The best bit about researching a book on sugar was, unsurprisingly, a trip to Barbados. Jet-lagged, I woke up early on my first day to find the mini beach in front of my apartment packed with locals. The ladies mainly floated in the sea along with plastic bags full of fruit, but the men were walking or running, doing laps up and down the beach. Barefoot. I ran out to join them. How hard could it be? The beach was miniscule. Twenty minutes later, the soles of my feet were raw from running over warm sand.
Recently, there has been a rise in the number of runners and podiatrists who believe that running barefoot is the best way to exercise. Chris McDougall published a book this year called Born to Run, charting his rise from injured runner to elite ultramarathon runner. The turning point for him was meeting a Mexican tribe, the Tarahumara.
“They’re having a blast,” he says. “They remember what it’s like to love running, and it lets them blaze through the canyons like dolphins rocketing through waves. For them, running isn’t work. It isn’t a punishment for eating. It’s fine art, like it was for our ancestors.”
Research has also highlighted the benefits of going barefoot. In 2007, Dr Bernhard Zipfel examined 180 people’s feet from three different cultures – Sotho, Zulu and European – and compared them to 2,000-year-old skeleton feet. Non-shoe wearing people had healthier feet than shoe-wearers.
There are 28 bones in the foot and 200,000 nerve endings. Advocates of going barefoot say that it enables us to feel the ground properly, resulting in better posture and a reduction in shock to the joints.
But clearly most of us do not have soles capable of walking on sand, let alone pavements, not to mention the fact that our city streets are not particularly clean. This had led to the rise in shoes designed to give us the feeling of walking barefoot, whilst protecting our feet.
Vivo Barefoot were originally created by Tim Brennan, a professional tennis player and coach with the double luck of having an Alexander Technique teacher, Richard Brennan, for a father, and a massage therapist, Gloria Bianco, for a mother. When Brennan junior became injured, his parents advised him to learn to play in bare feet.
To protect his feet from outdoor tennis courts Brennan shaved slivers from the bottom of his trainers until the soles were ultra-thin. His injury cleared up and he used his experience to design a new pair of shoes. None of the major shoe manufacturers would take his design, so he turned to his friend, Galahad Clark, who had set up his own ethical shoe company, Terra Plana.
Suzanne Scott, a pilates teacher who runs the Scott Studio in Castle
Cary, Somerset, remembers Brennan coming to the studio with his new shoes. “They weren’t that attractive,” Scott recalls. “They’re flat versions of a Cornish pasty, and although it was a laudable idea – you could replace the soles if they wore out – there was some leakage because of the zip round the bottom of the shoes. But they felt fantastic. I like the feeing of being properly barefoot and in these shoes you can really feel the ground.”
Four years on, Scott is still wearing her first Vivo Barefoots.
The new designs just released are rather more stylish than the originals. Normally I wear heels and shun flats, other than trainers, but Lucy Vivo Barefoots felt amazing – they’re the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. They also make riding a bike much easier, as you can feel the pedals properly.
There are other barefoot shoes out there too, such as Vibrams, which are like a neoprene glove, MBTs and Nike Frees.
Scott is not a big fan of the MBTs: “I didn’t like the rocking feeling and found it uncomfortable that my mid-foot couldn’t articulate but was held very stiffly.” Instead, as well as loving Vivo Barefoots, she’s a dedicated Nike Free wearer, and is now on her fourth pair. She says, “They are the perfect compromise if you are doing work that requires impact. What I like about them is that they allow the foot its natural torsion movement; not only are they flexible, but they allow a rocking movement from left to right.”
Not quite the same as feeling sand slip through your toes, but your feet will still thank you for that barefoot feeling.
However, expert opinion is mixed. I took my MBTs and Vivo Barefoots to podiatrist Robin Back, from the Redland House Clinic in Bristol. He said he advises patients to stay away from MBTs because the cut-away heel can cause Achilles problems. As for my Vivo’s, he said, “Look at how much they’ve broken down in only a week.” He added that they offered me no support against my tendency to over-pronate (roll my foot inwards) and this could lead to knee problems later.
Have you tried barefoot-style shoes? Do you exercise in bare feet? Or is the barefoot craze just a fad? Let us know in the comments section below.
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