"There's no evidence that conventional running shoes decrease injuries," says a soft-spoken Galahad Clark, as we pad our way down a quiet, boutique-lined side street in New York's fashionable Soho district. Clark comes from a long line of British shoemakers (yes he's one of those Clarks), and he has parlayed his experience and name into eco-friendly cobbler Terra Plana.
I had just been fitted with a pair of his Vivo Barefoot shoes, billed as the thinnest shoes in the world. In one shoe I left in the removable insole liner. That shoe felt thin, flexible and very light. But it still felt more or less like a regular shoe, just minimized.
The other foot felt like I were barefoot, as each step impacted the ground with nearly complete force. The soles of the Barefoot shoes are only a few millimeters thick, so there is very little material to absorb any shock. They are made of tough, patented puncture-resistant polymer, so they offer considerable protection against glass, nails, germs and other nasty stuff that unfortunately litters our urban environments. Yet they are designed to simulate walking barefoot.
"In these shoes you can relearn to walk correctly, to walk the way nature intended," Clark tells me as we round a corner. "Running shoes turn people into hard heel strikers, because the body's sensors on the bottom of our feet are prevented from receiving the proper signal from impact with the ground, which we need to set balance and stride. Have you ever watched kids run barefoot on the beach? They don't strike with their heels, they strike with the forward part of the foot, behind the toes."
When Clark is at home in London, he often kicks off his Barefoot shoes in the park, and runs laps sans footwear. He isn't the only one who holds this view. As Popular Mechanics recently pointed out, Boston marathoner Rick Roeber competes barefoot. So does Chris McDougall, a noted ultra-marathoner and author of the recent book Born to Run. McDougall, who is a friend of Clark's, points to some interesting cases, such as long distance runners among the Tahumara tribe of Mexico, who race up to 200 miles at a time, all without shoes. Yet injuries are extremely low among the group. Others have noticed that chronic foot problems seem to be rare among groups who go barefoot.
"The Barefoot shoes are designed to be a sort of hybrid. They're the next best thing to going barefoot, yet they still look like shoes, and give some protection, for walking around in our environment," says Clark. So they can protect us from warts, hookworms and sharp objects, yet allow our body to move naturally. Sort of like Jack Johnson's "shoes that look like feet."
Walking around town in Vivo Barefoot shoes is a unique experience. I become much more cognizant of variations in terrain, from inclines to cracks. I take more care when stepping down a curb or stairs, instead of just launching my body over the edge without a care in the world. The dimpled surface at the edge of train platforms feels like a massage. In fact I become more aware of every step, and even the sound of my gait changes, to more like flopping than stomping. It's a bit harder work, and some days I don't feel up to the task, preferring instead to take the easy, cushioned route.
My friend Bayard noticed my Oak suede Vivos ($150), and I suggested he try them on for a turn around the bar. He was fascinated, and dropped by the Soho store the next day to pick up a pair of the black and white Roots, with retro-cool Velcro. Now he wears almost nothing else, and recently told me he'd like to get another pair that looks more dressy. He's convinced he's walking better.
According to Terra Plana, the shoes help you build up better feet muscles and maintain better posture, as well as stimulate the senses. Advocates argue that we may have fewer feet injuries with thinner shoes. As Popular Mechanics pointed out, there are too few studies to prove either way, so most people fall back on the conventional wisdom, which is that heel and arch support are the way to go. Interestingly, a podiatrist I know falls on the other end of the spectrum by recommending that everyone wear as much support as possible -- good stiff hiking boots are best, he says. Of course, part of the difficulty at sorting out the debate is that so much of our walking and running is now done on unforgiving pavement, which produces more shock than natural soil and sand. Whether we confound the problem or mitigate it with our shoes isn't so easy to ascertain.
In addition to the Barefoot designs, Terra Plana offers a range of other products, such as the Bronte boot for women, "a sleek black leather bootie that looks like it dropped in from the future and will take you zooming into 2008 and beyond."
Clark describes himself as an environmentalist, and Terra Plana boasts an impressive list of green features. All leather is vegetable tanned in a less toxic process. The shoes also incorporate natural canvas, recycled rubber and recycled quilt panels. The company's ultra-minimalist sandals, Dopie, are made of natural rubber and EVA, a less-toxic polymer. Terra Plana minimizes packaging and waste, and uses only small amounts of glue.
Terra Plana's handsome Soul of Africa line employs untrained and unskilled women to hand stitch shoes, giving all profits to help orphans affected by AIDS in Kwa Zulu Natal Durban, South Africa. The company's cool Worn Again bags are handmade from recycled materials (seat belts, old tires, seat covers, scraps, etc.) in Portugal.
The green aesthetic is also apparent in another of Clark's ventures, the eclectic design firm United Nude, which he co-founded with legendary Dutch architect Rem D Koolhaas.
Science hasn't yet resolved the barefoot versus cushioned show debate, and it's also possible that the best solution will lie in hybrid designs and advanced technology yet to be invented. Or perhaps things will be quite different when we live on the moon or other planets. But until then, give Terra Plana a chance and see what you think. It might change your perspective on how you move around every day.
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