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November 21, 2011

Boar Skin Outsoles, Grounding Yourself, and Dancing in the Dirt: Adventures with Michael Sandler and Soft Star Shoes

One of the coolest things about being a product tester for Soft Star is that every so often, a package shows up unannounced on my doorstep, containing a pair of moccasins with some odd twist or another that I hadn’t really anticipated.

More than any other company I’ve worked with, Soft Star shows an incredible willingness to think outside the box on product design. They constantly seek ways to modify and improve their existing running models, and frequently solicit user feedback for consideration on what elements to include or exclude from their final products. In most cases, the prototypes I receive in the mail aren’t intended for formal review; they simply come with a note explaining that the elves are experimenting with either a new insole, new upper material, new outsole, new laces, etc; my job is to run as many miles as I can in the mocs and report my feedback on the aspect in question.

Even though I know not to be surprised by the unexpected anymore, last month the company caught me completely off guard, with a prototype moccasin that I never would have thought of. As usual, they’re looking for my feedback, but in this case they’d like it opened up to the masses as well – so if you make it to the end of this post (we’ll take a long detour to get there, but I’ll try to keep it interesting), please chime in on what you think of the whole idea.

Not your run of the mill RunAmocs ...

The shoes that arrived at my house last month looked like normal RunAmocs from the top: perforated leather uppers, laces around the ankles, and a boar skin insole underfoot. It wasn’t until I turned the shoe over that I figured there must be some kind of mistake.

They started out perfectly white, just like the insole

Where a Vibram outsole would normally be, there was now an additional layer of boar skin. At first I honestly thought they had screwed up the manufacturing process and forgot to attach the rubber outsole – but the note inside the package assured me that the construction was intentional.

Boar skin like a whitewall beneath the upper

I’ve often described the RunAmoc as something our primitive ancestors might have worn, which occasionally triggers the response that Native Americans didn’t have Vibram outsoles. Animal hides, however, are something they most definitely did have – so once again, Soft Star’s looking toward the future by reaching into the past … and that aspect alone seems pretty sweet.

Here’s where the story goes a bit off-course: when I asked how they got the idea to use boar skin, they told me that Michael Sandler had visited their workshop one day and asked if the elves could make him just such a pair.

That would be Michael Sandler, author of the Barefoot Running book that I reviewed and gave away last month. He was in Oregon on a book tour and stopped in to Soft Star headquarters, and had a discussion about shoe construction and various materials that would optimize ground feel and “conductivity” – more on that in a second.

Upon hearing this, I shot Michael an e-mail, basically asking, Where did you get the idea to use boar skin?, and What made you want to try it?

That same afternoon, my phone rang … and on the other end of the line was Michael Sandler. We embarked on a wide-ranging discussion including topics from barefoot running to connection with the Earth to future directions in shoe manufacturing – and it was one of the most fascinating and enjoyable conversations I’ve had in quite a while.

One point that came through loud and clear is that Michael is a true believer. In my review of his book, I criticized him for being a little far-reaching with the health benefits he claims are alleviated by going barefoot, and for embracing the somewhat obscure science of "grounding”, where the goal is to equalize the electrical potential of our bodies to that of the Earth. However, these are both areas that Michael has studied extensively and supports wholeheartedly – and after listening to him preach for a while, I have to say I’m a little bit intrigued.

In particular, the notion of grounding is of paramount importance to Michael. He referred me to texts such as Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever? and other studies about the electrical effects of being directly connected to the ground. In order to become grounded, you need to be conductive – but the biggest obstacle to conducting the Earth’s energy is our footwear. Natural materials such as animal hides are inherently conductive, while synthetic materials like rubber outsoles completely block any transfer of energy from the Earth.

However, animal hide outsoles are only a starting point. Michael would ideally like to see outsoles made from plant products, because he’s a vegan who objects to the use of animal products – the boar skin Soft Star uses is sourced as scrap material, so the animal isn’t killed for it, which makes it a bit more vegan-palatable – and because plant materials have even greater conductivity than animal products. When I prompted him with suggestions of hemp or palm or bamboo outsoles, he gave me examples of these very concepts being used in other cultures at various points in history. Whether any of this makes practical sense is somewhat tough to tell, but Michael’s clearly an expert on the topic – and when it comes to footwear, conductivity is one of his highest priorities.

All of which brings us back to the boar skin RunAmocs. Michael got a pair just like mine, and he’s a huge fan. Some of his exact words were, “there’s something magical about how they feel”, or, “they make me hop, skip, and dance on the trails”, and, “I can’t help but feel like a kid again in these.” He says they allow him to fully feel the ground, but provide just enough protection to take the edge off sharp rocks or errant roots. They also improve his form by promoting high steps and light footstrike, two hallmarks of natural running.

Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee hopping, skipping, and dancing

With about 100 miles on my pair, my own experience with the boar skin mocs is a little more tempered than Michael’s. There’s no question that the ground feel is outstanding, and they maintain (or even improve) all of the flexibility that my normal moccasins allow. I’ve also been quite impressed with their durability: even though much of my testing was on asphalt, the boar skin hasn’t become ragged or torn apart like I suspected they might. They could seemingly hold up for several hundred miles without wearing thin in high impact areas.

As you may have already predicted, the biggest drawback with a leather outsole is traction. They get slick on wet surfaces like roads after a rain, and they have practically no grip on loose trail surfaces or in sloppy conditions. Granted, the uncertain footing makes you very careful about proper form and gentle landings, but I’d still prefer something with a bit of grip to it when I’m trying to keep my legs under me in the middle of a rainy 50-miler somewhere.

The round wear marks on the outsole are thanks to small rock plates ... which are the subject of another post entirely.

Accordingly, my opinion is that the boar skin mocs would have a relatively narrow range of use.  They would be awesome on groomed trails or smooth single track in dry conditions with relatively gentle climbs and descents, but I’d avoid them if I anticipated any loose gravel, wet dirt, or steep hills - which eliminates a majority of my regular training runs. The ground feel really is outstanding - possibly the equal of Soft Star’s slipper-like Moc3 – and if you subscribe to the idea of grounding, they’re definitely the next best thing to being completely barefoot.

Incidentally, Michael Sandler happens to agree with me on all this. He acknowledges that the traction of animal hides is far from ideal, and that the boar skin mocs aren’t well-suited for certain conditions. However, both of us also agree that this is a fascinating concept for shoemakers to explore. We’d love to see further experimentation with more natural and conductive materials, and we’re pleased to be involved with Soft Star as they push the envelope in this regard.

Now it’s your turn: what do you think of all this? Do you buy into the idea of connecting to the ground? Is the tradeoff of traction for conduction something you’d be willing to try? Would you be interested in having a pair of mocs like this in your collection if they’re only intended for limited use? Is there anything else you’d like to contribute to the conversation?

Remember, Soft Star is soliciting feedback on this one, so this is your opportunity to let them hear your opinion. Sound off in the comments below, and I’ll wade back into the discussion as needed to answer questions or give replies.

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Colin,  11/21/11, 11:32 PM  

What are the rock plates made of? How do they affect the conductivity of the boar skin soles?

Rutger,  11/22/11, 1:55 AM  

Second on the rock plates. Also my personal experience with stepping on sharp objects is that they only hurt in the arch area, or at the very least one could say the rock plate areas are the least in need of protection.

The grounding theory seems completely obvious to me. I have been using a grounding mat in my bed for 6 months now and experience a much more restful sleep.

So in short, very interesting development and yes I would be very interested in grounded footwear.

ryboto 11/22/11, 5:53 AM  

I actually heard about their testing of leather bottomed shoes, but I hadn't seen a pair or been offered one when doing my own testing. I want to try these out! I think something like this would be perfect on the Moc3(minus the rock plates)...

Jeff 11/22/11, 5:54 AM  

I reviewed Sandler's book as well, and I still don't quite buy into the concept of "grounding" - it just seems too far-fetched.

I am intrigued, though by the boar-skin-soled run-a-mocs. Maybe not for running, but they do sound comfy for everyday wear.

Jesse 11/22/11, 6:07 AM  

I've only heard of grounding as a side note in some articles and such, but the concept isn't news at all. Part of why I love bare footing so much is the increased sense of...I guess the only word that works is "being." I just feel more centered, like I am where I belong...wherever that might happen to be.

As for interest in the boar skin mocs, not sure. Love the idea, but up here in the dark, damp NW I really need footwear most when it's spitting rain or frozen and those seem like the two worst times for these.

Spencer 11/22/11, 6:36 AM  

I really wanted a animal skin moccasin. Why? Because I can't stand rubber. Rubber to me is stiff, is hard, I really don't like it. Give me a pair of socks though, or really thin crappy shoes, my feet feel great, on asphalt anyways. So, I've been looking into making my own moccasins just due to the fact that most rubber shoes bug my feet.

Brandon Mulnix 11/22/11, 7:08 AM  

Leather bottoms interest me a lot. After wearing my Moc3's for a couple of months the insoles started coming out, so I helped them, and now want to know what the shoes would feel like without the Vibram sole. Soft Star must have been reading my find.

Grounding... I believe! I don't have any of the knowledge or back ground, but their is something about it that feels right. Much like minimalist running.

I also am looking forward to your take on the rock plate?

Alejandro 10 11/22/11, 7:12 AM  

I am curious, like Colin, about the material used for a rock plate. Also, if I understood the image correct there is a rock plate in the heel... seems extraneous to me.

Gracia y paz,


Jean 11/22/11, 7:14 AM  

I love almost everything about the idea, but the traction seems like it could be too much of an issue. I wouldn't make them my go-to shoes, but they sound like they would be great to wear when the weather is cooperating. I'm not really into the spiritual aspect of "grounding," but I DO have way more fun when I'm doing it (plus I don't get shocked by everything I touch)! I run in 5mm RunAmocs because I wanted the extra traction (NYC bridges/metal grids are slippery when wet!), but between the 2mm street sole (which I will likely end up buying) and a boar skin outsole, I'd most likely spring for the latter unless the traction is truly awful.

Jean 11/22/11, 7:19 AM  

Also, I really don't like the rock plates. Seems like they would interfere with the natural movement of the foot. I look forward to hearing more about them.

Chris,  11/22/11, 8:38 AM  

As one who loves their Run Amocs and Dashes far and above anything else I've ever worn, I'm definitely intrigued. I run almost exclusively on the road, so I'm not particularly worried about traction, though the rock plate is concerning. I've never had a problem with rocks in my Run Amoc or Dash even when running on gravel. Does the boar skin really offer less protection from debris than the Vibram sole to need some additional beef? Honestly, I've been thinking that if there was a way to make the standard Soft Star shoe thinner, I'd like it even more.

As for the grounding, I'm not sure of the actual science, but running barefoot, especially on grass or dirt is so calming that I can see the merit of only using natural materials between foot and ground. If the durability is shown to be good, I would definitely consider a boar-skin Dash as my next pair of shoes.

Cherylrunner 11/22/11, 10:22 AM  

Hi Donald,
As a practitioner and certified instructor of ChiRunning, I am fully on board with the concept of grounding related to running. As esoteric as it sounds both from Michael Sandler’s point of view and Danny Dreyer’s ChiRunning philosophy, grounding the body in connection with the earth is fundamental to allowing chi to flow. The mind directs chi and chi directs movement when a practitioner becomes advanced. Connection to the earth is the first level of groundedness in the Chinese martial arts and is the first step in body sensing a centered posture in “natural” running where efficiency is optimized and injury is non-existent.
So yes, I think Michael is on the right track. He is setting up the conditions for chi to flow with a focus on detail at the shoe level. Anything that helps people to do that is a good thing. I love that Soft Star is on board with that. That said, I’m not a true barefoot runner, and like you, I run on some rugged trails. I have no need to feel every rock and root. I love my Merrells for protection. I’d love to try these mocs some day.
So that’s my two cents, Donald. I’m glad to hear that you were open to the conversation with Michael. Once you experience efficiency and joy in your running, it becomes intriguing to visit the intangibles.

Eric 11/22/11, 10:52 AM  

Russell Moccasins makes boots with boar hide soles for stalking. When I was looking for a minimalist replacement for my daily use/hiking boots, I ended up getting a similar pair from them but with a thin Vibram out-sole for durability. I love them.

I would definitely be interested in giving the boar hide a try as a working out in the yard/office shoe (I currently use RunAmocs.) However, all my running is basically on rocky, rough and muddy trails, so I don't think they would suit me for running.

SupermomWannabe 11/22/11, 11:46 AM  

Wow, I've not seen anything like this yet but I will be off to learn more! I love the idea of grounding but am honestly a newbie just learning on this stuff. Thanks for an in depth post!

Donald 11/22/11, 6:20 PM  

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

To answer the FAQ about composition of the rock plate ... I'm not 100% sure. I believe it's the same variety of flexible thermoplastic that New Balance and Merrell both use in their minimal trail shoes. I'll confirm with Soft Star and do a separate post in the near future. I do think a plate in the heel is beneficial, especially when running down steep hills.

And it sounds like there's more acceptance (or at least curiosity) for grounding than I would have guessed - very good to know.

Keep the feedback coming!

The BIG E 11/22/11, 6:25 PM  

Hogwash. I would only wear said shoes if they actually performed better. Less traction with similar ground feel does not interest me.

Myles,  11/22/11, 10:15 PM  

I'm curious to know if the Boar Sole makes the shoes lighter?

MONOTONE MARY 11/23/11, 7:52 AM  

I'm not the biggest fan of the boar skin. As the founder of the Front Range Barefoot Hiking Club, grounding is very important to me & my fellow hikers (getting mud between my toes, feeling the earth under my feet) So when I feel the earth - I like to feel it with my skin. When I put on my Soft Star moccasins, it's for rough conditions, moving quickly, or freezing temps. So in that respect, the regular trail sole does it for me. But then, I'm barefoot all the time except in those conditions that require traction. Thanks for the review! I'm glad SS is always trying new things! :)

Emily,  11/23/11, 12:43 PM  

I'm all for minimalist footware, but the "grounding" or "earthing" thing has the unmistakable odor of bullsh*t about it. Seriously--a major scientific breakthrough discovered by a former cable TV salesman? Well, I'll give him one thing--he was a salesman.

This blog seems to have a pretty good analysis.

As that writer points out, it's very convenient that you can buy all these "earthing" products. In fact you can get an "earthing pad" and the book for $72 as a bundle. What a deal!

Or not. Bad science ultimately has really delirious effects on people. I'd think twice before letting it off the hook quite so easily.

Anonymous,  11/24/11, 12:00 AM  

I first heard about grounding from my doctor who has taken the time to read the book, research the science and try it personally. Unlike many of the people who visit this blog, I'm disabled and unable to run... but that doesn't mean that I don't fully embrace the minimalist footwear and barefoot lifestyle. I wear my minimalist shoes and go barefoot as much as possible. I also feel like Soft Star is reading my mind because I planned to try to work with them next spring to modify one of their suede sole mocs for conductivity for grounding. Whole heartedly behind this idea and want to say kudos to them for thinking outside the box and daring to try new designs. Most of all, highest marks for SS for listening to their customers! Well done.

Rob Smith 11/24/11, 10:05 AM  

I like the idea of a leather outsole as long as it is better wearing than the vibram sole. as far as grip goes, i don't really care about that because i believe that, as long as your run properly and don't have to make sharp changes of direction (or climb mud banks for example), you don't need any grip.

personally i think the grounding thing is carp but what worries me is that it could make the shoes look more "mystical" than they really are, if it were used in marketing. they are already a bit of an unusual concept and reading about the benefits of "grounding" would have overloaded my scepticism circuits and i probably would have ended up not buying them. if they have an added benefit of grounding or whatever, then cool, but i would hesitate to sell them on that basis.

i'm curious to read about the rock plates. if they add protection from landing on sharp stones then great. seconding another comment, i would find the heel plate superfluous. i hope they don't add as much weight as they sound like they do.

anyway, its great to see soft star experimenting with different things and even better to know that they are in good hands (or feet, i should say). i am a convert to their shoes and am willing to trust that they know what they are doing.

importantbutnotatall 11/29/11, 8:45 AM  

I think it is a good experiment, one that I have tried myself. I have a pair that I made and love them, but they have very limited use. Good when comfort is the priority over traction. Seems like it would be a limited market at the typical price point

Grounding.......seems like magnets and dream catchers to me. I'm a fan of Newflex soles.

Huan,  12/23/11, 8:00 PM  

I would love love love to see a shoe made with a renewable source like bamboo or other plant fiber sole. I already love minimalist shoes and the idea of being in touch with nature through running, and I feel like having them made out of even more nature friendly materials would be awesome!

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