How I discovered barefoot running

I am not a trendwatcher. Maybe more of a trendcoral; comfortably attached to a lovely rock, letting the cultural sea wash over me. My currents are carefully selected RSS feeds, rich in memes and intriguing new ideas, from which my polyps pick out interesting morsels, which I slowly assimilate to become more colourful. What interests me are not the current affairs of common knowledge, but the emerging concepts that people in disparate communities are beginning to talk about - ideas that are beginning to spread. Last year, several instances of one such concept floated past and tantalised my polyps: it went by the name "barefoot running".

Being a keen hiker, I knew about Vibram soles, so my interest was piqued when I read about their weird-looking new product called the FiveFingers - which was actually made for your toes - and which looked more like a comedy rubber foot than a shoe. The motivation, it transpired, was that walking or running barefoot was supposedly more "natural", and paradoxically less likely to result in injuries. I mentally filed that discovery away under "Intriguingly Crazy Ideas That Might Just Work". And went on to read something else.

Later that year, my polyps picked up the barefoot meme again, this time in Wired. So what prompted Wired to write about it? As so often with emerging ideas, there's a wellspring that unleashes the river, and in this case it seemed to be a recent book by Chris McDougall, called Born to Run.

When I looked into the book, the story became more interesting still. It seemed that going barefoot wasn't just a bunch of footwear refuseniks, it was a subculture. And one that had generated enough interest to keep the book in the bestseller lists for months. I was sufficiently intrigued to buy a copy, it turned out to be an excellent book, and I resolved to try it for myself. (I'm glad I did, but that's another story)

And as the idea spread, I began to see articles in mainstream newspapers. In July 2009, The Guardian was reviewing barefoot trainers and asking whether it was a craze or a fad. By October, the New York Times was reporting on the barefoot boom and summarising research into barefoot running published in recent Sports Science journals.

The barefoot meme continued to spread, it even became a metaphor. Going barefoot was cited as a zen habit - a minimalist way of living: of travelling light whilst remaining aware and present.

By January 2010, a study of barefoot running was published in Nature. Looking back at my Google Reader history I sense that once it became an area of legitimate scientific study, barefoot running seemed to gain a new level of media acceptability. Subsequent articles would discuss the pros and cons of going barefoot, rather than dwelling on its quirkiness, or pondering whether it was just a craze.

Perhaps then, this is how ideas form. They start with a few enthusiasts talking amongst themselves, which if popular enough, attracts a small subculture around them. As the idea spreads, community members start writing books and articles, some of which will be picked up by more general media and distributed to wider audiences. Until eventually, outsiders like us stumble across them...

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