We had the chance to catch up with Steven Sashen, the founder and CEO of Xero Shoes. Full length interview below – thank you Steven for the heartfelt responses and for sharing your story.
For the benefit of our readers, please provide a brief self-introduction.
I’m a 51 year old masters All-American sprinter, life-long entrepreneur, former professional stand up comedian, and the co-founder — with my wife, Lena Phoenix — of Xero Shoes. Lena and I live in Boulder, Colorado.
How did you learn about / get into barefoot running?
I got back into sprinting 6 years ago, when I was 45, after a 30 year break. And for the first two years, I was getting injured constantly. A friend suggested I try running barefoot and gave me a copy of Born To Run. I’d known about the Tarahumara and loved the idea, so I started doing more research online. It turns out that there was a barefoot running workshop in town that weekend.
I went to that workshop and was fascinated by the feeling of running barefoot. I was so enthralled with the sensations, and with the experiment of feeling what happened as I explored different gait styles, that I didn’t realize I’d run over 5k… and as a 100m sprinter, I rarely run more than 400m, so that was a big deal.
Interestingly, I ended up with a big blister on my left foot. And it wasn’t lost on me that the blister was only on ONE foot… the side that got injured more often.
A week later, I went for another run with the local barefooters, and I figured that if I could run in a way that didn’t hurt the blistered area (which wasn’t fully healed), then that would mean I’d stopped doing what caused the problem in the first place. I thought, “I’ll give myself ten minutes to figure it out and if that doesn’t work, I’ll stop.”
Well, 9:30 in, I was still in a lot of pain. I was just about to go home and then… something changed. Literally within the span of one stride, I went from excruciating pain to running pain-free, lighter, and faster.
And the change that happened then (I stopped overstriding with my left leg), carried over into my sprinting. Within a couple weeks all my injuries cleared up and never came back.
What was the transition like?
I made the transition without an agenda about how quickly it should happen. I was curious. I just wanted to experiment and see what felt better. I developed a mantra, a question I asked myself as I ran: “How can I make this easier, lighter, more effortless, and more FUN?” And I just kept trying new things to see if they led me in the right direction.
What has your personal experience with barefoot running been? Any noticeable / significant benefits?
In addition to clearing up nagging injuries, I had one other significant effect: My life-long flat feet — the kind of flat feet that are the butt of family jokes — developed an arch.
It’s not a huge arch, since arch height is mostly genetic. But when I used to get out of a swimming pool, my wet footprint looked almost oval. Now it looks like, well, a foot!
My forefoot got a bit wider, and my entire foot got 1/2 size smaller (as the arch pulled up).
You mentioned some common myths / misconceptions about barefoot running you would like to debunk – what are they?
Oh, it’s a big list.
Some are myths that people who aren’t barefoot runners believe. Some are myths that circle around the barefoot community.
A non-barefoot running myth is that it’s simply not possible to run barefoot safely. Or that only certain people have the ability to run barefoot. Barring some significant foot problems, I’ve never met anyone who can’t run barefoot safely if they give themselves time to learn how (though some people are naturals and they figure it out quickly).
Another is that we need arch support. That’s like saying, “Once you’ve had your arm in a cast, you can’t use it ever again and need to stay in a cast!” Arches are made to be used. Feet are made to feel the world.
Oh, that’s another — you’re going to step on something and die! (okay, get seriously hurt). I have to tell you, I know thousands of barefoot runners and I’ve never heard of one who cut themselves on broken glass or stepped on a hypodermic needle. When you run barefoot, you WATCH where you’re running.
Okay, onto the myths within the community.
One is that you have to run at 180 steps per minute. Not true. You’ll want a faster cadence than you’re used to, but 180 is not a magic number. The reason for a faster cadence is that most people can’t put as much force into the ground (and, therefore, into their body) when they’re stepping at a faster pace. At a certain point though, faster isn’t better. So you have to experiment and see what cadence works best for you. That said, you may need to remind yourself of what that speed is — if you’re not used to a faster turnover, it’ll take a little while for it to feel normal.
Another is footstrike. Some people think you HAVE to land on your forefoot. Others say you HAVE to land on your midfoot. Some say your heel should never touch the ground. None of those are totally accurate. When we look at video of successful barefoot runners, we see a wide variety of landing patterns. I even know one or two whose heels touch the ground first (BUT, there’s almost no weight on it when it does). Again, find what works for you. Experiment.
A third is barefoot is better all the time. It’s not. Certain situations require footwear. As a competitive sprinter, I need sprinting spikes to get enough traction to get to full speed, and I need protection from the rough track surfaces that, at 23 mph, would rip the skin right off my feet.
A fourth is that you need to get stronger to run barefoot — your calves and Achilles need to build up and stretch before you can run without shoes. You hear this a lot after someone goes for a barefoot run and comes back sore. This is usually not caused by a lack of strength or flexibility, but by simply using more effort than is required, or having incorrect form. For example, if you overstride — reaching out in front of you with your foot as you land on it — that puts excessive strain on your calf and Achilles. Stop overstriding and you don’t have that strain. Or if you push off with your foot as it leaves the ground rather than lifting your foot off the ground with your hip — that also puts more strain on your calf than you need and isn’t a sign that you’re not strong enough.
I could go on, but that’s a start 😉
What inspired you to start Xero Shoes?
Getting out of my shoes changed my life. Plain and simple.
So, I wanted to be as close to barefoot as I could, as often as I could.
Again, I knew about the Tarahumara and their huaraches sandals, so I grabbed some materials and made some “barefoot-inspired” sandals for myself and a few of the local barefooters. More and more people wanted their own, so I kept making them. It was just a hobby.
Then Michael Sandler, who was coaching here in town, said, “If you had a website, I’d mention you in the book I’m writing.” (The book is Barefoot Running.).
I rushed home and pitched this idea of a new business to my wife, who TOTALLY shot it down. She thought it was a waste of time and effort and wouldn’t amount to anything.
Like a good husband, I agreed… and when she went to bed, I built a website 😉
I launched it 2 weeks later, on November 23, 2009, and it just took off. Within 3 months, the sandal business was our full time job. Three months later, the former lead designers from Nike and Reebok were sitting at our dining room table, designing products and helping us with sourcing and our business plan. It’s been full steam ahead ever since.
What is the typical design process behind you go through? How do you do customer research / how many iterations do you go through?
When we started the business we were selling sheets of a particular Vibram rubber. Worked fine, but it wasn’t really made for being a barefoot sandal. With the help of the former lead designers from Nike and Reebok, we created our FeelTrue® rubber, the only product made specifically for barefoot sandals. We knew the qualities we wanted — long lasting, flexible, great traction, good grip, etc. — and worked with a top manufacturer to create that.
It was a combination of the experience we had with thousands of customers, matched with 70+ years of footwear design and development experience that led to that product.
For the new products we have coming out, we also have great professional help. About 10 months ago, we were fortunate enough to hire Dennis Driscoll as our Head of Product Design and Development. Dennis has almost 40 years of footwear design experience, having co-founded Avia Footwear and been the head of product design at companies like Converse, Wilson and Crocs.
I’d say that we use all the feedback we get from customers when we design a product, but honestly most of the feedback we get is, “These are great!” 😉
But we do hear stirrings and hints of ideas that inspire, plus Dennis and I have visions for how we want the product to evolve. Frankly, it’s tricky to improve upon an idea as well-used and timeless as the huarache-stye sandal… but we’ve done it (you’ll see more about that in the next 12 months). Once we develop something, we work with our factories to make samples, then give them to our super-secret team of wear testers (including ourselves — we’re VERY picky). How many iterations we need depends on the complexity of the product itself combined with what we learn from use.
For example, one product that’s coming out in November has taken us over 2 years to make simply because it’s extremely difficult to manufacture. But the wear testers loved it and didn’t need anything different.
What makes Xeroshoes different?
Oh boy… lot’s of things.
Xero Shoes give you the fun and benefits of being barefoot, but with a layer of protection, a custom fit, and personalized style.
The “barefoot” part is that with either a 4mm or 6mm FeelTrue sole, you really feel the world. A study at the University of Hertfordshire showed that people are biomechanically identical to being barefoot when they wear Xero Shoes.
The custom fit part means that you can trim the soles to fit your foot, no matter what the shape.
The personalized style comes from the fact that we have 5 sole colors, 22 lace colors, dozens of ways to lace your Xero Shoes, and pendants and charms that you can add to really express your personality.
Xeros come with a 5,000 mile warranty. They’re waterproof — so you can use them for watersports as well as walking, running, yoga, etc.. They’re exceptionally lightweight — about 3.5 ounces for a men’s size 9 — so they’re perfect for travel. They pack flat or roll up and fit in your pocket. And they don’t retain any odor.
For the benefit of those who are new to Xero Shoes, could you categorize your current line-up of products?
At the moment, we have 2 types of sandal products: our 4mm Connect outsoles for the closest-to-barefoot feel, and our 6mm Contact soles for people who want a bit of extra protection, but still with good ground feel. You can get either of these as a do-it-yourself (DIY) kit, or we’ll custom make your Xero Shoes for you based on a tracing of your feet.
We have some new products coming out over the next few months, but I can’t talk about them too much until they’re ready to go.
Simply because sandals are closer to barefoot than any shoe. I love the freedom you feel when your toes are exposed to the air.
In fact, when you have something covering your foot, it can change your biomechanics. If your toes meet too much resistance to dorsiflexion (pulling up towards your knee) because of the fabric of the upper on a shoe, then they won’t dorsiflex… and dorsiflexion is an important part of running and walking biomechanics.
Also, sandals will fit more people than any shoe can since shoes have to use a specific shape that encompasses the whole foot. There are 54 different foot shapes for any specific size. When a shoe company makes a shoe, they have to pick a shape that will fit some of those 54 shapes, but not all of them and, often, not many.
Where are your customers located?
Over 45,000 people ages 1-91 in 93 countries have purchased Xero Shoes
What have customers been saying?
Check out our site at Xero Shoes or our Facebook and Twitter pages and you’ll hear people raving about the freedom they feel, how much fun it is to feel the world, and how going almost barefoot has let them run, hike, or walk pain free for the first time in years.
It’s such a treat that we receive emails on a daily basis from people whose lives have been changed by wearing Xero Shoes, because running a small business is tough and those wonderful emails make the days go faster 😉
What advice do you have for beginning barefoot runners?
I’ve written a number of articles about how to get started at www.XeroShoes.com
In short: start SMALL, listen to your body, and have FUN.
Slightly longer: Find a nice hard smooth surface, take off your shoes (or wear something like Xero Shoes), run for 20-30 seconds… if it hurts the next day, do something different (experiment) until you’re having FUN… then add another 20-30 seconds on your next run… and repeat.
A few keys: don’t reach out with your feet, place them closer to your body; pick up your cadence (not your speed) so your feet spend less time on the ground; don’t land hard on your heels; “pull” your feet off the ground (by flexing your hip) rather than pushing off the ground.
Maybe the best cue: Watch a 4 year old run and do what they do!
As you run, wonder “How can I make this easier, lighter, and more FUN?” and then do things that give you a big YES answer.
Anything else you would like to add?
Just remember that people have been successfully and enjoyably running barefoot or in sandals for thousands of years. There’s no reason you can’t, too.