Monday, January 21, 2013

Lems/LEMing/Stem Primal Origin Review

Lems Shoes, formerly LEMing, (and, also formerly, Stem) is a small Pennsylvania-based company specializing in minimalist lifestyle shoes and name changes.
As of this review, Lems only has one model of shoe for sale: the Primal Origin (with at least five more to come in 2013). As a shoe on the “barefoot” end of the minimalist spectrum, the Lems Primal Origin (PO) falls somewhere between a casual shoe and an active lifestyle shoe. The primary design objective of this shoe is to give the wearer all of the benefits of a being barefoot while maintaining a certain level of protection, comfort, and stealth in the normal human being world where, let’s face it, toe shoes are an aesthetic aberration. Anyone who has been following the minimalist running scene for any length of time has heard the  Goldy Locks-esque promise of the perfect hybrid of barefoot/shod experience. This shoe delivers.

What it is and What it isn’t

Sole after 35 road running miles
Lems were my first step into the world of minimalist shoes (pun intended). I was looking for something in the vein of a lifestyle shoe, but I also wanted to learn how to run with barefoot form. Like many before me, I was introduced to minimalism by wondering aghast why people were wearing Vibram Five Fingers. After more than my fair share of internet research, I decided I wanted to try minimalism but I did not want to wear shoes that screamed  “Ask me about my shoes!” 

Enter Lems. I purchased my first pair after reading some reviews that simply raved about the shoe. “It’s like being barefoot,” they said. “I forget I’m wearing shoes,” they said. “Insanely comfortable!” Only two of those three descriptions are true. I know internet reviewers can sometimes be prone to hyperbole, but let me say confidently and unequivocally that you will never forget that are you wearing shoes in Lems. Why? Because wearing shoes, even extremely minimal ones, feels very different than being barefoot. This should not be taken as a negative criticism of the POs, just a criticism of hyperbole. I’ll never, ever, be that hyperbolic.

Insole is great for added protection
or a custom fit
I can say, however, that the POs are my favorite pair shoes. It does not matter if I’m going to work to stand for 7 hours, to walk all day downtown, or trek through the great outdoors; I always find myself reaching for my Lems. As someone with wide feet, I have a particular appreciation for the shoe’s anatomical last. Too often the inward curve of a running shoe’s last causes me discomfort. I feel as if I’m spilling over the midfoot. Not in Lems. They’re completely unrestrictive without feeling “loose.” The 3mm sock liner is removable and allows the wearer to customize their fit. So there is no need to dismiss this shoe as an option even if your feet run on the narrow side. With or without the liner, with or without socks, this shoe will be comfortable all day.
For the sake of clarity I think I should mention that the Lems PO is not a running shoe per se. It is an active lifestyle shoe that can be run in. I’ve logged 35 running miles on my current pair and 70 running miles on a pair before that. I returned my first pair because they were defective; more on that later. 

Wearing it

Lems are super flexible and move with your feet
The PO feels like a secure slipper. I often have a hard time interpreting what some reviewers mean when they describe a shoe fitting like a slipper. Slippers are often loose, insecure, and designed only for low-intensity use. Lems feel like a slipper only insofar as the foot bed is soft and roomy. The traditional lacing system makes the shoe as secure as it needs to be, but not one bit more. In fact, Lem’s website (still under the moniker “Leming Footwear”) cautions against trying to lace up these shoes too tightly and thereby inhibiting their roomy fit. I find that the looped eyelets make the shoe difficult to tie extremely tightly.
Traction was great on a snowy run. Notice the toe box is soaked

I mentioned that wearing these shoes is very different from being barefoot. Based on some reviews, you could get the impression that you can feel individual blades of grass. This is far from true. But I can definitely feel the differences between a grassy and a rocky surface.  I can feel inconsistencies in the road, indoor surfaces, and a whole host of other ground textures. For even better ground feel, take out the sock liner. The soles of your feet have got some exploring to do.
I live in the southwest and can verify that my feet stayed well ventilated, even while on a midday, sockless run in June. After a wash, it only took a couple of hours by a fan for the shoes to dry, as per the website’s claim. Be careful in wetter climates, though. The shoes are in no way water resistant. I spent a rainy weekend in October in Boston without a car. Walking the city was easy; keeping my feet dry was not. Despite all of the wet weather, though, I never slipped or lost traction. 

Medial side separation
Props to Lems on their “special air-infused rubber” outsole. I expect very good things in the durability department. That being said, I did order a pair of POs in late June from a distributor (not Lems directly) that were defective. After approximately two months of use, my wife pointed out to me that the upper was separating from the outsole on the medial side. After a bit of research I found out that right about the time I ordered my shoes, Lems had tweaked their design to account for some quality inconsistencies like the one I experienced. I have not noticed any problems in the most recent batch of POs.

The Best Parts

The PO really shines for its versatility.  The Lems Primal Origin is a canvas asking you “what do you want me to be?” And you may answer however you like. The only unsolicited attention I have ever gotten because of these shoes was a compliment on how they looked, which was great since I didn’t want monkey feet. And for me personally, the anatomical last makes the shoe a dream to wear. 

Who is it for?

-Anyone looking to foray into the world of minimalist shoes and see what the hype is about 

-Experienced minimalist runners looking for the “free training” that comes with (nearly) barefoot sensations

Specs and Sizing
6.3 oz. Men’s size 9-9.5
7.5 mm stack height
Zero-drop (0mm height difference between heel and forefoot)
Sizing: According to the website, go with your running shoe size. The shoes fit like the smaller of the two sizes. So a men’s 9-9.5 fits more like the 9. I’ve found this to be good advice.

Disclaimer: Minimalist shoes are not for everybody. Transitioning to minimalist shoes should be done slowly and responsibly. Information contained in this post is not a substitute for advice from a physician.