I was introduced to the concept of running in huaraches (Spanish for sandals) at the inaugural Fuego y Agua Hunter-Gatherer Survival Run where the first “obstacle” was to fashion footwear we’d then wear over the course of the 50k race. Months ahead of the event I began training in Luna sandals and it was during these long runs that I came to appreciate, and soon love, how organic and primitive it feels to run in sandals.
The concept of minimal running is probably not new to most. Since 2009, when Christopher McDougall published “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” millions of people have learned of the elusive Tarahumara, a tribe of ultrarunners who brave the steep and rocky trails of the remote Copper Canyons of Mexico in sandals they make from tire treads and leather. In the book, McDougall asserts that modern cushioned running shoes are a major cause of running injury. He points out that the Tarahumara Indians are able to run pain-free and injury free for hundreds of miles, well into their 70s, while there’s been an explosion of running-related injuries since the introduction of modern running shoes in the 1970s.
Before then, runners used shoes that had no padding, no pronation control, no orthotics, and no high-tech materials. Born to Run is also about the first ever ultramarathon held in the Copper Canyon and the fascinating characters who were attracted to that race. One of those “characters” is Barefoot Ted, who traveled to Urique in 2006 in order to compete in the CCUM. While there, he learned the art of sandal-making from a Tarahumara named Manuel Luna. Ted subsequently returned to Seattle and, with the help of Scott and Bookis Smuin, started Luna Sandals in 2010. Since then, they’ve been hand-making a growing variety of sandals appropriate for almost any activity.
This year, Luna has paid homage to their roots and introduced the Origin
sandal, a remarkable synthesis of tradition and technology. The Origin uses an upcycled tire tread as the outsole in a manner reminiscent of the Tarahumara. The midsole is layer of Vibram rubber which is topped with a footbed of sticky “Monkey Grip Technology” (MGT) rubber. Upon opening the box, I first noticed the tantalizing aroma of fine leather. The Origin’s straps are made from a high-quality, supple leather which, according to the website “is sourced in the USA and is the same leather used by Sperry Top-Sider, maker of fine boat shoes.” Although a tad heavier than some other Luna models, this weight is offset by what I can only imagine will be the tremendous longevity imparted by the tire tread sole. Remember, there’s no need to replace sandals every 500 miles like regular running shoes, they will last until you wear the soles down to nothing. On the road they provided a comfortable platform and the wide straps kept my feet comfortably snug after some initial adjustments. The Vibram upper nicely mitigates the stiffness of the tire tread and will, over time, mold a bit to your feet.
On the trails, my “go to” Luna has been the Leadville, which has an 11mm outer sole of Vibram rubber. If you’re looking for greater “ground feel,” there are many thinner options, but this thickness prevents my feet from turning to hamburger on long, rocky runs. At 13mm, the Origins are slightly thicker, and the stability and stiffness of tire tread allows for a rock-dampening feeling that will, I think, surpass even the Leadville at ultra-distances. Although the leather is simple to tighten, for races, I’ll likely opt for the ease of adjustment of the Performance laces, which are also available on the Origin. Overall, these sandals are a wonderful tribute to traditional huaraches, and even if you’re not planning on running in them, the Origins would be great for hiking, trekking, or just post-race chillin’. The fact that they can effortlessly transition from the wilderness to kicking back at the bar with only the addition of a pair of jeans makes them ideal for today’s modern primitive!
In an age where endless discussions about “what shoe should I use?” litter Facebook groups devoted to obstacle racing, I think there is some merit in the concept of simplicity. Although the jury is still out (and probably will be for many years to come) about the injury-reducing potential for minimalist running, there is still not a single study to support the claim that cushioning or any of the other gimmicks shoe companies advertise will prevent running injuries. However, the scientific evidence does strongly suggest that humans evolved to run long distances, most likely to engage in “persistence hunting.” For millennia, before the invention of projectile weapons, our ancestors literally ran their prey to death on the African veldt.
At Harvard University’s Skeletal Biology Lab, Daniel Lieberman has demonstrated that most barefoot runners tend to land with a forefoot or midfoot strike. This does not generate the large impact force that travels through the ankle, knee, and hip joints as occurs when you heel strike. Consequently, these runners do not need shoes with elevated cushioned heels to cope with these impact forces and can run easily on the hardest surfaces without discomfort.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you switch out your super-lugged, speed-laced, neon-hued shoes for sandals at your next obstacle race. It’s important to choose the “right tool for the job,” but I can’t imagine a good reason why you shouldn’t start incorporating some sandaled runs into your training and can think of many reasons why you should. Running in sandals engenders the “back to basics” approach of training for functional movement on which OCR is based. Running in sandals will help you improve your form as well as strengthen the muscles of your feet and calves. And, aside from all the attention you’ll attract, you join a growing group of minimalistic runners across the world. Lastly, of course – it’s fun!
If you’re used to running in traditional, heavily-cushioned “foot coffins” with lots of “drop,” remember to start slowly, mixing sandaled runs slowly into your training regimen. Stretch your calves and Achilles tendons after each run, and expect some initial soreness as they adapt. Finally, listen to your body, and don’t do anything that causes pain!
Corre Libre Amigos!
If you’re interested in the book that started the minimal running revolution check-out:
Born To Run.
Want the science behind minimal running? Dr. Lieberman’s website: http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/
A nice tutorial on good running form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H26liWMDH8U
Ready to try a pair for yourself? Go to http://lunasandals.com/
For more on Fuego y Agua’s international lineup of ultramarathons and Survival Runs check out: http://fuegoyagua.org/#home
Shenanigans with friends in Urique, Mexico at this year’s Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon (formerly CCUM), a race that was ultimately cancelled at the last minute due to drug cartel violence in the city. Although denied racing in huaraches that day, the author has since enjoyed the experience of “flip-floping” numerous runners in “foot coffins” while running in Lunas.
Photo Credits: Luis Escobar, Mikko Ijäs, Tim Burke, Tyler Tomasello
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Great article. One thing I think needs to be addressed MUCH more clearly is just how long it really takes to adjust your body and your running style to minimalist running. Folks like biomechanist Katy Bowman are suggesting at least a year or preparation and work on this. One of the bad-mouthing arguments against minimalist running that has been plaguing us since the introduction of Vibram Fivefingers and Huaraches and other types of minimalist shoes is the massive number of foot injuries from pushing too fast at this. I screwed up my Achilles tendons and other parts of my feet for a couple years pushing to go too fast.
In the long run, minimalist running is the best way to go, I totally get the science behind that. But you have to give it time – your feet have been stuck in foot coffins, as you call them, for decades in some cases. Basically it’s the same as taking your arm out of a cast after a few weeks, only you’ve been wearing that cast for your whole life. You’re not going to adjust quickly.
I would recommend not only training properly for running in minimalist shoes, but switching to minimalist shoes for everyday wear as much as possible. There are a bunch of companies that make everyday minimalist shoes now, such as VivoBarefoot, Merrell, and more. The more your everyday movement is natural and minimalist, the easier your switch to OCR- and running-specific movement will be.
Jamie – Agreed! I’m hoping people will do their own research before switching and realize that it can take a long time to completely transition. I too got overly excited back in 2010 and did TMTS and ended up with a metatarsal stress fracture. I’ve constantly having to defend minimal running to people who are certain it is the road to injury. It also very much depends on how long you’ve been wearing wedges. I didn’t start running minimally until my early 40s, but someone much younger could probably transition much quicker. Also, I think the advent of OCR shoes has started many people on a path to minimalism – the Reebok Spartan shoes are low drop 4-6mm with minimal cushioning. Lastly, your suggestion to wear minimal shoes on a daily basis (and spend time barefoot) is good advice to someone interested in transitioning. Thanks for the input!
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