Shoe Fail!

Wednesday’s catastrophic shoe fail, that resulted in a knee injury for Duke University star basketball player Zion Williamson, gives me the perfect pretense to update my three year long experiment in wearing only minimal shoes.

You can read more about the details of Williamson’s exploding Nike in the New York Times. The article reports on how shoe companies bribe universities to feature their products. Athletes have to wear the company’s shoes but receive none of the sponsorship dollars except for a few free shoes that they have to wear unless they get a medical excuse from . . . doctors working for the shoe company. On the bright side the athletes get a great lesson in neoliberal economics that clearly debunks the commonly held myth that the “free hand” of the market leads to some sort of Edenic meritocracy.

They also get a lesson in how our culture likes to think of its technological products–such as those “high tech” athletic shoes–as based on some kind of engineering magic when in reality they are just poorly made plastic crap festooned with magical brand sigils. As Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman has shown, modern athletic shoes have no peer reviewed evidence behind them. What little thought goes into them suffers from a basic logical error known as survivorship bias. Shoe companies address weaknesses in our feet by adding more and more cushioning which, ironically, leads to weaker feet muscles. Like a dog chasing its own tail, these springy, mattress-soft shoes leads, in sports like basketball, to higher and higher jumps and bigger and faster athletes which, in turn, leads to more injuries which leads to more cushioning in a never ending cycle propelled by advertising dollars and Wall Street investors. Though I have no evidence, I’m willing to bet that basketball players had fewer injuries in the days of the more basic Chuck Taylor shoes of the early 20th century.

An Update
So how is my minimal shoe experiment going? In short, great. Not only have I had no return of the dreaded plantar fasciitis, but I’ve also saved a lot of money. It turns out that without any cushioning to lose its spring, a minimal shoe lasts a lot longer than those giant Nike atrocities. I’m three years into my barefoot running shoes and it’s just about time to replace them. Root Simple has no shoe sponsorship, but I will say that I was able to switch my running shoes, dress and casual shoes all to minimal versions made by the same company: Vivo. Kelly tried a competing company Lems and reports the same good results. There definitely was a few months of getting used to not having any support and learning to walk as mother nature intended us to walk. I’ve even proven that you can fence, a sport that requires a considerable amount of bouncing and jumping, in minimal shoes.

This is also a perfect opportunity to clarify that I’m not one of those barefoot conspiracy theorists. Thanks to the News From Nowhere podcast of journalist Corey Pein, I discovered that there’s a strange world of folks who hold that there’s a vast conspiracy against walking barefoot. Pein talked to Brandon Sutton (Chad Vigorous) of @th3discourse about the barefoot conspiracy theory community, who make the flat earth/pizzagate folks seem grounded, so to speak. While I love a good Sasquatch story I just want to make clear that I don’t see the universe through the prism of bearing one’s sole. It’s funny that these kooky ideas obscure an actual conspiracy of shoe companies that really do bribe colleges and podiatrists to push their injurious products.

Leave a comment


  1. Apparently, Nike now sell a self-lacing shoe that works with an app on your smart phone to cause your shoe to automatically tighten itself up to fit your foot! Or maybe I’m imagining this?

    When I was a very small child – many years ago – one of the skills that I had to learn before I first went to school was to lace up my own shoes. No need for this any more – there’s an app for that!

  2. This isn’t new. I would recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 movie “Sole Man” to see how the system started. It’s an interesting movie.

  3. I appreciate the information about minimal shoes. Since my knee problems started at age 14, I have worn flat shoes. They are not easy to find. I can’t go into a shoe store in the US and buy a pair of shoes. Any shoe with an elevated heel (no matter how low the elevation) causes me to stub the front of my foot on the ground, causing back and knee pain. I have no such problems with flat shoes. The 1970s Earth Shoes were great. I have also purchased flat shoes that are made for Renn fair costumes. For the last 10 years or so, I have worn Crocs. However, they are now moving away from flat-ish utilitarian shoes to styles that I can’t wear. I will investigate your recommendations.

  4. I do pilates and kettlebell strength training entirely barefoot. And I’m not a zealot. I have a perfectly normal gym owner / strength coach who has no problems with me working out barefoot in our practices. While I generally feel my feet, legs, hips, and back feel dramatically better post-running shoes, working out barefoot for years did not prevent a major knee injury last year. Not workout related. My knee never hurt or gave any sign of an issue….just completely sheared one day while squatting down to clean the litterbox. Torn meniscus, torn quad, torn ligament. So, while I am 100% on Team Minimal Shoes, it’s still possible to have something completely blow out, even after years of retraining your body.

  5. Vivobarefoot shoes have performed excellently for me. Still good after 2+ years. I tried Lems but they completely fell apart in 8 months of hard wear. I tried Xero shoes but they are not as comfortable as the vivo’s. I just wish I could find some good work boots!

    • I’m looking at the Vivo Tracker FG boots. While I’m a little shocked at the price I’m still considering them. It says they are waterproof which I need. I basically need a hiker … I walk in potato fields all summer and though it’s not always wet I need something for walking through mud and occasionally dropping into mud holes. Any thoughts on these?

Comments are closed.