Xero Shoes (formerly Invisible Shoes) makes barefoot running and walking sandals in the tradition of the Tarahumara huarache sandal, made popular in author Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run.
In early 2013, Xero Shoes founder Steven Sachen and his wife, Lena, appeared on ABC Television’s Shark Tank – ultimately declining a deal one of the investors offered. Hanna and I happened to see this particular episode, so it was a treat when Xero Shoes offered to send us some barefoot running sandals to try out.
This is a fairly hefty review, feel free to skip around with these links:
Xero Shoes Barefoot Sandals Shark Tank Video
At the time of the Shark Tank appearance, Xero Shoes didn’t offer some of their fancier ready-to-wear (pre-laced) barefoot shoe options such as the Amuri Cloud and Sensori Venture. Still, the video is entertaining, and reveals the challenges a simplistic running sandal faces when trying to win converts.
Barefoot and Minimalist Running Shoe Philosophy
Those who’ve read Born to Run and done any research into the biomechanics of foot strikes realize Steven faced a tall task on Shark Tank. On the surface, a simple rubber running sole, a piece of lace, and a brief story about a fabled indian tribe does sound a bit far-fetched. However, there’s much more to the story.
Without digressing too much, Xero Shoes have real science behind them, with the essential case being: take off your shoes and you’re less likely to land in a biomechanically compromised manner. The world’s best runners all tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot, providing maximum shock absorption and efficiency. This is natural running form, and is common among people who grow up running around barefoot or in sandals, such as the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico.
Modern running shoes are typically heavily cushioned and wedge-shaped (dropping from the heel to toe). This promotes overstriding and landing heel first, eliminating the shock absorption the arch, achilles and calf would provide during a forefoot strike. In other words, heel striking sends a shock wave up the lower leg and seems to promote ankle, knee, hip, and back injuries.
By switching to barefoot or minimalist style running shoes, many people have been able to change their running gait, land on their fore or mid foot, and reduce nagging pains. This happens because of “feedback.” Ask a heel striker to take off his or her shoes and run barefoot down the concrete – he/she won’t heel strike for long thanks to the feedback from the ground, ouch!
The Xero Shoes site explains:
Keep in mind that the biggest reason for going totally barefoot is that feeling the ground with your skin gives you the most feedback about your form. Feedback that, if you attend to it, can inspire you to change your gait to something more efficient, easy, and natural. Running in Xero Shoes is, really, the same… if they covered everywhere you stepped in 4-6mm of flexible rubber.
The idea behind minimalist shoes is to reduce injury by promoting superior running form. Don’t want to ruin your knees? Consider giving barefoot style running shoes a shot.
The internet is replete with information regarding barefoot running philosophy. For our purposes, the preceding details should be enough to shed light on the thinking behind a barefoot running sandal. Let’s look at the sandals.
Amuri Cloud Barefoot Running Sandals
Hanna and I each tested out a pair of Amuri Cloud barefoot sandals on a variety of terrain ranging from smooth asphalt to rocky trails.
Both of us agree: from a distance it is easy to pass Xero Shoes sandals off as “a piece of rubber and some string”, as a Shark Tank judge did, but this assessment is simply unfair of the Amuri Cloud (to be fair, the judges saw the DIY sandal kit, not the ready-to-go offerings). The materials, quality, and complexity of the lacing system maintain a simplistic philosophy while delivering a sophisticated solution.
Amuri Cloud Specs
- Foam forefoot insert
- 6mm outsole
- Pre-laced with adjustable tensioning system
- Strong toe post which won’t pull through the sole like flip flops do
- Heel cup to keep foot in place and reduce debris under foot
- Silicone achilles strap to prevent rubbing
- Elevated ankle holes to prevent lace abrasion
- 5,000 mile outsole warranty!
Walking in Xero Shoes Amuri Cloud Sandals
The first thing one notices when slipping on these sandals is how light and flexible they are. I broke in my pair (they are so flexible, breaking them in is really a non-issue) wandering around Boulder after a minimal amount of time fiddling with the lacing system. Finding a comfortable configuration for walking is straightforward enough.
To give you an idea of the sole’s flexibility, Steven Sachen is able to pick-up a golf ball with his toes while wearing his Xero Shoes sandals!
Two observations regarding walking in the Amuri Cloud sandals:
- The sandals are light. They are barely noticeable (a men’s size nine is 4.6 ounces) – much less noticeable than any shoe or sandal I’ve ever owned.
- Hanna and I both felt like we were walking differently. This can probably be attributed to the absence of a wedge-shaped heel, there’s no wedge to land on. Here’s, apparently, how to walk.
We also tried a hike at Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs. I gave the Xero Shoes a good test on trails, rocks and dirt. Generally, I found the sandals fun to hike in, and would seriously consider them for a great end of the day and water crossing shoe during backpacking trips (they are light, fast-drying, and can be folded/rolled for storage).
Barefoot Running Sandal Kryptonite
On our hike, I discovered the arch nemesis of Xero Shoes: rocks about 1-2 inches in diameter. No matter how I approached them, consolidated groupings of these rocks spelled trouble, causing me to walk gingerly in order to avoid sharp jabs to the foot.
Running in Xero Shoes Amuri Cloud Sandals
Having run hundreds of miles in Vibram Five Fingers and thousands of miles in minimalist shoes from New Balance, I was curious to test out the Amuri Cloud sandals on mixed surfaces. The boring old lunch run route, complete with concrete urban paths, and sandy hobo trails along a creek provided the perfect testing ground.
Running in Vibrams for the first time caused me to laugh out loud (and then overdo it by running 5 miles on my toes), feeling the ground is actually quite fun! Xero Shoes are no different, the boring lunch route was redeemed, old obstacles became entertaining challenges, and the “ground feel” is more pronounced than in Vibrams (at least my KSO Treks).
Barefoot running is fun. Getting stabbed in the foot is not. Xero Shoes offers two thicknesses of outsoles: 4mm Connect and 6mm Contact.
According to their website:
The 4mm Connect is the closest thing you’ll get to barefoot, but with a layer of protection. The 6mm Contact still has great ground-feel, but “smooths out the ride” a bit more.
Xero Shoes co-developed their sandal soles with the former lead designers from Nike and Reebok, and claim their material is better than Vibram’s. The material is comfortable, flexible and has a simple chevron tread system. The Amuri Cloud sandals contain a 3mm Barefoam insert for some added comfort under the forefoot.
I have no complaints about the soles, finding them to be light, flexible and fun.
Sure, these soles are thin, stepping on some objects is not a comfortable experience, but this comes with the “barefooting” territory, and makes choosing a good line a rewarding part of the running experience (seriously).
Plus, the soles come with a 5,000 mile warranty! One would have to run from North Carolina to Hawaii before the warranty became exhausted.
Lacing Tensioning System
Getting the lacing comfortable for walking in Xero Shoes was reasonably straightforward. Getting the lacing comfortable for running has proven difficult.
Before heading out on the lunch run, I adjusted both sandals to something comfortable. During the run I only adjusted the left sandal, leaving the right as a sort of control group.
Subtle changes to the lacing configuration can make startling differences in comfort. Even sliding the front knot back and forth makes a noticeable impact.
Playing with the front knot, tensioners and ankle holes produced a variety of results: looseness, toe post rubbing, pressure on the top of the foot, the foot sliding forward, the foot sitting at the back of the sole, the foot straight, the foot crooked on the sole, etc.
Steven told me it takes some people a few days to find their “sweet spot,” and this seems to be the case on my part as I’ve had trouble dialing the sandals in for running.
After much time tinkering with the lacing for running, I’m tempted to relegate my Amuri Cloud running sandals to walking and hiking. The amount of tension required for me to feel comfortable running tends to pull the toe post and cause pain between my toes. To be fair, this may have more to do with bad form than the sandal.
The DIY kits seem to provide more versatility in terms of lacing options and hole placements (more on the DIY kits ahead).
Faced with overwhelming complexity in other aspects of life, I don’t feel like fiddling around with laces. There is room for improvement on the Amuri Cloud ready-to-wear models. It’s a neat lacing system, but finicky.
Xero Shoes certainly give more feedback (“ground feel”) than my Vibrams, and have a tendency to make a slapping noise. At first, the slapping drove me nuts until I realized it was my own fault: bad form and sloppy lacing tensioning.
Concentrating on not overstriding significantly reduces slapping since it promotes landing properly on the forefoot/midfoot.
This form regulating slap is a good thing.
Amuri Cloud Xero Shoes are “more” sandal than the DIY kits. Hanna and I both decided we thought the Clouds had enough substance to look nice. The DIY sandal kits, without beads, charms and fancy lacing are so minimalistic they can look a bit funny – like the wearer has no shoes on.
Initially, heading out for a run in sandals made me feel self-conscious, but then I realized anyone running trails in sandals is actually an all-star.
Xero Shoes DIY Sandal Kit Review
Xero Shoes reports over 35,000 people in 92 countries have made their own sandals with a DIY Kit. Add two more people to the tally, as Hanna and I put her DIY Kit together. She went with the Electric Mint sole and Sky Blue laces.
According to the website, people assemble these sandals in minutes. In our case, about 180 minutes! Following Xero Shoes “how to” guides and videos takes time. To get an idea of the “noob” Xero Shoes DIY sandal assembling experience, scrub through this video:
[youtube id=”wbC_ImmtJDs” width=”620″ height=”360″]
DIY Sandal Kit Features
- Two outsole options available (4mm and 6mm)
- Customizable: wide feet, unorthodox toes, etc. are not dealbreakers. Each foot can be tailored.
- Fancy lacing and charms available
- Helpful “how to” videos
- Look nice, lots of color options
- Handy for backpacking (rollable, bendable)
- Include a hole punch
As compared to the “one-size-fits-all” approach of the Amuri Cloud and Sensori Venture sandals, the DIY lacing options are virtually endless. We chose a basic lacing configuration for Hanna’s sandals, but one is only limited by imagination and time.
The patient person should be able to create an ideal lacing configuration for his/her needs. Personally, I had trouble with the lace running between my big toe and ring finger toe on the Amuri Cloud, the DIY kit allows for other options. A number of people don’t lace between those toes. Plus, those who like the Amuri lacing system can still have the hardware.
Pendants and Charms
For those who like to accessorize, a variety of fun pendants and charms can be added to the DIY sandals.
Xero Shoes Pros
- Pricing is fair
- Sole material is durable, flexible, and comes with 5000 mile warranty (compare this to the 300-500 mile suggested life of typical shoes)
- Sandals are comfortable and lightweight, making them pleasant for a variety of uses (particularly as an end of the day or water crossing backpacking sandal)
- DIY sandal kits offer a wide variety of colors, charms and pendants
- For those with patience, XeroShoes.com has plenty of nice learning resources and barefoot running tips
- A viable option for attempting to reduce pain/injury
- DIY kits are completely customizable
Xero Shoes Cons
- Amuri Cloud ready-to-go lacing system requires patience and fiddling, I’ve had a hard time getting mine right for running.
- Trail runners and hikers may find barefoot running sandals too risky for certain environments
- DIY kits take a healthy amount of time to assemble the first time
For anyone interested in a fun, comfortable walking sandal: Xero Shoes has you covered at reasonable price points.
For those interested in Xero Shoes as a possible running “shoe,” our conclusion is more nuanced. If the arguments for natural running form and minimalist running shoe philosophy make sense to you, and, if you don’t mind subtly “feeling” every surface you encounter through your feet – Xero Shoes provide a low bar of entry into the minimalist running world. You’ll also need to be willing to fiddle with your running form and the lacing until you find your sweet spot.
Xero Shoes has a slogan, “Feel the Freedom. Feel the Fun. Feel the World!” Running in barefoot and minimalist running shoes and sandals, at its core, is a sensory experience which will appeal to some, and irritate others.
Personally, freeing my feet from the castlike encasements of traditional running shoes in favor of minimalist running shoes has led to a surprising discovery: I’m a fan of “ground feel.” Sensing (feeling with my feet) different surfaces (grass, sand, rocks), and looking for the smoothest lines through challenging terrain make running more fun for me. This will not be the case for all.
Given the reasonable price points of Xero Shoes, especially the DIY sandal kits, if you can handle the aforementioned qualifications, why not try them out? Worst case, you’ll have gained a fun pair of walking sandals.