Footloose and fancy free
Recreational athletes often look to the professionals for inspiration on how to perform better, faster and more efficiently. But one of sports' and fitness' biggest trends comes courtesy of a reclusive Indian tribe in Mexico's Copper Canyons.
The Tarahumara - as described in Christopher McDougall's 2009 book Born to Run - are now legendary for running seemingly effortlessly for hours along steep, rocky trails in bare feet or thin, homemade sandals. Three years later, runners and athletes of all stripes are looking to replicate the barefoot experience with minimalist, lightweight shoes.
'This trend has arrived hand in hand with the awareness that our body moves as one unit,' says David Tanner of Escapade Sports, which stocks well-known brand Vibram FiveFingers. 'If there is a problem with the biomechanics of your foot, this will result in a knock-on effect throughout the chain of muscle and connective tissue that generates all movement.'
According to a product specialist at New Balance, makers of the Minimus range of lightweight shoes, barefoot-style shoes encourage a more natural foot position and foot strike, which ultimately can help prevent injuries and even boost performance.
'The thin, flexible, and deconstructed sole of barefoot-style shoes allows the foot to curl, flex, and react to the stimuli of coming into contact with the ground,' adds Megan Tanner, a personal trainer in Hong Kong. 'Benefits of gradually exposing your feet to this include improved balance, increased circulation and enhanced overall foot health.'
Now that runners have hailed such benefits, shoemakers are encouraging other athletes to shed traditional cushioned sneakers. Vibram FiveFingers promotes use of its shoes for yoga, trekking and water sports. New Balance has added training and trail-running models, while Nike has introduced Free Gym+, featuring a grooved rubber outsole for added traction. Adidas' new Adipure trainer - available at GigaSports - is designed specifically for gym workouts with separated toes to build balance and dexterity. The key, David Tanner says, is to allow the feet and lower legs to gradually become accustomed to the 'new forces, stimuli and stress that moving barefoot introduces'.
Barefoot-style shoes 'are not a quick-fix solution to your foot problems but, instead, are a great start to better biomechanics, and letting your feet remember how to be feet', he says.