Interview with Damien Tougas About All-Things Minimalist Footwear
You know it’s a good day when you open your email inbox to find an interview that you’ve been waiting for nearly a month to get back, and that it was more than worth the wait. This is one of those interviews that just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside – something I’m proud to publish. While reading through it this morning, I kept muttering to myself, “this is good stuff.”
It’s no surprise, of course, because Damien Tougas is truly a minimalist footwear expert. He’s been experimenting, testing, and reviewing all kinds of footwear options for years. So much so, that every time I’ve visited him, he’s got a huge bin just stuffed full of shoes just waiting to be worn for the first time. Yep, all the major footwear manufacturers send him free minimalist shoes, sandals, slippers, boots, and moccasins, among other things because they want his opinion.
On top of that, Damien is also the founder of Toe Salad: the Internet’s premier minimalist footwear website, but he’s the real deal not just because he’s tried a lot of shoes and has a snazzy website about them. He’s the real deal because he’s found a way to truly help people understand and benefit from proper footwear choices – and it’s not hip, trendy, new-age nonsense either. Damien is a really down-to-earth guy and he wants simple solutions that are practical and based on common sense. Personally, I consider him THE go-to guy for all things regarding footwear. Damien also happens to be a friend of mine, and he’s a very cool guy who enjoys a lot of outdoorsy interests. What can I say – I’ve got cool friends.
So, let’s get right down to it. If you are at all intrigued by minimalist footwear (or going barefoot) – perhaps on the fence about it – then this interview is for you. You will learn a lot – as I have. You’ll also notice that there are a lot of very useful links spread throughout. They’re included for a reason. So, don’t be shy – check them out!
All right. Enough blabbing from me – enjoy the interview.
Damien, It seems like every time we’ve gotten together, you’re testing a new type of footwear. When you’re not barefoot, I’ve seen you in Vibram Fivefingers, FeelMax shoes, Innov-8’s, Huarche sandals, flexible tennis shoes and even some minimalist hiking boots! Tell us about how all this started and how you became a minimalist footwear expert over the years.
Well, for the long story, I encourage you to read my series called The Case for Minimalist Footwear (http://www.toesalad.com/the-case-for-minimalist-footwear). That outlines in great detail the process of discovery I went through in determining that barefoot/minimalist is the only way to go.
The short story is this: After encountering progressively worse pain and injury which kept me from doing the activities I loved (hiking, running, backpacking, etc.), I was desperate for a solution. I was having foot, knee, and back pains. Doctors told me that I had biomechanical issues and that I was going to need special expensive corrective insoles for the rest of my life. I would probably also need to slow down and do less physical activity. I didn’t like that answer, and frankly, the solutions they were proposing weren’t working. I got desperate, and I guess that is the point when I started exploring all possible options.
That was over 10 years ago. Now days I am much more physically active than I was then, only now I have no pain… and no shoes :-) Ok, well I do wear shoes, but much less of a shoe than I did back then.
I’ve heard you say that “shoes are tools” and should perform like “gloves for your feet.” Could you go into a little more detail about how you would describe the role that footwear plays?
Ideally our footwear should be designed to provide the minimum protection required for the environment in which they will be used. So, the question we need to be asking ourselves when we put on a pair of shoes is what are we protecting ourselves from? Is it heat, cold, disease, rocks? What is the minimum we need to achieve that? With practice, could we get away with less?
Gloves are a great example. For the most part, people prefer to always be bare-handed. People also recognize that gloves are necessary for protection from time to time, and thus they select the appropriate glove for the job. Doctors will wear thin rubber gloves to protect from germs. Construction workers will wear thick leather gloves to protect from abrasion. Outdoorsmen might wear thick mitts for extremely cold conditions. In all of those cases, they will all try to pick the solution that gives them maximum dexterity while still providing the protection they need. They will also take them off the first opportunity they get, as they are constraining and feel less than ideal. If we felt this way about footwear, we would be barefoot most of the time.
You never see anyone putting on gloves to give them more “support” or “cushioning” or “motion control”. You also don’t see people wearing gloves all day every day the same way we wear shoes. If we did, we would think they were freaks.
Given your definition above – what would you say about the current state of average modern footwear?
I would say that it is probably well in line with the state of modern man. Most of us have weak, untrained feet. We sit most of the time. We wear cushy supportive shoes most of the time. As a result, we have become dependent on them, and this is what most of the market is providing us: cushy, corrective, supportive footwear to coddle our weak foot muscles.
But don’t we need cushioned heels, arch support, motion control technology, and the like?
We only need them because we are so accustomed to them that our bodies can’t function without them. Like a drug. Or a cast. When we become dependent on something, it is very difficult for us to break free from that dependency because there are real physiological and neurological changes that take place. For example, women who wear high heels for many years will get a shortening of the achilles tendon, and make them dependent on heeled shoes for comfort.
High heels are an obvious dependency, but there are more subtle ones too, like cushioning. If you are used to wearing cushioned shoes, the whole world is going to feel cushy and safe, no matter where you step. The end result is that you will walk more forcefully and with more abandon than you would if you were barefoot. It will make barefoot walking painful, causing you to think that you need cushioning to protect your feet from the harsh ground.
The same goes for arch supports, motion control, etc. In some rare medical cases these things might be warranted, but for the most part our body is better off without them. Our bodies are well designed, and we can get away with a lot less shoe than we think – most of the time we are overdoing it. If we want to free ourselves from this dependency we have to work at it to re-train our feet.
If we treated the rest of our body like we do our feet, we would all be wearing highly engineered exoskeletons to provide support and cushioning from the rest of the world.
Does footwear really change the way we move, and what are the consequences of this?
Yes, it does. In my article How Footwear Affects the Way We Move, I describe this concept in detail. This video is a great example of how a runner’s gait changed simply by taking off shoes:
The consequences are that most shoes cause us to move unnaturally. This unnatural movement puts stress and strain on our bodies in ways that nature hadn’t intended and can lead to all kinds of biomechanical issues.
Do you have any comments about shoes that are purported to tone your legs and…ahem… “shape up” your derriere?
Well, if the shoe inspires you get up and move, then it might help to shape things a little. I find it ironic that footwear was precisely the problem that caused my derriere to plump up many years ago when I was sidelined due to “biomechanical” issues.
What does the research say? Is there any research? I mean, come on, we’re talking about feet here. What’s to learn?
Ah yes, research. Isn’t it funny how we trust our heart and lungs to work on a daily basis, and we are confident that they will effectively do their job without too much thought on our part. In fact, we don’t second guess much of our body. But our feet… now that is a different story. When we hear that we can actually walk, and (gasp!) run barefoot, we want to see some solid scientific data!
If hard data is what you want, there is starting to be more every day. Inov-8 put together a nice summary of current research and released it in March of 2011. I posted a copy of the document in the Toe Salad forum here: http://www.toesalad.com/node/784
You once said in an article that the goal of footwear manufacturers should be: “to provide maximum feel and dexterity and minimum restriction while providing only the protection that is necessary.” I couldn’t agree more! So, when shopping for footwear, what specific things do you look for when evaluating your choices? And how do you find a good balance between protection and freedom of movement?
Well, the first question I ask myself is: what am I protecting myself from? There is a big difference between protecting myself from the cold and protecting myself from stepping on a nail. In one case I want thick insulation, and the other I want a steel shank. Yeah… I know… really difficult stuff :-)
Once I know what I am protecting myself from, I make it my goal to achieve the minimum requirements towards that end. It takes practice to figure that out, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. My general principles for selecting footwear are outlined in my post Selecting Minimalist Footwear.
Is there such a thing as the perfect shoe?
Besides bare feet? Nope. The reason for that is all of us are built differently and use footwear in different conditions. What may work perfectly well for one person may be too wide, too narrow, too warm, too cold, etc. for someone else. Footwear selection is really a personal thing because our feet are all so very different.
What do you do in the winter, especially in cold/wet/snowy conditions?
That is a tough one! This is where I think minimalist footwear is seriously lacking, especially when things are both cold AND wet. For really cold conditions mukluks can be quite effective, as they can be very warm. For cold/wet/spring/slush conditions, mukluks won’t cut it because they can’t handle the moisture. In those cases, my favorite are Inov-8 RocLite 288 Gore-Tex boots sized-up to give me a decent toebox. Not ideal, but the best I have found thus far.
In what situations would you recommend going completely barefoot?
When you are at home, there is no excuse not to go barefoot. Indoors all year, and outdoors for as much of the year as you can handle. Being close to home you can easily test your limits.
In all other cases, maybe the question should be reversed… under what conditions do you recommend wearing footwear? My answer to that would be: when you need protection from some adverse environmental condition… (or when social circumstances call for it, i.e. at the office). A lot of protection issues are in our head, where we think we need protection from something that is really not a risk at all (or at least a very low one). I am a proponent of pushing your boundaries a little bit at a time to see where you can get away with bare feet. You might be surprised :-)
Are there any footwear brands that you’re particularly fond of for certain activities?
Wow, that is a tough one, as there are a lot of good minimalist shoes coming out these days. I guess a few of my stand-out favorites are the Altra Adam (like the FiveFingers KSO, but with a closed toebox), the Inov-8 RocLite 288 (for cold/wet spring conditions in the outdoors), the Sole Runner FX Trainer (for running and casual/everyday use), the upcoming VIVOBAREFOOT Breatho Trail (for off-road running, hiking, and backpacking), and the Russell Moccasin minimalist oxfords (for formal use). For my impressions on a bunch of other stuff, be sure to check out the Toe Salad reviews page. The Toe Salad footwear directory contains a bunch of member reviews as well.
OK – Vibram Fivefingers or cowboy boots? Be honest.
You’ve got a few kids (that are growing like weeds, I might add!). How do you address their footwear needs to offer a minimalist option on a practical budget?
Well… I encourage them to go barefoot as often as possible. Lightweight water shoes can be a good inexpensive option, but you have to watch-out for poor quality. Other than that, it can be difficult to a find low-cost solution. VIVOBAREFOOT and Merrell make shoes for little kids, and as kids get older they can fit into small women’s sizes. I usually end up spending more money on their footwear than I would like, but I try to get as much mileage out of them as possible by passing them down from one child to the next.
For someone who has used traditional footwear most of their lives, how would you recommend transitioning to minimalist footwear?
Slowly. Especially for higher impact activities like running. Lots of people are starting to write on this topic, here are a few good resources to read:
Tell me about ToeSalad and how people who are interested in minimalist footwear can benefit from it (Insert your shameless bragging here – be sure to say that it’s the internet’s largest (or only) minimalist footwear database, and that your members are stinkin awesome (no pun intended) – and how to signup, too).
Toe Salad is a community site dedicated to minimalist footwear where you can:
1) Read Articles: We have an ever growing collection of articles on a wide range of topics relating to minimalist footwear.
2) Visit the Directory: The directory is a comprehensive list of brands and models of minimalist shoes. It also contains user submitted reviews, links and photos. If you are looking for information, the directory is the first place you want to go.
3) Visit the Forum: Got questions? Got answers? Want to meet new people? Visit the forum.
4) Contribute to the Directory: Our directory is user maintained. If you discover that something is missing or needs to be updated, become a contributor and help us out.
We have a lot of cool people from all over the world who visit regularly, and contribute in a wide variety of ways. Oh, and it’s not just about stuff you can buy either… some of our members even make their own shoes! We are also always on the lookout for contributors, so if you (or anyone you know) has a cool story to share, a testimonial, or some other tidbit that would be valuable to our community, we would love to hear it!
THE END :-D
If that wasn’t enough to get you at least marginally interested in going barefoot or going minimalist, then I don’t know what will. A big thanks to Damien for agreeing to this interview and providing such insightful responses – always a pleasure my friend!
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Health-First Fitness Coach