I’ve given this minimalist-running trend some cautious experimentation over the past several months, and I’m not sure I will ever switch over from traditional, supportive running shoes to minimalist shoes for my trail running or dayhiking. It’s not right for everyone’s feet and body. However, months of wearing the Spyridon LS for everything from general walking around to gym workouts has convinced me of something entirely unexpected: While I may not run in this footwear, they are excellent for exercising and strengthening the muscles and connective tissue of my feet and legs for ultra-hiking, backpacking, and trail running.
Why? As enthusiasts of minimalist (AKA “barefoot”) running maintain, the more supportive your footwear, the less you rely on your foot’s architecture to support your locomotion. This can actually weaken your feet, making them more susceptible to fatigue and injury. I’ve believed this for many years, which is the reason, like many hikers and backpackers, I have scaled down to lighter hiking shoes and boots over the years. Less-supportive footwear forces your feet to work harder, strengthening them in ways that will help you hike or run farther and avoid injury. You have to be careful—some runners have injured themselves by diving too quickly into minimalist running, as New York Times health and fitness columnist Gretchen Reynolds (author of a great book titled The First 20 Minutes) points out in this story on NPR. But walking or exercising in minimalist footwear does not create the same amount of impact as running, of course.
For months, I’ve been wearing the Spyridon LS for balance exercises on a BOSU ball and similar devices; for lunges, jumping in place, and related exercises; and on a stair machine. On the stair machine especially, the foot and calf workout is noticeably magnified, especially when I land only on the balls of my feet, keeping my heels off the steps entirely. I’m absolutely convinced these shoes have helped better prepare me for outings like the back-to-back, 27- and 22-mile dayhikes I took in the Wind River Range this past August, wearing lightweight trail shoes. (See my training and other tips for taking ultra-dayhikes and trail runs of 20 miles or more.)
Vibram’s first trail-running model, the Spyridon LS is slightly more protective than many minimalist-running footwear models, using a molded nylon mesh and stitched-in PU insole and a 3.5-mm rubber outsole to shield against rocks. The outsole’s multi-directional lugs deliver solid traction on various trail surfaces, but are better on drier ground. The very breathable Coconut Active Carbon uppers kept my feet dry and comfortable even when I sweated profusely while exercising—which is important because you can’t wear socks with these shoes. Having your toes separated in footwear can take some getting used to, but I find it feels natural and invigorating, and I soon mastered the art of quickly getting my toes in and out of the little sleeves for them. The adjustable hook-and-loop closure helps prevent the close-fitting Spyridon from slipping at all. The shoes are also machine-washable, and have not gotten funky despite having my sweaty bare feet in them for dozens of workouts.
If you want to try running or hiking in minimalist shoes, ease into the transition. If you’ve been running for many years landing on your heels—as most of us learn to do—it can take time to retrain yourself to land on the balls of your feet, the recommended minimalist-running technique. Also, start out with very short distances—a mile or less—to avoid injury. Carry your minimalist shoes in your hands and switch to them for the last mile or less of your run; switch immediately back to your traditional running shoes if you feel any foot discomfort or pain. Before running in “barefoot”-style shoes, I recommend reading Vibram’s minimalist running guide.