Gear Review: Barefoot Science Insoles
Disclaimer: Evans “Jukebox” Prater was provided with free samples of the Barefoot Science insoles for the purpose of reviewing them and sharing his results for this website. No animals were harmed during the review process. ‘Cept for maybe a few mosquitos and ticks.
As I stated in a previous blog “A Few of My Trials (And How I Overcame Them)”, I recently discovered an intriguing, yet relatively unknown insole company called “Barefoot Science”. Headed by inventor of the insoles Dr. Patrick Malleret out of Toronto, Canada, the company claims their product will rehabilitate weak and fallen arches in people’s feet.
At the time I accidentally stumbled upon the insole’s listing on Amazon, I was recovering from a strained arch muscle I had developed shortly before arriving to Damascus, VA on my 2014 thru hike. I was surprised and upset to have gotten injured so early on, leaving my young thru hiker mind questioning the validity of my endeavor to begin with: “I’m obviously just not built for something like this.”, “None of my friends have gotten injured.”, and other thoughts of inferiority or lack of physical capability ruled my mind.
Upon visiting the podiatrist, however, I learned the injury was mostly my fault – not my genetics, not my body type. He looked at my SOLE insoles and said they were in decent shape but that my shoes were all but recycled tires: covered in holes, smelling like the dump, and lacking any semblance of foot support.
“You see, your feet were doing twice the work they normally would in these shoes, because there’s absolutely no support left in them. None whatsoever. How many miles did you say you walked in to Erwin?”
“27.” I said sighing.
His look was one of “No shit, dummy. What did you expect?”
What he actually said was a bit nicer, though still shocking.
“So your feet, without the proper support of a shoe, did 54 miles of work that day. Hence that strained arch.”
This, in fact, made perfect sense to me, but was difficult to process as I replayed in my head the multitudes of pairs of worn out boots and trail runners i had seen pushed beyond the limits any “normal” person would ever consider taking their shoes.
He prescribed me some prednisolone and an anti-inflammatory and advised me to stay off trail for 6 more days. I knew that was going to be difficult.
So there I sat perusing the internet for a permanent or at least semi-permanent cure or just something to help my stupid feet. The insoles I had, which were basically cheap orthotics, didn’t help by not solving the problem of my weak arch, I soon discovered; they were more like a cast on your arm, and when you remove them, the muscle is actually weaker than before.
When I discovered the Barefoot Science page i became immediately intrigued. This company was claiming they could FIX my feet! And not only that, but I’d develop better posture, get rid of all my podiatral problems. As far as I was concerned, this meant I’d be walking on air. And sunshine. At the same time.
After perusing a bit more, I discovered Toesalad’s review of the insoles and I was sold:
So, I e-mailed Dr. Malleret who graciously provided me with four pairs of the insoles, two of which have been absolutely demolished from a combined 1300 miles of hiking. Here’s how I and more importantly, my feet, felt and reacted to them:
*The basic concept is the insoles provide you with 7 “levels” of inserts that you change once a week just under the arch. The inserts are supposed to exercise the arch enough to eventually strengthen and rehabilitate it to “normal” strength. Unfortunately, I dropped my phone on the rocks in PA so I lost most of the trail pictures I had gathered documenting the insole’s durability and effect on my arches, so you’ll have to use your imagination and come to your own conclusions from the information provided.
Mileage- 8, 10, 12, 5, 0, 0, 0
Monday (8 miles) of this week was my shortest day since my first day on the trail. However, being my first day back from injury and my dog’s first day hiking ever, I thought 8 miles would be a good place to start. I took it VERY slow, about 2 mph, and made sure to focus on my feet the entire time, feeling for any sense of discomfort or pain. The arch strain pain did not come back once. The pads of my feet, did, however, hurt surprisingly bad for only having done 8 miles. I chalked it up to having generally flat feet and being on day 1 of the program.
By the end of the first day I did not feel the “bump” underneath my arches anymore from the insert, which made me want to change to the 2nd insert immediately, but I heeded the warnings given by Barefoot Science that progressing too quickly can hurt your feet and waited it out.
I also noticed a peculiar vibrating feeling on the pads of my feet, and my arch muscles spasmed all afternoon and night.
Days 2 and 3 also hurt more than average on the pads of my feet and i noticed that pain would start very early in the day versus my orthotics, around the 4 mile mark. Again, I surmised: flat feet, early in the program.
Day 4 was a near-o and 5, 6, and 7 were zeros for Trail Days.
Mileage- 16, 18, 19, 16, 17, 17, 12
I met some new friends at Trail Days who were hiking out of the same gap as me so we decided to hike together and, since we had taken a near-o followed by three zeros, an above average week for still so early on in the trail.
My feet hurt less on the 16 mile day than the 8 mile day I’d had just 7 days before. I took this as a sign my arches were becoming stronger and again, the “bump” in the arch of the insert went away after the first day.
The next day, though, I could barely walk after 18 miles and was utterly confused. My feet would remain sporadically responsive to the mileage I was doing for the next 3 weeks: I never knew how bad they were going to hurt at the end of the day, and some days were much better than others.
I emailed Dr. Malleret concerning this seeming inconsistency in my foot pain and he said that because my foot muscles were actually having to work now, instead of rely on support from orthotics, I could expect higher than average foot pain for the coming weeks. Great.
The vibration feeling in my foot pads was slightly reduced this week, though I came to expect and be comforted by this and the spasms in my arches: it’s how I knew these things were working.
The 12 mile day at the end of the week was a great relief for everyone’s tired feet and leg muscles.
Week/ Level 3:
Mileage- 17, 16, 18, 18, 14, 19, 18
This week was pretty much the same as week 2: if there was any improvement in my foot pain at all, it was at most 4-5%. I can’t tell if the improvement was actually physiological or if it was just wishful, positive thinking.
Again, foot bump gone after day one.
I think one reason my feet improved so much over the course of the program was a conscious effort to push myself as well. You’ll notice my mileages go steadily up over the next few weeks, and I think my mental tolerance for foot pain became greater in tandem with my feet gaining strength as well.
Mileage- 19, 14, 18, 20, 21, 17, 20
Again, not much pain reduction by the end of the day, probably another 2-3% (that puts us at 6-8% total pain reduction!) I did notice, however, that the pain was now beginning to onset later in the day. Instead of pain at 10 miles, it wouldn’t begin until 12 or 13 miles. I took this to be a very positive sign and move in the right direction.
We upped our mileage again this week and my feet, which had been holding me back from pushing myself as far as I wanted to go previously, were seeming to finally begin to keep up.
Mileage- 20, 21, 14, 19, 21, 12, 16
Level 5 is where things really began to change. Perhaps it was because this week was a bit lax compared to the previous weeks, but I noticed no more tingling or spasming in my feet at the end of the day, although the foot pain was still pretty bad. Perhaps I just have a low pain threshold and am more affected by pain in general. I will say, however, the pain also began to dissipate more quickly once I quit walking for the day. I took this as a very positive sign.
I still wore Level 6 when we were on land, but the amount of time was quite brief, so I decided I would not go up to level 7 after this – I would heed the company’s warning that you must actually be on a level for 7 days full time before graduating to the next.
Week 7/Level 6:
Mileage- 19, 0, 23, 25, 27, 30, 24
We hiked 19 miles in to Harpers Ferry and the group I was with all decided we had different agendas for the upcoming weeks, and that meant a celebratory zero day together. It was amazing, and I will never forget the debaucherous times leading up to and aquablazing with Shakesbear, Bliss, and Wild Turkey! After our zero day, though, I was alone again. I decided it was time to go full on bad ass. So I upped my mileage and quickly got used to putting in 11 and 12 hour hiking days. The best part though? My feet could handle it. I was in awe. Here I was, not 7 weeks off of a foot injury that required me to take a week off from the trail, busting out consecutive 20+ mile days. It was then I began to realize that these insoles may just be standing up to their claim.
Week 8/Level 7:
Mileage- 25, 26, 25, 27, 30, 30, 30
Level 7 is the final level of the Barefoot Science system. I was overjoyed to finally be feeling like I imagined most people with “strong” and “normal” arches must have been feeling for the entirety of the trail. It was at this point, just past the official halfway point, that my legs really began to feel like “hiker’s legs” as well; it began to matter very little how much weight was in my pack, so I could carry more food, visit town less, and enjoy the woods more. In true Jukebox fashion, I went a little overboard with my mileage, but hey, it was like I had 4×4 Jeep’s for feet now and it would be a waste of money not to drive them. My feet would still hurt pretty bad at the end of the 25+ mile days, but I figured I was asking a little much for them not to be. I’d say the total pain reduction by the end of a 20+ mile day was around 18%, pretty significant if you ask me.
Another positive side effect of strengthened arches: better posture and less pain in the rest of your body (imagine a house with a crumpling frame that has it’s foundation replaced). At this point, I began telling everyone on the trail about the magic the insoles had worked on my feet. I was a little overzealous, but damn, I was a REAL HIKER NOW.
I can honestly say I probably would not have completed the trail were it not for these insoles and the kindness of Dr. Malleret. Which, to me, is a testament to the kindness and generosity so many of us experience on our thru-hikes – I would suffice it to say that 99% of thru-hikers would make the same claim about Trail Angels or Trail Magic in general.
Of course, if you’re planning a thru-hike in the coming years, I’d recommend starting the foot strengthening program BEFORE you hit the trail so you don’t have to deal with the immense pain of the adjustment/strengthening period that I did. Also, buy 3 or 4 pairs and have a family member send a new one to you when the insoles become worn out/worn through, which they will (they were designed more for servers and factory workers).
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Its been some time since this was posted, but i’d like to know the status of your feet now. Do you still wear the barefoot science inserts? How often?