Barefoot running shoes that have become a new trend in the last few years started out as means to an end. It was actually never intended for anyone else but me – all I wanted was a shoe that would allow me to play tennis without risking twisted ankles. Some barefoot runners may ask, “Why bother with shoes at all if they are injuring your ankles?”. But seriously, imagine if I had turned up at a tennis tournament without shoes on. People would have laughed, and I think the referee would have had something to say too. I didn’t want that kind of attention. So the first barefoot shoes were thus created for my tennis matches which I played in London during 2000. They also made good running shoes for my jogs around Hyde Park.
I recently spoke at the launch of my dad’s new book “Change your posture – Change your life”, which has a chapter about how shoes effect posture. Here’s a video of my 10 minute talk:
Anyone who has discovered the wealth of benefits from barefoot running may well ask the question why don’t more people know about this?
Great question, and one that leads to some pretty disturbing answers.
Back in 2001, when writing my dissertation (which questioned why we wear shoes) I found an interesting example of some anti-barefoot scientists who publicly ridiculed the work of some barefoot researchers.
This exchange is so important to understanding why cushioned soles are still the mainstream choice, I wanted to publish it in full. Don’t be put off by all the science talk – you will find some English thrown in too (click thumbnails for larger versions)
Barefoot running fans often discuss on forums how close minimal shoes (like VivoBarefoot) are to actually being barefoot. The most accurate answer is to try them both and feel it for yourself. However, if you don’t have access to a pair this is not very helpful and so as a second best answer I have made the following video:
Both images are force plate scans that were recorded back around 2004/2005 using the VivoBarefoot Avalon which was at the time my tennis shoe. The above video was a personal breakthrough for me when it was recorded as it was a quick way of illustrating how the VivoBarefoot works – something that normally was very long winded and hard to explain. These scans were taken when barefoot shoes were unheard of and the barefoot running movement was very thin on the ground (pardon the pun). Now that barefoot running has become much more popular, the conversation has shifted from “What on earth is a barefoot shoe?” to “How close are barefoot shoes to being barefoot?”. Either way these scans shed some light on the matter.
Continuing on from Part I - here is some more about how the VivoBarefoot shoe was first invented.
So after I had made my first ever pair of homemade barefoot shoes, the next thing to do was to put them to the test. I wanted to find out if I could play tennis competitions in this shoe without twisting my ankle. At this point I wasn’t thinking that anyone else might be interested in wearing barefoot shoes – I just was trying to solve my own injury.
The hacked Nike Air Huarache shoes I had made worked well, but would never pass as tennis shoes, especially in the picky clubs where I played. Tennis clubs are very particular that you only wear non-marking soles so as not to damage the court. If I was wearing footwear that didn’t fit the image of a what a tennis shoe ought to look like it would be spotted and I would be told not play in them.
My second prototype needed to be a hacked up tennis shoe, and so I repeated my sole transplant trick, except this time for some K-Swiss tennis shoes. I glued on some thin leather soles and went off and played a match.
It was a pretty exciting time. Firstly I was learning to move on a tennis court in a completely new way, which took a lot of trial and error. Although my ankles were no longer a problem, I had to contend with a few other short lived injuries that came from my clumsy running technique. Running barefoot forced me to completely change the way my feet made contact with the ground. I stopped continually scuffing the court with my feet and started using my feet, ankles, knees, hips and sometimes my whole body to avoid hard impacts.
In these tennis matches the most noticeable thing was how often I left the court wide open. Previously, if I was pulled out wide, I’d be able to get back into position because stopping is much easier in a cushioned sole. Though it might have been damaging my ankles, a conventional tennis shoe allowed me to slow down much more quickly. When barefoot, if I tried and stop fast my feet really slapped the ground hard, and it bruised the soles of my feet. To avoid this bruising, I needed loads more stopping distance.
To illustrate this take a look at the video below. Whenever I saw a 100 m sprint on TV I noticed that they would carry on a long way after they had crossed the line. I used to think they were just doing it because of showmanship or something.
When I started playing tennis in barefoot shoes I realised it was because it’s harder to stop when you are running barefoot or in minimal shoes like running spikes.
This at first seemed a big disadvantage for competitive play, and perhaps if I were just casually experimenting, I would have given up at this point. However, for me this was do or die, there was no turning back. This was my only hope of solving my ankle injury, so I kept putting on my barefoot shoes for matches until I finally learnt how to use them.
Although I had a problem slowing down, I could move perhaps twice as fast in my barefoot shoes over short distances and reach balls that normally I wouldn’t. My top speed was quicker. I could accelerate quicker too. If you watch the following clip you will see that when Sampras is pulled out position he hits his best strokes. The best defense is to attack, and that was exactly what I needed to do to avoid being out-maneuvered.
After learning to use a barefoot tennis shoe, the conventional ones felt extremely clumsy. It was like putting square wheels on a car. The faster I ran, the more my feet slap the ground – sending greater and greater shock through my feet and ankles. It’s no wonder my ankles were injured so often. In this next slow motion video you can see that in running shoes it’s normal to hit the ground heel first. Watch how the shoe slaps the ground and causes that spike in the curve – that’s what causes the jarring.
With my barefoot shoes, the square tires were now perfect round ones, and I could really sprint fast without jarring my ankles, allowing me to make balls that were normally out of reach. This was partly because the barefoot shoes allowed my feet to roll smoothly over the ground and partly because they were much more lightweight than my normal tennis shoes. Compare the silky smooth barefoot landing in this next video to the one above – again subtle to the eye, but to me it felt very obvious after I learnt to run barefoot.
In this next video is an example of my new and improved footwork during training. It might not be particularly exciting to watch, but it is a good record of my improvements. Most notably the side skipping is sooooo much easier than compared to using my old heavy tennis shoes. It was a real breakthrough time as my movement on court improved out of sight. Not only was I injury free but moving more fluidly, and faster than ever with much less effort.
During the summer of 2001, I played perhaps 60 matches in various prototype barefoot shoes. My biggest problem was no longer twisted ankles, it was that I couldn’t make the prototypes fast enough. The leather soles were only good for about a set or two, after which the soles had holes in them or the glue had peeled off. Many a time I had to wait for a change of ends to put some new shoes on, and had to play with my toes poking through the splits.
In the next part I’ll reveal how the prototypes evolved…..
Barefoot running has in the last two years seen a bit of a renaissance amongst enthusiasts. A chain of events have caused this to happen. I think a good place to kick off the blog is to explain why this is happening.
One of the major landmarks was the barefoot cover story on Nature magazine in January 2010. That was the point where journalists started to bang the drum about barefoot running. But why now? Why in 2010? Are the benefits of running barefoot a recent scientific discovery?
Well the answer to that is absolutely not – the science is nothing new. The reason is Web 2.0.
The barefoot running community is starting to become a power to be reckoned with thanks to social media websites such as You Tube, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and others. No matter where you live, you are only a few mouse clicks away from being part of a movement that stands for more than improved running times, or less injuries. It stands for a revolution against the social norms that say you can’t take off your shoes. It stands for breaking away from religiously buying the next greatest cushioned sole that never lives up to all the hype. It stands for running for running sake — the way mother nature intended. It stands for freedom of choice as much as anything.
Yet having said that, the biomechanic advantages are nothing short of massive – in my own personal case it was the difference between being able to run and not.
The best way for me to explain is by telling my own story.
My name is Tim Brennan and I live in London UK. I am the inventor of the VivoBarefoot shoe which was launched in March 2004. My “barefoot shoes”, as I call them, were not just an attempt to make some money from a passing fad. Truth be told, they actually were never designed for anyone else but myself. So why did I invent the VivoBarefoot shoe? At the age of 12, I took up tennis and shortly after was playing for several hours every single day. Literally every single day. Year in year out. On the rare occurrences that I wasn’t able to play, I had withdrawal symptoms. When not on a tennis court I was daydreaming about tennis. When I was on court all I wanted to do was hit the ball like Andre Agassi and win. I really hated losing which is still a hard habit to kick . So all was going well until around the age of 15 when I started suffering repeated twisted ankles on court. Each injury would mean several weeks of not being able to play and it was miserable. It kept happening over and over — around a dozen or so times from 1992-2000. Solving this injury became an urgent mission, and my tennis life depended on it.
The words “ankle injury” don’t really convey the devastation involved, so here is exactly what I am talking about:
I have had that same injury to both ankles … literally around a dozen times.
So, I have set the scene, but that is just the start. Needing to solve my ankle injuries was the biggest factor, but there were also a few major landmarks over the years that led me create a barefoot shoe. For example, it were not for my dad, I probably would never have solved that injury and instead given up just like countless other tennis players.
My dad is an Alexander technique teacher (it’s to do releasing excess muscle tension for good health) and he always used say in his workshops that poorly designed school furniture is a major reason why 75% of people in Western countries suffer back pain. He also said that the medical profession in general has a very poor track record in dealing with back pain because they don’t address the root causes. Just like any profession, modern medicine has a small number of blind spots. Back pain was evidently one, and I started to ask the question if the same was true for my ankles.
The way that my dad talked about chairs contributing to spinal injuries shaped the way I saw shoes.
There are a few fundamental things shoes and chairs have in common:
1. Both are fashioned by designers who for the most part have little or no regard for anatomy and how the human body works.
2. Both have caused and devastation to the health of millions of Westerners. Yet in developing countries where neither are used, these common ailments are rarely seen.
3. Ironically, both products are perceived as having abilities to fix our injuries/health problems, which in truth they probably caused in the first place albeit over many years.
4. Throughout the last century or so, a fringe body of scientific research has shown them both to be fundamentally unhealthy and unsafe. These papers are far and few between – perhaps funding is scarce when you challenge a multi-billion dollar industry.
5. Both shape us and mould us constantly for the majority of our waking lives.
6. Both are not unhealthy to use in the short term, but over many years and decades can cause major injuries and health problems.
7. …. I could go on, but you get the point…..
With this philosophy, in 1999 I set about trying to find an answer to a few very important questions that would hold the answer to my ankle injuries.
I experimented running and playing tennis without shoes for just a few months and despite getting a lot of disapproving comments from people, my ankles were no longer a problem. Much to my annoyance people would yell, “Put some shoes on!”, to which I wouldn’t answer. My conciliation was having injury free ankles.
Later in 2001, when I was at art college in London I began making prototype shoes in my spare time for use in tennis tournaments. With limited facilities, I had to cobble something that visually would pass as a tennis shoe, but in terms of biomechanics would be like being barefoot. Just like a montage sequence from the A-Team, I had to make a barefoot shoe somehow using just what I had in the design studio.
I remember one particular day very well. Rather making a shoe from scratch, I decided to replace the sole unit of a regular sports shoe with a thin flexible material so it would still look passable for playing tennis tournaments. And so the hacking up of old trainers began. It was with the greatest satisfaction, I took a sharp scalpel and cut off the cushioned sole of my old Nike Air Huaraches. Like a surgeon cutting out diseased tissue, I made neat incisions to leave the upper perfectly intact. Next I had to find a suitable substitute. Something thin. Something flexible. And then I found it, Bingo!
I took the soles that I had just cut off, placed them on a yellow vinyl tennis racket sleeve, and began drawing round them so I could cut out two replacement soles. Using some strong glue normally used for joining neoprene wetsuits, the bright yellow vinyl completed my first ever barefoot running shoes. They looked atrocious, but functionally they were a masterpiece, or should I say a master of disguise.
Even before the glue had fully set, I eagerly put on my Frankenstein running shoes. They felt just like socks but looked like running shoes, sort of. As I left the college building it was like I was walking down the street without shoes, but for a change people weren’t staring or shouting smart comments. After all why would they? They looked like normal trainers.
I had cracked the world’s most insanely stupid taboo and no one had even looked twice. I will always remember that breakthrough day and have still got those prototype shoes in my attic.
After a test run in Kensington Gardens, I returned to the college to share my discovery with fellow classmates, but no one really understood what I was on about. I had discovered that something through experience, and until you have gone through some similar process of discovery, running barefoot probably seems kind of pointless. For this reason I named my invention “in vivo”, a Latin word that scientists use for research that’s carried out “in a living thing”.
Up until the last few years, barefoot running has remained a discovery of a tiny group of enthusiasts runners, but now a paradigm shift is starting to take hold. The word is getting out, and there is nothing the big sports shoe manufacturers can do to stop it.
Okay, time for a break. I’ll tell the rest of this story some other day….
Update: Part II now available here.