July 6, 2009 / 11:02 AM / 10 years ago

Born to be barefoot?

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - As running shoes get more pricey and more complicated, some long distance runners are opting to ‘just do it’ without any shoes at all.

An elite female runner's shadow is seen as she runs in the London Marathon April 26, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville

And even seventh generation shoemaker Galahad Clark says he would like to get our feet back to the garden.

“Edenism is the new word,” the Britain-based Clark said as he strolled lower Manhattan shod in his thin-soled creation. “Our shoes are not as good as barefoot, but they’re as close as we can get.”

Clark’s line of running and walking shoes, called Vivo Barefoot, feature a three millimeter (0.11 inch) sole that, he contends, frees the wearer to walk and run as evolution intended.

“We just tried to make the least shoe we possibly could,” said Clark, in what might seem a counter-intuitive move from a man whose family has been making shoes for almost 200 years.

Clark, whose uncle Nathan invented the desert boot in 1947, says his shoes are “more like glorified socks.”

“We’ve been brainwashed by the big running shoe companies,” he said. “More and more people are using minimally constructed shoes to run.”

Clark, a runner, is one of a growing band of athletes who believe that typical running shoes cause more injuries than they prevent.

Christopher McDougall, whom Clark calls a kindred spirit, converted to barefoot running while writing his book “Born to Run.”

Packed with colorful characters and high adventure, the book explores the subculture of ultra marathon long-distance running and the secrets of the fleet-footed Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

“Modern ultra runners are working backwards from the 21st century to the 14th century, to discover what the Tarahumara always knew,” McDougall said.

The Tarahumara are a remote tribe in Mexico. They live in cliff-side caves, dine on barbequed mouse and can typically run 150 miles in sandals, according to McDougall.

“They’re not hampered by running shoes,” he concluded.

“They’re not grimacing at five miles, they’re smiling at 50 miles,” he added.

“There’s a knee-jerk assumption that running shoes are a necessity, McDougall said. “ Some say, ‘Well, we didn’t all evolve to run away from saber-toothed tigers’. Well, obviously, we did.”

For Dr. Terrence Philibin, of the Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Center in Columbus, Ohio, it comes down to the individual.

“If you go back far enough, obviously no one was shod,” the orthopedic surgeon said in an interview.

“A lot of people who do barefoot running are really knowledgeable about long distance and I’m guessing they’re in really good shape, so it might be acceptable for them to run in bare feet,” he said.

“But the typical patient I see is not a world class athlete and for them wearing a good shoe that gives excellent support is the way to prevent injuries,” he said.

Philibin said he regrets the absence of definitive research.

“To my knowledge there’s been no really super great scientific study that compares the two well. But there is something to this,” Philibin said, “and it’s a fascinating debate. I hope it remains friendly.”

No worries. Clark is as chivalrous as his first name.

He doesn’t even try to dissuade women from those nasty stilettos. In fact, a high heel illustrates his business card.

“It’s a yin/yang thing,” he said. “I tell women they’d be better in heels if they spent more time barefoot.”

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