Cycling in Minimalist Shoes?
From the Monday Mailbox:
What do you think of cycling in barefoot or minimalist shoes? I have recently switched to minimalist shoes for walking and love it, but is it a good idea to wear them on a bike?While I'm not really a follower of the barefoot movement, I do sometimes wear minimalist shoes. Specifically, I own a lovely pair of SoftStar sandals (handmade in Portland, OR) with a 4mm Vibram sole. And funny enough, I learned about these shoes from a fellow cyclist, who wears a different model from the same maker when bicycle commuting.
As anyone who has tried minimalist shoes knows, walking in them takes some getting used to. Because the shoes are designed to resemble the experience of walking barefoot, their soles are flexible and thin with zero heel rise. You can feel the surface you are walking on a lot more keenly than in ordinary footwear. Some grow to prefer this feeling to that of wearing ordinary shoes, while others can never warm to it. Myself, I am somewhere in the middle: I appreciate the distinct experience of minimalist soles when I wear them, without wanting to switch to them altogether.
But in any case, that's walking. And while the argument can be made that humans were designed to walk barefoot and therefore barefoot shoes are good for you, this argument does not translate to riding a bike - an activity humans weren't designed for at all to begin with. When it comes to cycling, it is generally considered that stiffer soles are better for pedaling efficiency. There is also no particular benefit to feeling the texture of your pedals through your the soles of your shoes.
This doesn't mean that you can't wear minimalist shoes on a bicycle. If we are talking about shorter commuting distances here, it is really just a matter of whether you are comfortable - a thing that is entirely subjective. I mean, on one end of the spectrum there are those who find cycling in flexible-soled sneakers unacceptable, while on the other end there are those who happily cycle in flip flops, or even barefoot. It's surprising what we can get used to.
One thing to keep in mind, is that the style of pedals matters. Because the soles of minimalist shoes are so thin, you will feel the texture of your pedals through them. With flat, block-style pedals this should not cause discomfort. But if you're riding the toothy touring kind, there could definitely be an ouch factor. And as far as sole flexibility vs. power transfer: Yes, if you care about that sort of thing, you will not be happy camper riding in minimalist shoes. When I cycle in mine, it practically feels as if my feet curl around the pedals! On the other hand, you could think of it as a fun challenge to your otherwise short and easy commute and enjoy the ride. One thing most minimal shoes are not, is slippery on the pedals - since these types of soles tend to be textured and grippy. So while they do feel weird, at least they are safe.
As far as wearing minimalist shoes on a bike for longer distances, I'd say be cautious and try them out at ever-increasing increments first. I do know a couple of cyclists who have experienced ankle and heel injuries which they attribute to wearing minimalist shoes on long bike rides. On the other hand, I also know a cyclist who tours in barefoot shoes with no adverse effects. The longest I have ridden in mine has been 7 miles. And while I haven't had any pain or discomfort, they just aren't my favourite thing to cycle in beyond that distance.
That said, another excellent feature of minimalist shoes is that they are bendy and compact. My sandals can be rolled into a ball that fits into a bicycle jersey pocket or a saddlebag side pocket. This makes them the perfect shoe to take along on a roadbike, allowing me to change from clipless pedals into something more civilised at my destination.
If you enjoy wearing minimalist shoes off the bike, there is no harm in trying them on the bike if you use common sense, pay attention to signs of discomfort, and increase distance slowly. But again, keep in mind these types of shoes were designed for walking and running, not for cycling - so don't be surprised if this turns out to be an aspect of your wardrobe that doesn't translate to two wheel use.