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Why Go Barefoot Running? A Barefoot Adventure (Pt 1)

Barefoot Running

Tim Brennan holds VivoBarefoot. Spring 2004. Photo: Richard Brine

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.

 Why Go Barefoot Running? A Barefoot Adventure (Pt 1)

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.

barefoot running

The lastest incarnation of the VivoBarefoot is called Evo.

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.

 Why Go Barefoot Running? A Barefoot Adventure (Pt 1)

My Nike Air Huarches - I loved them.... but they hurt me bad

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!

barefoot running prototypes2 300x225 Why Go Barefoot Running? A Barefoot Adventure (Pt 1)barefoot running prototypes 300x225 Why Go Barefoot Running? A Barefoot Adventure (Pt 1)barefoot running prototypes3 300x225 Why Go Barefoot Running? A Barefoot Adventure (Pt 1)

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.

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