Barefoot running: tread closer to the planet

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Running has been close to my heart for a while. Going vegan for the climate means I am always searching for more ways I can be kinder to the environment. That’s how I came across barefoot running.

“You don’t realise how heavy your step is until you take your shoes off. You’ll suddenly feel featherlight,” says Isabelle Brough, founder of The Virtual Treatment Room, a platform used to help deskbound workers tend to aches and pains by “moving outside the box”. Brough, who has been a technical translator for over 25 years, was constantly looking for ways to move alongside her sedentary job. After using Swiss balls, treadmill desks, and yoga, she decided she needed more. Her curiosity brought her to get a BTEC in Clinical Sports and Remedial Massage at Oxford over six years ago. Her most recent discovery was the practice of barefoot movement.

“Barefoot was something I was trying to get people into to help recover mobility in their feet. If your feet are not functioning well, the rest of the body can’t function well,” explains Brough. Toes featured a lot in her training, and she saw the effects of cushioned toes through her son, who was training to become a professional tennis player at the time.

While he was looked after by various health and fitness professionals, and went through surgery and physio after a major injury — he was back to being injured after only a week of regular training. Brough became a therapist so she could be more involved in her son’s rehabilitation.

Her interest in barefoot first began when she came across Gwendal Galesne, a French GP who advocates for barefoot running as a whole-body health approach. “Trainers are a bit like casts. You can’t move your feet, so you rely on the muscles around to move you instead,” says Brough.

Though the therapist arrived in the UK over 26 years ago, her roots in Falaise are still there. She followed Galesne’s work for a while, and after launching into barefoot movement herself — she decided to thank him by translating his tutorial on YouTube. He returned her thanks by sending her a t-shirt. Brough loves hiking, and often went on barefoot walks with her dog this summer. She hopes to resume in the spring.

barefoot runningMy talk with Brough inspired me to get involved in this activity myself. As an avid runner always looking for more challenges, I requested for a pair of Vivobarefoot’s vegan Primus Lite II Recycled Winter trainers. Because it was still the middle of winter, I decided against running anywhere completely barefoot. Besides, after I’d convinced myself I might be able to do it, Northern Italy had the biggest snowfall it’s seen in years.

While going barefoot proves good for your physical and mental health, the snow brings too many risks for a beginner, including icy surfaces, hidden sharp objects and falling hazards. These shoes are about as close I’d get to being barefoot in a European winter as possible.

Vivobarefoot, a company founded by Galahad and Asher Clark in 2012 rejects the “broken” shoe industry and is fighting for a more natural future, by reconnecting people and the planet. The cousins, who are seventh-generation shoemakers from the famous Clarks dynasty of shoes, have one goal: “To create alternative footwear for those who want to feel the ground beneath them and move naturally.”

The brand’s three most popular shoes at the moment include:

  • Primus Lite II Bio: appropriate for any sort of exercise, especially running.
  • Geo Court: a tennis shoe that is good for smart casual wear.
  • Tracker FG: for walking or hiking. It offers protection for rocky terrains, but is also lightweight. Its thermal sole also keeps your feet toasty.

vegan shoesMy first experience with these shoes was good. I went on a long leisurely walk around the Isle of Dogs in London. While a couple of puddles proved the trainers aren’t too waterproof, I’d never felt so close to the ground before. The company says the best way to see the health benefits of its footwear is to use them in everyday life. “Walk before you run,” the founders say.

Half of Vivobarefoot’s shoe range is vegan. Its largest markets reside in the UK, US and Germany, but 2020 was its best-ever year on record. The company believes this is due to people appreciating the need to reconnect with nature more, after having spent so much time locked in their homes.

Galesne recommends transitioning slowly, and using Vivobarefoot might provide the right stepping stone for that. Wide, flexible and boasting a 3mm sole, the brand’s shoes allow you to feel the ground beneath you — but not to the point of discomfort. “You know the feeling you get when you kick your shoes off at the end of a day? That’s the relief of freeing your feet — we offer that freedom at all times,” they say.

Barefoot running and walking isn’t just about feeling closer to nature, it’s better for our bodies too. Vivobarefoot explains that parts of our feet have become dormant due to thick mainstream trainers. So wearing minimalist shoes, or going barefoot, will reawaken those nerves and muscles. Modern footwear has also proven to cause an array of injuries, including Plantar Fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis.

Brough says the length of the transition to barefoot depends entirely on a person’s mobility. “If you can’t lift your toes, you can’t push yourself off the ground properly — the trainers have been doing it for you,” she explains.

It’s important to ask yourself the right questions. Can you spread or lift your toes? What are your ankles or knees doing? Can you balance on one leg? When you run, are you landing on your mid-foot? Then, start small. Try walking barefoot in your own home, then garden. The more you do it, she says, the quicker everything will fall into place.

Outside of walking and running, no matter whether you’re barefoot, it’s very important to do strength exercises to keep your body supported. Brough offers a variety of these on her YouTube channel, as well as her blog.

Vivobarefoot says even barefoot movement in itself will strengthen your feet and legs. It’s currently conducting research revealing that wearing minimalist shoes for six months can improve foot strength, which could help prevent things like falls in the elderly. The brand believes human health and planetary health are intrinsically linked. “Experiencing and feeling nature will undoubtedly give you a greater appreciation for it and help you make more conscious purchasing decisions in the future,” it adds.

vivobarefootSo when and where are the best places to start? “There’s no one place to start,” says Brough. “You want to focus on variety. And your best surface is your next surface.” While running on tarmac will toughen your soles faster, it could run the risk of harder impact. Running on the beach is softer, but it provides good resistance so will get your muscles working harder.

Barefoot, you feel everything. The cold, the wet, slippery surfaces, gravel — even the slightest bump. This will get you more aware, because your instinct to protect yourself will be triggered.

You’ll also feel like treading more softly. “Because of that, you feel like you’re not making such a big imprint on the environment,” says Brough. If yoga hasn’t been working for you, barefoot running might be the secret to finally getting out of your head.

Olivia Rafferty
Olivia Rafferty
Olivia is the Assistant Editor of The Vegan Review. An aspiring Middle Eastern correspondent currently studying journalism at City, University of London, she is passionate about the planet, she believes veganism is the first step to solving the complexities of climate change.