for as well.  In other words, this is how I developed my taste in minimal shoes.

Step One: Establish a Basis of Comparison (i.e. Try on Some Vibrams)

Although I refer to Vibram Fivefingers by all sorts of colorful names, I actually really like them.  I think they are very well-rounded shoes.  Despite their shortcomings, they do a lot of things really, really well.  And they have a lot of features that folks really enjoy.  That's one of the reasons why they are so popular. 

When a complete noob to minimal shoes comes up and asks me how to buy their first pair, I always tell them the same thing.  "Go try on a pair of Vibram Fivefingers."  I don't do that because I want them to buy a pair.  I do it because I want them to figure out what they like and dislike about the shoes.  What were their first impressions?  What did they like most about the shoes?  What did they dislike?  The things that you notice immediately upon putting a pair of shoes on and trying them out are the things that you'll notice most while you're running in them.  That's your basis of comparison.

Why do I recommend you try on Vibram Fivefingers, and not some other brand?  For one, because as I said before they are a very verstile shoe.  They perform well in a variety of different circumstances, and thus will give you the best basis of knowledge to make comparisons to other shoes.  But more importantly, Vibrams are the most accessible shoe on the market.  They are the most common minimal shoe to be carried by local retailers. 

Not only that, these stores are likely to carry more than one model of the shoe.  I recommend you try them all on.  Each model has vastly different characteristics.  Even if you don't find a model that you like, it will help you further broaden your basis of comparison once you start looking at other brands.

Step Two: Make Your Thoughts Concrete

Again, the reasons that you might like a pair of shoes are personal to you.  And what you liked about the shoe was probably something that you felt.  Feelings can be hard to put into words sometimes, especially for someone just starting out. 

This isn't a lesson in writing a good shoe review.  But what makes a review effective is its ability to convey the feeling you get from a shoe into words.  Most reviews nowadays do that by describing a concrete set of criteria.  So if you want to better relate to a shoe review, it's helpful if you are able to describe a shoe to yourself using the same terms.  Here's the laundry list of things (not necessarily comprehensive) I evaluate when reviewing a shoe:

1. Weight
2. Toe box
3. Heel raise
4. Interior comfort
5. Breathability
6. Groundfeel/Protection
7. Sole Flexibility
8. Ease of adjustment
9. Tread/Grip
10. Appearance and style
11. Durability (or appearance thereof)
12. Miscellaneous wonkiness
13. Price

While you're trying on those rubber frog feet, think about each of those items and try to put into words how they relate to what you're feeling.  See if you can describe what you like and dislike about the shoe.  For example, when I tried on the Vibram KSOs, what I felt was actually, "WOOOOO HOOOOOO!"  If I put that into words, it would be this.  I thought the shoes were lightweight and very flexible.  There was plenty of room for my toes to splay and flex.  They were surprisingly comfortable despite the individual toe pockets.  Great groundfeel.  No heel raise.  They were difficult to get in and out of.  They looked like something a scuba diver would wear.  And I was concerned about the durability of the upper.  But hey...they were $30 cheaper than most other shoes.  There...basis of comparison described. 

Step Three: Decide What is Important to You

Spoiler alert folks!  The perfect minimal shoe does not exist.  When you try on a pair of minimal shoes, the clouds will not part.  The song "True Companion" will not play.  You will not want to run off to Vegas with these things and get married.

Choosing minimal shoes isn't about love at first sight.  It's about settling for good enough.  There will always be some that you like about them, and some things that you dislike.  Logically, if the number of good things are outweighed by the bad, you won't use the shoes. 

And some factors matter more than others.  For example, I can live with a shoe that have a heel raise, or that have lousy groundfeel.  But I cannot stand to have something heavy on my foot.  It makes my muscles ache within a few feet. 

If you don't have much experience with minimal shoes, then the things that matter more are generally those things that you like about the shoes.  When I first tried on some KSOs, my biggest like was their light weight, followed quickly by interior comfort.  Even after testing multiple minimal shoes, looking back on my reviews those appear to be the things that most influence my opinions about shoes.  Your first impressions are usually correct in this area. 

Not surprisingly, the converse is also true.  The things that you disliked the most will be the things that will knock a shoe out of your consideration. 

The more concretely you describe your preferences, the easier it will be for you to read shoe reviews later.  I suggest you do that by making a loose ranking of your preferences; the top being "must have's" and the bottom being "hell no's".  The more "must have's" listed in a particular review, the more likely you will like the shoe.  This will help you winnow down your list of possible footwear, by helping you eliminate those that don't score highly enough. 

Step Four: Adjust Your Priorities to Your Needs

One of my biggest frustrations as a minimal shoe reviewer is people putting square pegs into round holes.  Almost every day, I go into a barefoot running forum and see a person post a thread to the effect of, "I bought some Trail Gloves and the groundfeel sucks on the road!"  Well no shit Sherlock!  You bought yourself a trail shoe.  That's like buying a Hummer and then complaining about the MPG in the city.  You didn't buy the right tool for your intended purpose.

Your running environment dictates the types of features that you will need in a shoe, whether you like it our not.  My current favorite type of minimal shoes are huaraches.  But I live in Minnesota, where wearing them will result in lost toes for a good majority of the year.  I have to adjust my preferences accordingly.  So although I value breathability in a shoe, I actually have to look for a shoe with less breathability and more insulation in order to run in my surroundings.  Folks in San Diego don't have that problem, and likely have the opposite set of values.

This doesn't just apply to the climate of where you live, but also the terrain.  Where I live you have to run at least 10 miles in any direction to get to a gravel road or dirt trail.  Everything in between is smooth blacktop.  So I don't value protection from debris as much as I value groundfeel.  Those who live in the country where gravel abounds might opt for a trail shoe.  You might long for the groundfeel of a thin-soled shoe like a Vibram KSO, but probably not as much as you like avoiding stone bruises on your daily run.   

In addition to environmental factors are those individual to you.  Are you primarily a road runner or a trail runner.  Odds are that, like the above person, you're not going to buy a pair of Trail Gloves and instantly become an 100% trail runner.  It's fine to purchase a pair of speciality shoes like trail shoes in hopes that you'll run trails more.  But recognize that for most of your running, you'll be on the same routes that you were running before you bought your shoes. 

Think also about the distance and speed that you are running.  Some shoes won't work well for short, quick distances.  Huaraches might be incredibly breathable, but because I would worry about turning an ankle while doing wind sprints.  You'll need a closed toe shoe for sure.  On the other hand, if you're running ultra marathons, they might be a great option over a clunker like a VIVOBAREFOOT Neo, which is almost 7oz heavier than the typical sandal. 

Step Four: Read Good Shoe Reviews

Let's face it...my reviews are very entertaining.  It's easy to become caught up in them.  I'd compare the experience to being transported to another dimension on a flaming horse, or being on a spaceship full of naked hotties feeding you doughnuts.  But I don't just write reviews to entertain you, or to get massive increases in pageviews to my blog.  That happens anyway.  I write them to convey what I like about a pair of shoes, and why you might also like them too.

But making a decision about a shoe based on a review isn't as simple as, "MGBG likes it, so I will too."  Again, your tastes might not line up with mine.  Instead, you should be using applying your priorities to my review.  I do my best to describe all relevant features of a shoe.  If I appear to be describing a shoe that you'd like, odds are that you will.

Probably the most helpful reviews will be those from reviewers whose taste in shoe seem to align with your own.  Sadly, that might mean that you need to read more reviews than just mine.  I know that's a troubling thought.  But you'll survive. 

Of course, not all reviews are created equal.  Some reviewers are very good at their craft, and some are blathering idiots.  I find that choosing a good reviewer is like choosing a babysitter.  You should get references.  If someone else found a review helpful, chances you will too.  Here are the blogs I turn to when I want to read shoe reviews:

Running and Rambling
Barefoot Running University
In Search of Solid Ground

Now that's just my personal preference.  There are a ton of other great reviewers out there besides these sites.  For example, Runblogger writes great, very thorough reviews.  And I hardly ever read them.  Mostly because he has completely different opinions on shoes as I do.  He likes his shoes a bit more substantial than I prefer (for example, he likes the Saucony Kinvara and I wouldn't wear that shoe if it was free).  On the other hand, I like the above sites more because they have similar opinions on shoes as I do.  It's just human nature.  We're more likely to trust information from a source that appears like minded. 

How do you know that a reviewer has the same taste in shoes as you?  Try reading several of their reviews, or maybe a review they have of a shoe you already have.  If you find yourself agreeing with pretty much everything they say, odds are you have the same taste.

I think another thing that makes a reviewer good is experience.  I know that I've gotten better at this shoe review thing as I've gone along.  Practice makes perfect.  So someone who has links on their site to 30 shoe reviews is probably going to be more helpful than someone with 3.  Not that the latter can't write an informative review.  But experience gives a reviewer a nuance that makes their reviews more helpful.  The most effective way I've found to describe the features of shoes is with respect to other shoes.  If I've tried 5 shoes instead of 2, I can be more detailed as to where each is on the spectrum of any given feature. 

On the other hand, the fact that someone has done a lot of reviews doesn't automatically make them more helpful.  This is why reading more than one review from any given site is important.  Some reviewers feel pressured to rate products more favorably than they otherwise would because they received the product free from the manufacturer.  These folks are in the business of accumulating more free stuff, not providing accurate information.  Usually you can see through these folks because they've never written a negative review in their life.  If everything they've ever touched is great, or exceptional...they are probably exceptionally full of it. 

Step Five: Don't Be Paralyzed by Fear

I have a ton of friends who stop at step four.  They read a ton of reviews, and get really knowledgable about the shoe they think they want to buy.  But then when they make up their mind, they can't pull the trigger.  So they are left sitting around running in shoes they hate because they're worried that they won't like the new ones.

The first pair of minimal shoes I ever considered purchasing was the VIVOBAREFOOT Evo.  I read every review I could find on them.  I asked questions to everyone I knew that had a pair.  I knew from everything that I had heard that these would be the only pair of minimal shoes I'd ever need.  Then I agonized over the decision for several months thinking that I would drop $160 and end up not liking them.  As a result, I balked and ended up without a pair. 

I finally got a pair to test about two months ago and confirmed that my research was correct.  They were exactly what I thought they'd be.  They are awesome shoes.  In the meantime, I had spent way more than $160 looking for a combination of shoes that did different things as well as the one I could have paid half as much to buy in the first place.

It amazes me how much barefoot runners are able to take a leap of faith follow what their body and minds are telling them in making the decision to go to minimalist shoes in the first place.  It equally amazes me how much of a pussy we all become, and how much we don't trust ourselves when it comes to actually acquiring them.  You folks came to minimal shoes in the first place because you are well-educated, intelligent people that are able to do thorough research and make decisions based on your findings.  You trusted yourself up to this point.  Why don't you trust yourselves now?

Minimalist shoe shopping is just like any major purchase in your life.  Do your homework and then pull the trigger.  The reward of better running is worth the $100 risk. 

May your minimal shoes fit well and take you where you want to go!  Cheers citizens!

9 comments:

  1. Excellent insights, MGBG! I like your point about the practicality of choosing the shoe you know you want in the first place, the Evo in your case.
    But, knowing myself the way I do, I know I'd never be content to settle for what I perceive to be the best from the start as a minimal-shoe-wearing runner. I thought I had my ideal arsenal of running shoes last Fall. But, it only took the release of two new "minimal" shoes to inspire a revision to that arsenal. And, now, there are even more options out there. So, I've just had to accept that I'll always be curious about new shoe options that look good enough to try on. I attribute this to my change in running preferences as well as an unhealthy obsession with running shoes.

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  2. I like your points. I made the mistake of asking Jason R. the same question and he told me the same exact thing!
    Also I will keep your list in mind when doing future reviews.

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  3. Thanks so much for this post. I am making the transition to a minimal running shoe as soon as I get a job! In the meantime I fill the long hours thinking about minimal shoes, and puzzling over which shoe I should spend my first paycheck on. Now that's going to be a commitment! Your guide here should make that decision a touch easier. I will sleep more peacefully knowing I have done all I can to choose the right shoe. You rock, MGBG!

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  4. Once again, your self-effacing style and modesty shine in this article! Your opinions on the Trail Glove, huaraches, and EVO match my own experiences, so I tend to put more credence in your reviews than with others. I do however fear that you are using your influence and considerable awesomeness to create an army of kilt-and-elf-shoe-wearing fanboys with whom you will hatch some evil plan to take over the world. Just let me keep my cable channels if I'm right and you do become our supreme leader.

    I ran my first ultra this weekend in my favorite, and only, trail shoes (Merrell Trail Glove). The shoes did well to keep my feet blister free, but were overmatched by the extremely rocky terrain, leaving my insteps bruised and swollen.

    Any best bets for a more rugged mountain shoe?

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  5. I'm known for my modesty.

    I don't do any mountain running, but if I was looking for more protection in a minimal trail shoe I would take a look at the New Balance Minimus. The sole is significantly thicker than the Trail Glove. Another option might be something from Inov8. I have the XTalon 190, which I really like. The Bare Grip 200 is a more aggressive minimal model.

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  6. Hi MGBG,

    I really enjoy your reviews, especially on the Huaraches. I currently have a couple of pair that I made our of a recycled rubber floor mat and suede that in my opinion, outshine invisible shoes because they don't flop around at all and my laces are softer on my skin than theirs. I also have a pair that have the mesh lacing similar to the Bedrock sandals and I love those for everyday use but not for running.

    My question is, I am having a heck of a time finding a pair of road running shoes that don't hurt my feet, knees, or back. I tried all the mens models of vff, and while I love their flexibility and weight, I apparently have abnormally long toes for my shoe size. I cannot fit into them without causing pain to my feet. I have also tried Merrells barefoot products and they are too narrow and hurt the arch of my feet. I also tried the NB Minimus Life shoe, and while a great shoe for everyday use of walking around, they hurt my knees and back when I run. Not sure if it's because of the 4mm heel to toe drop in them or not.

    Any suggestions for minimalist shoes for road running for me would be greatly appreciated. My wife has gotten pretty frustrated with me and my constant research for a minimalist shoe that may work for me. I can tolerate less ground feel as long as the shoe is flat and wide enough. I also prefer breathability in my shoes as I am used to running barefoot or in my Huaraches. Maybe I am just to picky, I don't know. Thanks!

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  7. I just found the Altra Adam Shoe and noticed you have that in your list of shoes that you are going to review. Do you know when that review will come out? Those look pretty sweet and like a good alternative for people like me that can't fit into vff's. Thanks!

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  8. The date of release keeps getting pushed back. At this point, I have no idea when they'll be released. They do look cool though.

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  9. Hi MGBG,

    I found the Adam's in a local store, they were almost perfect for me except one problem. Where the strap pulls over the toes it created a friction spot for me on the top of my pinky toe. Supposedly they are coming out with a lace version Spring 2012 of the Adam which will solve this problem for me. If not for that problem it would have been the perfect minimalist shoe in my opinion. I was pretty bummed about the strap going over the toes and tried to loosen it up as much as I could but could still feel it on the pinky toe.

    I ended up getting the Vivobarefoot Neo's though and love them so far. I did notice that the mesh upper lets in a lot of dust and dirt though, which may not be a good thing when trail running and may cause blisters. It's a good thing I mostly run on the road.

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