This week I run in weird frog shoes
I think it’s a particularly Australian thing to not want to appear too earnest when partaking in sporting pursuits. Blaring lyrca and customised sweats make you look like you care too much. Which is fine if you’re the best. But anything less? You’re a try-hard. I mean, what could be worse than being accused of having “all gear and no idea”?
For this week’s column I succumbed to trialing possibly the most earnest sporting accoutrement on the planet: Vibram FiveFingers, those odd little foot gloves made from rubber that allow you to run barefoot without getting glass or twig injuries. They were originally designed in Italy as a non-slip boating shoe, but a few years ago were adopted by the rather parochial and fast-growing barefoot running community. You might have seen such folk about at your gym, down at the park, running past you in a marathon. And you might have thought, “Cripes, what an earnest little frog-footed person he/she is!”.
Well, I’ve turned into just such a person. You know, it’s lucky I offloaded my pride long ago (shortly after I wrote about getting a colonic and just before tap-dancing out of a plane with Sir Richard Branson for this column). Adjusting to the FiveFingers takes a good few months and Australia’s Vibram importer Max Delacy from Barefoot Inc told me I must walk around in them as much as possible until my feet strengthened. I wore mine walking through the city to meetings, to the supermarket and into a pub when I had to drop something off to a friend. I got looks. But I held my head high.
I used to be a keen runner – 4 to 5 times a week since I was a teenager. But then I started getting hip pain. So I kind of stopped (runners never step, they shuffle), resigned to the idea that maybe humans weren’t meant to run, but have been wondering ever since whether shoes might’ve been the problem.
It so happens so did US journalist Chris McDougall. It led him to follow a hidden tribe of Mexican ultra-runners who can run barefoot for three days without stopping and without the aid of “multiple shock absorbers” and patented “heel-supported memory foam”. His findings resulted in the cultish, New York Times bestseller Born to Run, which concluded that barefooters run as our bodies were designed to.
Consider these handy-to-have-at-a-barbeque-when-arguing-against-running-shoes factoids: our feet consist of a clever weight-baring arch supported by a web of 26 bones and 100 muscles that operate like cables to a suspension bridge. You don’t have to be an engineer to know that when you support an arch or bridge from below, the whole thing goes flaccid. Ditto our feet. Ever had your arm in a plaster cast? In just six weeks there’s a 40-60 per cent atrophy of the musculature. Same for feet encased in shoes (or “foot coffins”), say countless experts.
But what about impact injuries? Doesn’t cushioning help? Actually, Canadian scientists found the more cushioning in our shoes, the harder we slap to the ground – we naturally seek the most stable surface and push through memory foams and shock absorbers to find it. Also, most injuries are due to the heel-toe motion which forces up to 12 times our weight down one locked leg. Of course, heel-toe action was only made possible with the advent of fancy running shoes in 1972 that elevated and cushioned the heel. Sans the fancy stuff, you naturally land in the middle of your foot with a bent, spring-loaded knee. Indeed, Dr Craig Richards at the University of Newcastle found there ain’t a single study in the world that shows running shoes prevent injuries, despite a $17 billion industry with a vested interest in one.
I have to say there’s something elegant about running barefoot, frog-person aesthetics aside. As my feet strengthened over the past month, I’ve been able to run further and further – a light, springy shuffle, my legs kicking behind, the rest of me naturally propelled forward, like the way I ran as a kid on the lawn. It feels free and I’ve had no hip pain for the first time in years.
I run lighter…like a little insect scuttering across a lily pond. I run comfortably. I’ve previously mentioned I’d gone off running for health reasons, but running barefoot has made it possible to run lightly and without strain.
I’m constantly astounded by the way we complicate our lives. And refreshed when it turns out that the antidote is to peel back another layer of highly marketed, unnecessary, consumerable guff. Less is – more and more so – more.
For stockists check out Barefoot Inc. Are you a fan? Would you look at me oddly in the street?