x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Running barefoot would be fine, except for the running

In the western imagination, Israelis are human beings, but Palestinians are just pawns on a chessboard.

When Carolyn Davidson designed the Nike swoosh logo for her friend, Phil Knight, she billed him $35 (Dh129) for her services, saying she didn't love the logo but believed it would grow on her.

Her comment reflects an essential paradox about the creative process: what a creator bills as mediocre may become iconic. Conversely, what a creator thinks is good may in fact be poorly received.

I thought of this, and other creative paradoxes as I ran - barefoot, as it happens - through the grass.

I am not a habitual runner. I own Nike running shoes with their swoosh, but I use them to hike, not to run.

I am, however, interested in another kind of shoe. These aren't trainers or running shoes or dress shoes but fitness shoes. Merely by wearing them, we are told, you can lose weight, tone your body and improve your posture and general health.

Several brands offer such products, including Masai Barefoot Technology (MBT), which calls its footwear product "anti-shoes". They have a rather distinctive look, with curved front and heels.

MBT claims that the imbalance created by their shoes causes the wearer to rock back and forth and "strengthen the core" as a consequence. Oh well, at least it's a great explanation for a decidedly ugly pair of shoes. I wore them proudly even though family members derided them as prosthetics.

But then one day, my neighbour's dog chewed up my MBT anti-shoes. My family cheered and bought Rooney (the dog) some treats, while I mourned their loss.

The key to MBT's claim is that their shoes are supposed to make you fit without having you do very much. To me, they represent a fantasy of a fitter future. So do some other products, such as those abdominal belts that heat and massage your middle into shape without push-ups, and acupuncture "seeds" that you tape to a certain spot in your ear; these are supposed to curb your appetite.

Do you notice what these things have in common? With these methods the user avoids exercising.

You run only to reach someplace; not on the treadmill. You climb real stairs, not the StairMaster. You crunch walnuts, not your abdomen. And you push yourself up the mango tree to pick out ripe fruits, not develop your biceps. (I, by the way, do none of those things.)

I may not run but at least I have the right gear, just in case I am caught in the Sahara Desert and decide to go for a morning jog.

As it turns out, running across the Sahara would offer a chance to try the latest trend in fitness: barefoot running. My latest possession is a pair of five-finger Vibram shoes, marketed as close-to-barefoot footwear. They fit like a second skin but you couldn't mistake them for skin: they're orange.

A Harvard professor, Daniel Lieberman, has an entire website dedicated to "barefoot running".

According to research done by Prof Lieberman and his colleagues, human beings evolved to be long-distance runners, not sprinters. We are not good at sprinting. A domestic cat can outrun Usain Bolt. But we can run marathons and ultra-marathons - many hardy souls do.

The question that has been tormenting runners, researchers and shoe manufacturers for the last few years is what are the right kinds of shoes for endurance running. These researchers say no shoes are best for marathon runners: sole-less offers solace, you might say.

When you run in shoes, they say, the heel strikes first, with great force. Consider how often your heel strikes when you run and you begin to comprehend the wear and tear. But when you run barefoot, the front of your foot, along with the lateral part, land first. Your body adjusts so that the impact is less than when you wear shoes. You develop callouses, but injuries are quite rare.

Now, if only these geniuses can invent a running shoe that simulates running without the actual act. That would make me leap, run and whoop in the air - all barefoot.


Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a Memoir