"What are you going to do about shoes this winter?"
That is the question many folks in my classes and online have been discussing in recent weeks. If you live in a milder climate, this is not a big deal as there are numerous minimal shoe options that will get you through a cooler time of year. (Hell, if I still lived in AZ, i'd be stocking up on different colors of Converse and calling it a day.) But if you live in a cold climate, minimal winter shoes and boots present a real challenge.
For those of you who may not know much about minimal shoes, they have specific characteristics:
I wrote an earlier blog post about transitioning to minimal shoes. In it, I listed safe ways to increase your foot strength and mobility. I have a list of minimal shoe companies under Resources. They are mostly ordered online (though Altra running shoes can found in local running stores and at REI, and Merrell makes a zero-drop running shoe you can sometimes find at REI as well).
Winter boots have their own set of specific characteristics:
After spending the better part of the past year barefoot or in minimal shoes, I have really noticed a change in how I use my body. As Fall approached, I tried on my old shoes and boots and cleared out most of them. Even the smallest of heels made me feel how tipped forward I was (and used to be all the time without noticing). They were very stiff or they had high arch supports that no longer were necessary, and in fact prevented my now-mobile feet from being able to move. In short, they now made my feet hurt. They had to go.
I kept my snow boots for now because Minnesota, but the heel (about 3/4" higher than the toe) really bothers me. I can feel how it pulls me out of alignment and away from using the back of my legs and my gluts to stand and walk. But they're warm and they keep my feet dry. And I have to walk the dog all winter so ...
Meanwhile I started looking for minimal boots for winter. (Google it. Lots of stuff comes up.)
At the top of my list are Steger Mukluks. They are made in Ely, MN and are rated to -20 degrees F. They have good grip and are minimal. They are also expensive ($180 - 300) .
Manitobah Mukluks are another good option, truly made for cold temperatures and snow. And right up there for price ($150 - 350).
So are SoftStar Phoenix boots. They meet every requirement for both minimal shoes and good winter boots. And they will set you back $250.
Vivobarefoot has good winterproof boots. Not inexpensive either ($150 - 250). I do know that if your feet are wide, this brand can be tight at the toebox and may not work so well for you.
Camper isn't a minimal shoe brand overall, but their Peu line is. Again, pricey, but stylish, ankle boots. Only one pair that is truly winterproof and, of course, $240.
I am not quite ready to spend money like this on winter boots. I know that these are all incredibly well made, will last several winters, and are really good for my feet and body. But given that I have to order them online, pay for shipping, and hope they work for me, I'm not ready to cough up that kind of money on a pair that may or may not fit..
What to do in the meantime?
For starters, there are many days here that are cold but dry. For those days, I saved up $115 and I bought myself some Lems Boulder Boots. (I think Camper Peu ankle boots would do nicely for this type of use as well.) They are minimal boots that are warm and comfortable with a bit of padding inside. I bought them in canvas, but wish I'd bought the leather pair simply because they'd soften up more with use. (Fair warning, I don't use the top two holes for the laces, nor does my friend, Sue, who wears her Lems for hiking. They are a bit stiff at the top of the shaft and uncomfortable against the back of my leg --- another reason the leather might be nicer.) I wore these boots on a pretty bitter day, 24 degrees and windy, walking over cold ground for a couple miles and my feet stayed toasty. That's saying something since my feet are NEVER warm. I tried a waterproofing spray hoping that would turn them into winter boots, but no go. The seam around the toe still leaked walking several miles through wet grass, and the tread was not very good when I wore them in light snow. They are great boots for colder days, well worth the expense, but not for the snow and slush that's coming my way.
I need new boots, so I'm looking at what is curretnly out there and on sale or not too expensive. The sturdy boots at REI or at the department stores are too stiff for me, and most of them lift up at the toe. (Walk into REI and check out the display wall of hiking and winter boots. All the toes turn up! That is not what feet should do at rest.) I'm the one you see in shoe departments bending and twisting the boots, seeing if the arch support is removable.
What it really comes down to is where am I willing to compromise. I cannot do a heel anymore, and I need warmth and traction. So I am planning to sacrifice flexibility. There are lots of Ugg knock-offs that are flat or nearly flat and have toe room and warmth. They don't curve up at the toe. But they don't bend much at all. Which means I'll be doing a LOT of rolling my foot on a ball this winter.
You might decide a little bit of heel is okay if it gives you flexibility. In which case, lots of calf stretching for you this winter. Just notice what limitation you're creating, and figure out how to move to counter that. And you might choose fashion over function completely. In which case, please roll your feet on a ball, walk on a folded blanket, calf stretch, use toe spreaders, do everything you can to undo the shaping of your foot by the boot you choose.
One last thought to keep in mind, even minimal shoe companies have sales. The sales right now are for shoes, but in January or February, the boots you've been eyeing just might go on sale. (I remember seeing sales on Vivobarefoot boots last Spring, but I was busy getting sandals at the time.)
Here's to the day I can get a really good pair of minimal winter boots. Until then, what am I going to do about shoes this winter? I'm going to do my best. As will you.
I've been talking to my classes (and anyone else who gets me started) about minimal shoes. The more I learn about alignment and its relationship to overall health, the more I return to the feet and how important it is that feet be strong and mobile. Foot health is not a new topic for me. I've been getting classes and clients to roll their feet on super balls for about 15 years. I've been talking about the problems with flip-flops for at least that long as well. Recently, I've learned more about shoes that are designed for optimal foot health. They're call minimal shoes, and yes, you should want them.
BUT you may not be ready for them yet. Consider this a primer on what a minimal shoes are and how to transition toward them.
First of all, what are minimal shoes?
Minimal shoes meet certain criteria:
So many people tell me they need stiffer shoes or better arch support because their feet hurt without them. I thought the same thing. I gave up my beloved Converse years ago assuming I was just too old, that my feet needed more support as I aged. The truth is, like any other body part, if you don't use your feet to their fullest, they weaken. Feet have 33 joints in them (each). Yet our stiff shoes and flat, level walking surfaces mean we use very few of those joints. As feet get more mobile, the muscles and bones work as they should to support themselves. The arch no longer needs help to maintain itself. Depending on the kinds of shoes you've been wearing and how old you are, re-developing this mobility can take months or years. I gave up high heels years ago and have spent quite a bit of my time barefoot every day for most of my life. It took me about six months to make the transition. My feet no longer hurt wearing Converse (yay!) and I have minimal shoes that I love, that I can walk miles in. If you've been in stiff-soled shoes with a heel, if you spend most of your time walking on hard tile floors, this transition might take much longer.
All my talk of minimal shoes needs some qualification and some explanation as to how you begin transitioning. Don't go out and buy the most minimal shoe right away. Don't buy anything new for now. And don't try everything at once. Make one change that you can live with. When you're ready, try another. The following are some of the easiest ways to start:
If you are starting to think about making changes for your feet (which I highly encourage that you do), please go gently. Contact me for movements and exercises that you can add into your day. Those feet you've been standing and walking on need time to relearn their natural state. You may not have enough pads left in your feet to go to the thinnest soles. You may have nerve damage or conditions such as diabetes that will always require a bit more cushion. You may work or live where there is no choice but to be on hard, flat surfaces. (Trust me, you'll want more padding if you live in NYC.)
Without buying any new shoes, you can start making better choices for your feet. Check out your closet and see what you've been wearing and if you have better options. (You probably do.) If you do start buying new shoes, have fun. As a shoe-loving woman myself, it hasn't been easy parting with some of my favorite (unhealthy) shoes. But now, I have a whole new set of criteria. And a good reason to get new shoes. Next time you see me, check out my cool minimal shoes. They're pretty much all I wear. My whole body is happy.
Think of it this way: you're not transitioning to minimal shoes, you're transitioning to healthier, stronger feet.
Note 1: I link to several minimal shoe companies on the Resources page on this website. I personally have Otz and Unshoes now, to go with my Converse. EarthRunners, Softstar, and Lems are on my wishlist.
Note 2: For information on how feet impact your overall health, you'll just have to wait for the next blog post.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.