“It’s a beautiful day outside. Come for a run with me”, I tell my teenager, as he lies on the sofa playing mindless games on his cell phone.
“I can’t,” he says, not even raising his eyes to me, clicking opposing thumbs to the rhythm of the game. “I haven’t got the right shoes.”
“You don’t need shoes. Wear sandals,” I suggest.
He looks at me with big wide eyes, thumbs still in the air. I can’t be serious, can I?
I am! Thousands of years ago, people did all kinds of sporting activities from throwing javelins to sprinting, not only barefoot, but naked, as well. While I wouldn’t suggest tottering around in public in the buff, taking your shoes off to experience the texture of the grass or the beach sand is not a new thing. And it’s very healthy.
But yes, you might argue, the ground isn’t always clean. You can pick up planter’s warts and stub your toes. You can hurt yourself by walking on tough pebbles. What if you walk on a spider. Or worse, some discarded chewed up bubble gum. There’s an answer to all of this. Running sandals.
Where do they originate?
Seemingly a contradiction in terms, this sandal that you can run in was actually developed thousands of years ago. It was only in the 1980s that manufacturers started taking traditional gym shoes and plimsolls to new design proportions and over the years, not only did they become very fancy with rubber inlays and special fluid supporting your arches, with shiny designs and complicated explanations, but they also took on prices that begged comparisons with the prices of large kitchen appliances or small cars.
The idea of shoes that echo the feeling of walking barefoot is back in fashion again. For aesthetic reasons. For health reasons. In fact, it’s taking another look at what is called ‘minimalist running’. Experts argue that minimalist running, which allows your feet and legs to interact more naturally with the ground on which you are running, is better for your posture, your balance and your sense of well-being in the world, than big tough running shoes, and they base their research on looking at how barefoot athletes from thousands of years ago really functioned. They didn’t have tougher feet than we did. They didn’t have hooves or padded feet, like a horse or a lion. How did they do it?
Running shoes are traditionally graded on a scale of one to 10 – one being barefoot and 10 being your high-end running shoe with all the bells and whistles and padding and explanations. Over the last few years, the design of these shoes with their functionality for physical activity in mind, have changed direction and more and more marketing attention is being focused on minimalist gear, the low end of the scale. Indeed, minimalist running shoes or running sandals are today an industry worth billions of dollars and it is growing, as we speak.
Who produces running shoes?
There are a number of brands on the market. We take a look at four of them, noting that they all draw from the same basic principles which they have adopted, personalized and are remaking, to last.
LUNA has roots which reach back to 2003, when the company’s founder Ted MacDonald was on a mission to deal with how running made his feet hurt. It was a bigger mission than he’d imagined, and it took him as far back in time as antiquity and as far away, geographically as the heart of Mexico. It was here that he learnt that one kind of sandal gets made over and over again by man, always. They’re called huarache sandals, and have traditionally been made from car tires by the Tarahumara people who live in the area. And you can make them yourself. You cut a piece of car tire big enough to comfortably stand on, and figure out a way to secure it to your feet. It took seven years before MacDonald’s take on the ancient huarache sandals really began to bear fruit. Now located in Seattle, and boasting 12 full-time employees, LUNA is a famous start-up that is blossoming as we speak.
Drawing from a similar story of reinventing very old traditions which have worked brilliantly, are Xero Shoes. Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard university researcher took the issue of minimalist running to heart and has discovered how good it is for all of you – not only for your feet and posture, but for your ability to heal yourself, your connection with the world in which you live and the environment. Xero shoes offer a hi-tech equivalent to the huaraches, made as they are with a rubber called FeelTrue, which has been developed specifically for running sandals. One of their marketing lines is that Xero themselves don’t know how long the shoes will last you, but they claim that so far nobody has outworn their Xero soles – and if you do happen to do so, after wading through something like 5 000 miles or more of outdoor terrain, they will replace the sandals, for free. No questions asked.
Northern California is the stomping ground of Bedrock Sandals, and this company’s sandal factory has a climbing wall, so you can test your new sandals’ traction on the steeply vertical. Bedrock Sandals focus on keeping a zero drop profile – the drop in a shoe is the depth of its heels – and it doesn’t unnaturally force your feet in one way or another. Their sandals mix Vibram outsoles with an adjustable strap system.
California is also home for Shamma Sandals, and as they’re based in Santa Cruz, they know, like my teenager does, that flip-flops just don’t cut it, from a style, as well as a functional perspective. So they took the idea of the flip-flop to their drawing board and came up with a running sandal that can’t call itself over-engineered or floppy. You don’t have to hold onto this sandal with your toe. The sandal has a special Shamma buckle and it moves with your feet.
If you live in an area where the climate is warm, there is no reason to stuff your feet into sweaty socks and constricting over-designed shoes which could lend them damage over time. Do it simply with a tough sandal. They say it’s better than barefoot.