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…..