Interview with Steven Sashen, founder of Invisibleshoe.com

“Once you start paying attention to your body it becomes a very different thing; it’s a whole new relationship that is exciting and hopeful.”

-Steven Sashen

What is your background?

I majored in cognitive psychology and was a pre-med before deciding to go to business school. I took the GMAT and got a great score, it was in the top percentile, but I ended up becoming a stand-up comic instead. As a comic, I did pretty well, but my parents didn’t get it. They would tell me that most comedians couldn’t pay their bills, but I could pay my bills!

While I was doing comedy in New York at night, I took classes during the day and got a Masters in film at Columbia University. I was a bit of a computer geek and I ended up creating what became the industry-standard word processing software for film and television writers, called Scriptware. I also did some Internet marketing and Search Engine optimization back in the early days of the Internet. I also hosted an internationally syndicated TV show called “Disk Doctors,” and I've taught meditation.

What kind of sports or athletics were you into before barefoot running?

I was just about the fastest kid I knew until I was 17. At that point, everyone else got taller than me and I switched to doing gymnastics full time. I became an All-American, and kept at it until I was 32 and a bad landing blew out my knee. For about twelve years after that nothing really interested me even though I tried getting into competitive jump-roping and circus acrobatics.

One day a friend told me he had just won a 5k and I commented that I liked the idea of running, but that I was a sprinter. He told me about Masters Track & Field, which I hadn't known existed, and at the age of 45 I decided to start sprinting again.

So when did you get into barefoot running?

I loved sprinting, but I found myself bouncing from one injury to another. By this time, I was living in Colorado, and was aware of the Tarahumara (they raced the infamous Leadville Ultra-marathon), so I figured I would try barefoot running for my rehab.

I hooked up with the Boulder barefoot running club and went out for my first barefoot run. I was so fascinated by the experience of just noticing where and how my feet hit the ground. Things would also change if I tightened my abdomen, my core, or held my arms in different positions. I had never run more than a mile and a half in my life, but I ended up doing a 5k that day without even realizing it. But, after the run I noticed that their was a big blister on my left foot. And in sprinting it was my left leg that had been giving me problems, so I thought there might be a connection.

I figured that this was an opportunity to troubleshoot and try and find a way to run barefoot that didn’t hurt. I went out for another run a few days later and about ten minutes in was just in pain. Everything hurt and I was about to stop. Then, suddenly, my left foot stopped hurting. Then I noticed that I was running faster and lighter. Then I noticed that it was easier to keep a faster pace than a slow one.

Whenever people ask me about barefoot running, I tell them “Take off your shoes and run. And if it hurts, do something different”. The problem is that they interpret that as “toughing it out.” What people need to do is to really do something different; play around, get out of your comfort zone, bring back that childlike sense of play and experimentation.

What’s the difference between running in shoes and going barefoot?

The thing about barefoot running is that you are getting all kinds of information from the ground. The sensations immediately tell your body what kind of surface you are on and what you need to do. It’s like walking on hot sand. No one needs to tell you to pick your feet up quicker, you just do it, you body naturally adapts.

We are now so used to being in shoes that we don’t pay attention to subtle sensations. Once you put on a shoe you lose all that information. The other thing to realize is that your body will actually start to adapt to the information that the shoe is giving you.

The shoe is basically giving you incorrect information that is really limited. For example, a thick heel pad tells your body that it is OK to land hard on your heel. When you do this, you make contact with the ground with your leg fully extended and you have to pull yourself forward. Your hamstring is in a weak position and it puts a lot of strain on the muscle.

Now compare that to being barefoot. Without a shoe, it hurts to land on your heel so you naturally bring your stride back and land with with your foot underneath your hips. Your knee is bent and you are able to use the hamstring, along with the biggest muscles in your body, your glutes, to extend through the hips.

I think that, nowadays, people are used to the idea that they don’t have to pay attention to their feet. It’s no wonder that they end up with ankle sprains and injuries. The shoe protects their foot, but not from injury; from the information that the foot needs to help you run properly.

The vast majority of shoes are made to be mass produced. This requires that manufacturers make assumptions about your foot. The problem is that the assumptions are usually wrong. For example, if you turn your typical shoe over and look at the bottom, it is often curved like a banana. Now, look at your foot, what does it look like? It’s straight! So why is the shoe curved?

Now if you look at professional or Olympic caliber runners, you might say, “Well they all wear shoes,” but they are also getting sponsored to wear them, so the financial incentive is there. Also, research shows that elite runners run the same regardless of what is on their feet. Their level of expertise allows them to over-ride the equipment. But, the average person going jogging is not like that. The average person is much more influenced the kind of shoes they are or aren’t wearing.

When did you become aware of huaraches?

I knew about the Tarahumara, and then I read the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall and in it he talks a lot about the Tarahumara and their version of running shoes, huaraches. I saw that and, being a geek wanted to experiment with them.

I found that wearing huaraches is as close to running barefoot as you can get. It’s just a thin covering that protects the bottom of the foot. I had actually tried wearing Vibram Fivefingers; about every six months I would go and try a pair on, but they just didn’t work for my feet. It was a blessing in disguise, because if I could wear them I would never have started Invisible Shoe.

Why did you decide to start Invisibleshoe.com?

I had started making huaraches for friends and then their friends asked me to make more... The author of “Barefoot Running”, Michael Sandler, lives in Colorado and I had talked with him while he was working on his book. He thought I had a viable product on my hands and said that he’d include me in the book if I got serious with it.

My wife and I talked about the idea and basically came to the conclusion that we weren’t going to do it. But one night after she went to bed, I stayed up and built the website. Two weeks later we made our first sale. We were like “Cool! Maybe this will cover our car payment!” Three months later InvisibleShoe.com was our full-time job.

How has business been?

We’ve been pretty lucky so far, business has been good. We’re working on expanding and doing some really cool things with the company, so right now everything we make is going right back into the business.

Huaraches are a minimalist shoe and we’re also carrying that over into how we run the business. It’s a minimalist credo. What I mean by that is we want to create a product that people can really enjoy without price being an obstacle.

We also want to stay away from that idea of false advertising through price, you know, when the idea is if it costs more it must be good? We would rather make less money and put out a better product that lasts a long time and that is a good value. People will say to me “I’ve been wearing my Invisible Shoes for six months and they still look new,” and I think that is pretty cool.

Where do you see barefoot running going and how will the big shoe companies like Nike, Reebok, etc. respond?

I don’t think that barefoot running is a fad. What you’re seeing now is all of the major shoe companies trying to do barefoot style shoes. They are applying language used to describe barefoot/minimalist shoe running to their products. This is a big deal since they usually ignore fads. Recently I was at a trade show and a few companies had shoes marketed as “barefoot style” or “natural movement” that were essentially just the same product that they had out last year.

The problem is that barefoot running isn’t just about special shoes or even taking off your shoes. I’ve seen people wearing Vibram Five Fingers running the same way that they did in Nike’s. You actually have to run differently. If people don’t pay attention to that, its going to make it more difficult for a real conversation about barefoot running to happen.

There needs to be a more nuanced approach. The Newton shoe company claims to sell the “closest thing to being barefoot” but they are selling a $175 pair of shoes. Even huaraches are not “barefoot”. You might say “barefoot style” since it is certainly less shoe than other options.

Some of the companies that are getting into true barefoot style and minimalist shoes are investing in education. This is going to help get people to think about things that they have been doing for a while in order to make changes. How far the barefoot running trend goes, how quickly and how widely these ideas become accepted, depends on the teachers.

Currently, I think, doctrines are emerging rather than the simpler message of “take off your shoes, change what you’re doing until it stop hurting”. Maybe somebody needs to say, “Here are the things that people are doing: Chi-Running, Pose Method, etc. now put together your own system.”

There is an element of fear though. Some Physical Therapists and Podiatrists are raising red flags, saying "We're seeing more injuries now." But people who don’t get injured barefoot running aren’t calling them. I have a niece who is in cross-country and she loves to run barefoot. She had to sign a contract with the school and coaches, a whole liability waiver, absolving them of responsibility if she hurts herself. At least products like Invisible Shoes mitigate some of those fears.

Shoe stores have been against barefoot running because there hasn’t been a way for them to make money off of it. Offering an alternative that takes money out of people’s hands tends to make them upset. Perhaps they could invest more in coaching, apparel, or by stocking shoe products like our huaraches.

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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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