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Save your health and the planet: run barefoot

Christine Ottery

4th March, 2010

It won't come naturally to most pampered westerners, but running in a barefoot-style can help reduce injuries and make trainers less resource-intensive...

THUD, thud, THUD thud. That is the noise my feet pound out on the treadmill as I am trained by sports scientist and barefoot running coach Lee Saxby. My gait is what Saxby calls 'asymmetric', and it doesn't sound good.

I am in a gym to reform my skewed running technique and learn to run in a new 'barefoot-style' running shoe from green mothership Terra Plana.

The Evo's March launch responds to what Galahad Clark, the head of Terra Plana, says is popular demand for a running shoe from their Vivo Barefoot range.

The Vivo Barefoot stable was created four years ago to cater for 'barefoot-like biomechanics' but with the protection of a thin but durable rubber sole.

Recently, reports started trickling back to HQ that people had been wearing the barefoot-style shoes to run marathons and ironmen contests. So, Clark says, ‘we set about creating a lightweight running shoe with a puncture-resistant sole that was the closest to barefoot as possible.'

Green toes

In true Terra Plana fashion, the Evo has strong green credentials. ‘It has a recycled PET bottle mesh in the shoes and recycled foam and cork footbed and there is a relatively small percentage of recycled rubber in the sole,' says Clark.

It is quite a simple shoe compared side-by-side with ordinary trainers, and the shoe's minimalist design reflects its eco-friendly nature. ‘We used an incredibly lightweight mesh in the upper with a sort of cage that allows us to use less different components,' says Clark.

An investigation in Runner's World magazine found that on the whole, modern running shoe production is 'energy- and toxin-intensive... and it leaves a lot of waste'.

Trainers are a huge $20 billion dollar industry, pumping out pollutants (such as heavy metal residues from dyes and fumes from volatile organic compounds from solvents and glues) mainly in southwestern China.

‘With sustainable design you are just trying to reduce waste... energy, materials and make as few toxic byproducts as possible.' Clark adds. In addition, Terra Plana's shoes are all made at factories that he assures me 'meet the very highest standards'.

Durabilty matters

Professor Daniel Lieberman, an expert in barefoot running from Harvard University, recently published a study examining the impact on the body of running with the heel hitting the ground first, which is typical of those wearing padded trainers, compared to the style of barefoot runners, who tend to run on the balls of their feet.

‘Standard running shoes that are for heel striking require one to change the shoe every 250-350 miles,' Prof Lieberman says. 'When one forefoot strikes in a minimal shoe, one needs to replace the shoe much less frequently, pretty much when it wears out. And if one goes barefoot, then one doesn't need a shoe in the first place!'

Barefoot benefits

It seems the planet and your pocket that will thank you for wearing minimalist running shoes, but will your body? Prof Lieberman's study found that 'most forefoot and some midfoot strikes do not generate the sudden, large impact transients that occur when you heel strike.' This is the same for if you are shod or barefoot.



Listen: Is running barefoot-style really better for you? Christine Ottery asks the experts...




The implications of this are that those with a forefoot or midfoot strike, such as about a quarter of elite runners including renowned long-distance Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie, can throw out the shoes with cushioned heel. So far, so sensible. But what about the average Joe who has always been running on springy-heeled shoes - should we also ditch our runners?

According to Prof Lieberman more research needs to be done before the answer is a definitive 'yes'. He says: 'If impact transient forces contribute to some forms of injury, then this [barefoot] style of running - shod or barefoot - might have some benefits, but that hypothesis remains to be tested.'

Don't try this at home

I speak to Justin Coulter, a sports podiatrist who specialises in biomechanics, and an expert in the way the foot hits the ground and affects the body, to find out what he would advise those considering taking up barefoot-style running.

'There is an inherent danger,' he says, 'in that people are used to running with shoes and, yes, they may heel strike. To suddenly change into a shoe which allows you to strike on your forefoot when traditionally you haven't, your body has to change enormously, your muscles have to adapt - and that takes a long time.'

Coulter urges caution because too swift a transition period from heel-striking to fore- or mid-foot striking could result in injured muscles, ligaments and tendons, such as the Achilles tendon at the top of the heel. Therefore, if you are considering changing your running style, he recommends a very careful, gradual transition, starting with a few minutes at a time, and under expert guidance.

However, some reckon that padded sports shoes are a part of the reason that runners have such high injury rates of 20 to 80 per cent, and that running barefoot style could therefore help with injury prevention. According to Lee Saxby, the figures are even worse. He states around 85 per cent of traditional-style runners are injured in their first year of training but he agrees also with Coulter's advice.

'You can't just throw away your shoes - there's a transition period. Everyone should allow themselves a six-week adaptation period, before they really start hitting high milages. Even if you're an experienced runner I would suggest six weeks.'

Pounding the pavements

Prof Lieberman's study also found that barefoot runners can run with ease on the hardest surfaces in the world without discomfort from landing. But can we pampered Westerners make like the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico who run long distances wearing only leather thong sandals, or like the rickshaw pullers in India who run on cobbled stones barefoot?

Coulter is sceptical. 'I think the whole concept of running in bare feet is a very romantic one. It would be great if we could all be like the Masai in the bush, but unfortunately our situation is very different to that - we have concrete, we've got hard surfaces. That impact has to be attenuated or absorbed and the muscles might not be up to the task as we haven't actually grown up like that.'

Running barefoot-style, however, as taught by Saxby, certainly feels enjoyable. I can hear the difference in my rhythm - I am running with more regular, softer strides. I can see the difference when Saxby plays back video of our session: the old style has my left leg extending from the hips so I heel-strike way in front of my body, whereas in the new technique, my feet are striking closer to my body, and mid-foot. It looks a lot more graceful, aligned and in sync, and he says it is the reason the usual pain in my left knee has disappeared.

Although building up my barefoot-style running has at times given me tight calves, which was expected, the most valuable lesson was to trust in the body's own feedback. As Clark says, the most valuable technology is that which: 'has been in development for 4 million years - the foot. It's an evolutionary masterpiece.'

Evo retails for £100, and is available from April 5th.

 

For ethical and sustainable suppliers of clothing goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here

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