I don’t recall how, but a while ago I somehow ended up reading a post by Tim “Four Hour Work Week” Ferriss on barefoot alternatives. The post and its comments fascinated me. In discussing his experiences of barely there shoes, the post opened me up to a new world of discussion about what shoes might be doing to our feet.
I had been aware for some time of long distance runners going barefoot, particularly those from Africa. But I hadn’t given it much thought as I don’t see myself as much of a runner. But when you consider how marvellous our feet are, it does seem strange that we shore them up with a vast array of padding and strapping in modern shoes. As I read more on the topic it appeared that there was in fact very little science behind many of the technological claims made by shoe manufacturers.
It just seems intuitively and scientifically reasonable that we should let our highly complex and flexible feet to work as freely as possible to spread and balance the pressures of our movements. That current shoe designs are rarely questioned is indicative of the tendency for ‘common knowledge’ to stagnate for too long. Historians of science will be able to point many similar examples with regards to hygiene, blood letting and so on.
We have been paying top dollar for shoes which could well be doing more harm than good, and very few have questioned that. How carefully are the claims of shoe manufacturers verified versus those claims made by pharmaceuticals or even ‘active’ yoghurt products? Back pain costs us huge amounts each year in distress, treatment and time off work. Can shoe manufacturers be trusted on this issue?
My reading took me to New York Magazine’s marvellous article on the barefoot vs shoe debate. The Daily Mail had a surprisingly good piece on the risks of hi-tech shoes. After digesting all these and visiting specialist sites like barefootrunner.com I came to the conclusion that I wanted to try out some ‘barefoot-style’ shoes.
I found there were three likely candidates – the odd-looking Vibram FiveFingers; the Nike Free range and Terra Plana’s VivoBarefoot shoes. The Vibram’s were too wacky for my liking and, according to online reviews, the Nike’s would be too small for my boat-like feet. Terra Plana, luck would have it, have just opened a shop on West Street in Brighton so I popped in to try their Aqua shoes and… wow!
So comfortable, so close to the ground, so… very light! I hadn’t expected them to be so light, suddenly I realised I’ve been lugging extra weight on my feet every day of the week.
I didn’t hesitate to buy them given Terra Plana’s excellent ethical and environmental credentials (but not perfect yet I hasten to add). Walking in the Aquas is a very different experience, much more sensory and stimulating as you feel everything beneath your feet. The thin, extremely flexible sole is just enough to protect but doesn’t feel restrictive at all.
After two weeks of near constant use — but for walking only, nothing more active as yet — I am absolutely evangelical about these very well made shoes. My feet feel like they are stretching outwards and getting stronger. It’s definitely noticeable that over time I’m clomping heel-first less and less.
If we’ve been doing the wrong thing with shoes all this time, what else do we need to seriously re-evaluate? Perhaps our working patterns? Our financial and banking systems? Or perhaps how we elect our politicians? All up for debate, but this shoe story emphasises to me the importance of staying open minded and critically evaluating the terms of any received wisdom.