A ZEMexperience April 10 2013, 0 Comments

I am a minimalist shoe Zealot, and quite happy about it.

In the spring of 2011, I was running for about 40 minutes, twice a week with regular running shoes.  I had an insole in my left shoe, as I had a fallen arch following a collapsed disc in my spine, and a long, slow recovery from slight paralysis of my left leg and a considerable amount of pain and gloom.  After two years of swimming only for fear of doing further damage, I eased myself back into running, and was happy that 40 minutes was a good achievement.  I accepted that the aches and pains developing in my ankles, knees and back would eventually stop me from running, and return me to the swimming pool – not a happy future, but one for which I was prepared.

My wife, Claudia, and I run a business consultancy, and we had landed a contract for 6 months during the summer to set up a business for a company in the Nordic countries.  We were based in Copenhagen, and could not believe our luck, as we love that part of the world, especially in summer, and especially Copenhagen.

One evening, I was browsing the TED website – TED is an organization which finds good and unusual ideas, and spreads them - and came across a presentation by Christopher McDougal, the author of a blockbuster book called Born to Run.  He told wonderful stories from the running community, with illustrations of heroism and self sacrifice that he had witnessed in his capacity as a sports journalist.  Then he explained his belief that man as a species is the world champion at distance running, and that as we ate a high-protein diet (meat) long before we had tools and weapons, our means of capturing our food was to run it until it dropped.  He described the Tarahumara Indians who live in the remote Copper Canyons of Mexico, and who, at all ages, think nothing of running more than 100km in a day, and rarely suffer from injuries as modern sportspeople do.  He speculated that this ability might come from the fact that they wore very simple sandals to run, as close as you can get to barefoot, and concluded by saying that he had started running barefoot himself, and had found that the aches and pains that he had been suffering from running had gradually gone away.

I was intrigued.

I have run since I was eleven, and am now in my 50’s, and my recollection of sports in my youth was that we did a lot of it barefoot, and when we did wear shoes for running, they were very light, with a thin, canvas upper and a uniformly thin rubber sole.  I decided to try running barefoot, and the next day set out along my usual route along the waterfront near where we were living.  After about 10 minutes, my calves locked up, and I had to walk home.  However, the idea was compelling, and so I persisted, and over the summer, built up gradually until I was back at my 40-minute time again.

It felt SO good!

I changed my style – if you start to run barefoot on concrete, you will find this happening almost automatically as you stop planting your heels and soften the landing as much as possible.  You land further forward on the foot, and then use the muscles and tendons in the foot-arch and the calves to act as a spring, allowing the heel to come down much more gently.  This reduces the impact that is transmitted up through your joints and back, and is the reason that my calves locked up in the early days – they simply were not strong enough to work that hard, and it took several months for them to develop until they could.  And, as Christopher McDougal described, the aches in my joints and back gradually receded to the point that I can now run comfortably for two hours.

Denmark being as far north as it is, with September it became decidedly chilly to run, and I wanted to try rougher surfaces than the ones that I had been using.  I started to look for some footwear that would leave me with my barefoot feel, but offer some protection from the weather, sticks and stones, and eventually came across ZEMgear.

ZEM, standing for ‘Zone of Endless Motion’ was founded in 2010 by Christina Bracken and Frank Woods, both long-term professionals from the sports shoe industry.  Christina was approached by some beach volleyball players to see if she could design some shoes for them, which would leave them with a barefoot feel, but protect their feet from the hot sand and, importantly, keep the sand out of the shoes.  This was the beginning of the ZEMgear range, which won the 2011 3-M IN-NEW-VATION award for the most innovative new product at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, USA.

ZEMgear shoes have environmentally friendly soles, are made from recycled rubber, all packaging can be recycled and the inks used are made from soy.  Patented tech-bands over the instep hold the foot firmly onto the sole, and add safety at night by being reflective.

Perhaps the closest relative in Switzerland to the original volleyball shoes is the O2 Oxygen, designed for indoors and watersports.  The sole is non-marking, and they have a ’Ninja-style’ toe – the big toe is separated from the others to help with balance.

Moving outdoors, the super-lightweight of the range is the 360 round-toe.  Weighing about 70 grams per shoe, depending on size.  For rougher terrain, the sole of the Terra shoe wraps round the ends of the toes to protect them from sticks and stones, and for colder weather (or people who get cold feet…) the Apex and Hero are made from Thermoprene with a cosy, soft lining – the Apex has a standard, low ankle, and the Hero a higher one for added protection.

Now, two years in, I have run all winter long in my Heros, averaging about 20km per week, often on snow and ice.   They have been excellent, and I’m looking forward to switching to Terra and 360 in the summer.  If you’re thinking about starting running in minimalist shoes, remember to take it slowly at first, to allow the muscles and tendons to grow stronger.  The arch on my left foot has re-formed, and I can run comfortably for more than 2 hours now.

It really has been life-changing.