We recently interviewed Martin Doellinger of Soft Star Shoes – thank you Martin for the in-depth responses and for answering the one question many of us have when we first hear of barefoot running – what about broken glass? Full length interview below.
For the benefit of our readers, could you provide a brief self-introduction?
Hi, my name is Martin Doellinger. I’m a barefoot runner and I work for Soft Star Shoes. I’ve worked in all areas of the company, starting in customer service, then making shoes and now in the marketing department.
What got you interested in barefoot running?
I began working at Soft Star as a part-time position just because I needed a little more income. I was already a runner, but had never heard of barefoot running at the time. I continued to run in my conventional, heavily-padded motion control shoes for a few months after I began the job, but then I developed a painful case of plantar fasciitis. I was told I would need to wear arch orthotics the rest of my life to ease the pain. I tried them, but the pain never really went away. Fortunately, through my job at Soft Star, I learned a different theory: get rid of all the orthotics, arch supports and anything that elevates or cushions your foot unnaturally and start spending time barefoot. The idea was that staying barefoot, or close to it, would allow my arch muscled to strengthen. I tried it and my pain went away. I began wearing Soft Star’s zero-drop shoes for running after that and haven’t had any plantar fasciitis since.
Was it hard to transition to barefoot running?
The transition to walking was easy for me, but the transition to running barefoot came with pain. I started slow and just ran a hundred yards the first day, but my calves would hurt and burn for a day or two. That was humbling, because I normally did a 4-mile run. When the pain subsided, I would go out again and run a little further. Then they’d hurt again. Then I’d run a little further the next time. This went on for 2-3 weeks, but I was eventually able to run several miles without pain. I alternated between running in Soft Star shoes and running barefoot.
What would you say are the biggest benefits / differences you have experienced with running barefoot?
I feel much lighter when I run barefoot or in minimalist shoes. I never realized how hard I was pounding down my foot and body when I wore conventional padded shoes. When I’m either barefoot or have just a thin sole under my foot, I need to land lighter or it will feel terrible. I feel I’m more in tune with my body and although it took time to transition, I believe it was well worth it. My plantar fasciitis is gone, my feet and arches feel stronger and I believe I prevented future injuries. Running has become much more enjoyable for me after the change.
What about broken glass?
People always ask me “What about broken glass?” Honestly, that’s never been a problem for me. I don’t know where people are running where the ground is covered in broken glass, but if you happen to see any, just don’t step on it. I wouldn’t step on it if I wore shoes, either. If you run barefoot, you automatically learn to become aware of your surroundings and watch your step. People also seem to think that running in bare feet just hurts. Well, that may be true at first but only because years of wearing padded shoes makes feet soft and tender. As you ease into barefoot running, the skin on your feet become stronger and pain goes away. I’ve even seen barefoot runners step on broken glass without getting cut.
Any other myths you would like to debunk?
For people who read about barefoot running and want to try it out, I think one of the biggest myths is that they can simply take off their shoes, run as far or as hard as they want and they’ll be injury-free. Not true! There is definitely a transition period that you should go through slowly and carefully. Changing to barefoot running involves using muscles in a way they haven’t been used before, and those muscles need to strengthen slowly to adapt. Otherwise, you’ll risk injury. I also think it’s important to take the time to learn about proper running form. While taking off your shoes and paying attention to your feet can be a great lesson, breaking the habits of wearing motion-controlled shoes all your life can be difficult. Even running barefoot, you can still be injured with improper running form.
What inspired you to work for Soft Star Shoes?
I began working here almost by chance. I needed extra income and a friend who worked at Soft Star told me he thought I would be a good fit for an open position, so I applied. My friend was right, I felt very comfortable in the workshop and got along with everybody. I didn’t see it as a long-term occupation at first, but as I became interested in barefoot running I began to really love the shoes we were making. It’s great to work for a company that makes a product you believe in—and holds high ethical and sustainability standards. As the company grew, I grew with it and I now see it as a full time career.
I noticed Soft Star Shoes has a great line-up for young children as well – would you recommend barefoot shoes for kids?
Yes, absolutely! Soft Star began as a children’s shoe company in 1984 when our founder, Tim Oliver, was dissatisfied with the shoes available for children. He wanted healthy, minimalist shoes for his daughter, so he and his wife began making their own. We have about 30 years of experience making shoes for kids, and there is now a lot of evidence to suggest that kids’ feet will develop best if they are barefoot or close to barefoot as much as possible. A podiatrist named Simon J. Wikler wrote a book about this subject in 1961 and published years of research showing how rigid constrictive shoes lead to foot problems among children. His work pioneered a movement to encourage minimalist footwear for kids, which is now very popular. Only recently has this view been taken for adult shoes, too. Note: for more information on Dr. Wikler’s book, visit http://www.softstarshoes.com/live-bare-blog/?p=5006
What is the typical design process Soft Star Shoes goes through? How do you do customer research / how many iterations do you go through?
It can vary depending on the type of shoe and the designer. We’re fortunate to have some very talented seamstresses and designers working for us, and they’re always experimenting with new ideas. Typically, we start by listening to feedback from our customers. We take all of our customer comments seriously, whether they come to us through email, social media, letters or phone calls. Occasionally, we release surveys through our blog or newsletter. This helps us understand what our customers want and which new shoe styles we should focus on. Sometimes we get lucky and get a shoe design right after only a handful of prototypes. Other times, it can take several months of making prototypes and lots of testing to find a design that works. We thoroughly test all of our shoes before launching a new style. For our running shoes, we use ultrarunners who have a lot of experience reviewing minimalist shoes of all brands. They run hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles in our shoes and do their best to wear them out and find any problems that may arise with them. Then we do our best to fix those problems and send them new pairs to wear down. We keep doing that until we find a design that meets our standards.
What makes Soft Star Shoes different?
All of our shoes are handcrafted in the USA. We make every one of our shoes at our small workshop in Corvallis, Oregon using as many natural materials as possible. Our leather uppers are formaldehyde-free and colored with non-toxic dye. We also allow customers to choose their own colors (for an additional labor fee), and we can often accommodate custom requests. We also have an incredibly friendly and supportive customer service team. They respond to every email personally, and if you call us while our shop is open then you’ll speak to a real person instead of a recording (unless all the lines are busy).
For the benefit of those who are new to Soft Star Shoes, could you categorize your current line-up of products?
Our shoes are categorized for babies, kids and adults. For babies, we focus primarily on soft moccasins and booties. For kids, we offer a wide range of our famous moccasins as well as a selection of durable outdoor play shoes, athletic shoes, winter boots and dressy shoes. For adults, we offer moccasins, casual shoes, dressy shoes, boots and our signature RunAmoc barefoot running shoes. All of our shoes are made with either a soft leather sole or a thin, zero-drop rubber sole that is both flexible and durable.
What advice do you have for beginning barefoot runners?
Take it slow! Do your research and learn how to transition slowly and how to develop a light, smooth running form. There are plenty of books out there on the subject, as well as an abundance of information online. If you have an opportunity to take a barefoot running class or workshop in your area, then it may be worth looking into it.
Anything else you would like to add?
We encourage you to check out the Soft Star blog for regular tips on foot health, children’s shoes, running barefoot and news from our workshop: http://www.softstarshoes.com/live-bare-blog/