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"I especially like the different concepts, activity drills and analogies he provides to help everyone develop their own "ah ha" moment."

A Barefoot Adventure (Part 2) – The Beginnings Of VivoBarefoot.

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.

barefoot running shoes

Hacked Nike Air Huarache Shoes.....

barefoot running shoes

...they felt great - just like wearing socks. If only they would resemble a tennis shoe.

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…..

8 Responses to “A Barefoot Adventure (Part 2) – The Beginnings Of VivoBarefoot.”

  • This is an excellent post and may be one that should be followed up to see what the results are

    A companion emailed this link the other day and I will be eagerly anticipating your next article. Keep on on the world-class work.

  • Niels says:

    Very interesting, I’m curious about how the prototypes evolved; I hope you get around to writing part 3!

  • Simon Boll says:

    I look forward to reading part 3, having a background in Product Design and now studying Physiotherapy, this is right up my street! Great work, Simon.

  • valen says:

    I kind of like the rough look of prototypes. I’d definitively run in those. I love my sandals, but I can see how sandals would be annoying in a tennis match.

  • gary ademan says:

    Hi Tim

    I am an Alexander Technique teacher and a tennis teaching pro. I have a pair of your barefoot shoes which i love. What kind of shoe would you currently recommend for playing tennis and do you have any that will allow me not just to start quickly but to stop quickly as well–thanks–gary

  • Cathleen McGuire says:

    My first experience with barefoot shoes was about 2 weeks ago playing tennis in Aquas. I played every day for about 2 weeks and had no problem (although second day I did put in my orthotic, but just that once).

    In the past I’ve had plantar and heel spurs, but they’ve been under control for a while, plus I have bunions.

    I walked around in stocking feet a week or 2 before buying the Aquas and playing tennis.

    I ran for the first time in barefoot shoes a couple days ago, doing a 60 minute run on grass wearing the Acquas on Saturday and the next day Sunday an 80 min run. Felt great. No problem. Very conscious of landing on the ball of my feet.

    The next day Monday I played tennis and could not focus on landing on the ball of my foot. I pounded my heels hard. Tuesday I could barely walk. It felt like a tack was in my heel. Highly inflamed. Ice did not help. Nor did wearing a splint at night while sleeping.

    I am so upset. I can’t go back to the old cushioned shoes. And yet how can I protect my heels on the tennis court? When I ran in the Acquas, it was very easy to focus on no heel striking, but in tennis, not only am I focused on the ball and not my running style, but it’s a lateral run that pounds the hell out of my heels.

    I am caught betwixt and between. Can’t wear the old shoes, but the Acquas aren’t protecting my heels during tennis.

    I am going to a physical therapist today to do Trigger Point therapy. My heel is killing me. Can barely walk. I play tennis every day. This is disastrous. I loved wearing Acquas to play tennis, but this heel problem that has now developed when I wore them Monday to play tennis is a HUGE problem.

    Help!!! How should I be playing tennis in Aquas?

  • Tim says:

    @ Cathleen

    I am interested to know what preparation you did prior to playing tennis in the Aquas. For me it was a very gradual process to get used to them, perhaps taking 6 months to condition my feet and to change my footwork to accomodate the different biomechanics. Personally, I can’t avoid heel striking either, but I am not getting heel injuries. Perhaps because my heels have built up pads. When running, I think landing on the forefoot is the best way to go, but for tennis I am not sure it is possible to avoid heel striking.

    I can tell you the things that worked for me. They may or may not work for you. It was a process of trial and error. I played very gently, close to the net on a concrete court completely barefoot. Just for 10 minutes here and there over many weeks. This was my way of learning how the biomechanics are different. There was no running involved, but I kept my feet moving, practicing footwork steps… very gently to avoid blisters, or muscle strains since my body may was not used to this kind of exercise at first. I was 19-20 years old and I weighed around 11 stones. Those may have been factors in my favour, although my feeling is that now that I am heavier and a little older (34), I think I would still take this route if I were learning to play barefoot.

    I keep a pair of insoles in my tennis bag, because sometimes they are useful for short periods when I have been playing too many matches in quick succession, or have landed too hard on my heel retrieving a ball on an important point. It still happens sometimes, particularly if I chase down lobs on important points.

    Most times I have got injured in the past, is when I have over done it.

  • Tim says:

    @ Gary

    I prefer Aquas.

    The shoes really don’t help you to slow down. The insoles will help to reduce impact a little when stopping, but then you lose a bit of sensory feedback which could lead to too much impact.

    Have you done any preparation for playing tennis in the shoes? It is important not to jump in at the deep end.

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