Save our soles... let's go barefoot

| Updated on: Apr 12, 2012
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A warning call for shoes that keep the wearers grounded, in ‘touch' with the earth.

You'd kick off your shoes, if the Sharath Rajus of the world had their way, but that's not to make you go entirely shoe-less. Almost nothing, it seems, is right with what we wear on our feet. Or the way we move with them. The toe end is narrow (the wearer remembers the pinch). It curls up when it should touch down. Beware the cushioning, it can be our Achilles' heel, tendonitis, knee pain or worse.

For all the ills he lists, Raju - tall, slim, handsome, trimly clad and shod, and all of 28 - certainly does not saunter barefoot around Bangalore. Rather, people should move into shoes that keep them grounded, in ‘touch' with the earth as if they are barefoot, he evangelises. Barefoot shoes, an oxymoron?

Foot scientists call it proprioception. Trained at the VivoBarefoot - Lee Saxby Training Clinic in London, Raju is now a ‘coach' in the science of movement and a dealer for ultra high-end barefoot-wear.

He explains how a wrong pattern of landing on our feet can mean trouble. The faulty focus is on the heel when it should be on the front of the foot and the balancing arch.

However, with soft, nearly 12-mm thick shoe pads cushioning our soles for over 40 years now, our bones and ligaments have forgotten the art and healing ways of barefoot walking, he says.

“It has now been proven scientifically that by cushioning the foot with shock absorbers, arch support, gel, etc, the foot starts to degenerate and become weak. Which is the cause for all modern stress injuries in our lower body. Like plantar fasciitis, Achilles' tendonitis, shin splints, IT (ileo-tibial) band pain and knee pain,” he says.

It was one such injury that woke Raju to the benefits of bare feet. He could not complete the 21-km half-marathon in 2008 due to knee injury. This puzzled him, for he was then barely 24, routinely fit and had trained well for the run.

“I read up books and stuff on the art of running, and learnt a lot about the barefoot technique. (And) Here I am,” he says of the niche business of training and shodding that he is in, called High Line Retail.

A certified scuba-diver, he trains largely runners and sportspeople to unlearn the ‘improper skill of heel-striking' when they walk and run. It's about “posture, rhythm and relaxation”.

Two years ago, the Cardiff University MBA graduate returned to the same marathon and completed it, with his barefoot techniques. “I saw what was wrong the first time. Many of my issues disappeared. At the end of it, I felt I was relaxed and could still run on. It was more exhilarating than tiring.” He cites a five-year Harvard University study of the foot strike patterns of athletes, country folk and city slickers; that too toes the biomechanics line of bare feet.

Our feet, he says, need unrestricted flexibility. As well as proprioception, or sensory feedback — such as when your feet curve over a pebble, sink into grains of soil or tread on a stony slab. The wrong way of walking upsets the body's balancing point.

“It is essential to re-learn the skill of walking and running. Training for barefoot skill reactivates the elasticity of the foot. We all have our natural barefoot abilities strongly embedded in our hardware — our bones and ligaments. With cushioned footwear our software [the skill] is forgotten.”

But now you have shoes that offer you as close an experience to barefoot walking as possible.

The barefoot world is estimated to be a million-plus and growing, but tiny in the country. Today, the funky Vibram Five Fingers leads the half-a-dozen barefoot brands worldwide. Followed by VivoBarefoot. In 2004, Londoner Tim Brennan, the injury-prone fan of tennis and Andre Agassi, invented this brand. He says in his blog, “Shoes and (school) chairs have (many bad things) in common: both are fashioned by designers who for the most part have little or no regard for anatomy and how the human body works.” In 2004, Nike too jumped onto the barefoot bandwagon and launched its ‘Free' range of light, minimal shoes.

Raju's shoes are barely 3-5 mm thick at the soles, which are made of a special material. They are visibly broad about the toes and can be wrapped up in the middle. When you buy a pair, you pay a ‘lowered for India' price of between Rs 2,500 and Rs 7,000.

With seven retail stores in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi, Raju has also tied up with gyms for training. The shoes will be available in eight more cities this year. Mumbai accounts for half the sales.

These days, he reckons, at least one athlete is likely to be wearing a barefoot brand at big events like the New York or Boston marathon. “Big shoe brands are recognising the huge market and getting in with their versions. Now you have these in Puma, Reebok or Fila, too.”

It could take 45-60 days to find your injury-free feet. And it may not happen overnight but barefoot, Raju is confident, is the future.

Published on March 10, 2018

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