The Spirit Is Willing, But the Feet Are Weak

Not too many people watch my YouTube videos, so when the one about running barefooted on the Oregon Coast drew a few hundred viewers, I knew a mini-mania was spreading like H1N1.

The mania started with Christopher McDougall's best selling book Born to Run, in which he argued running barefooted is more natural and easier on your feet and joints than in shoes. He'd had a chronic injury and found running barefooted offered a complete cure. McDougall's mentioned Barefoot Ken Bob, a pioneer and missionary for the barefoot running movement, and elevated him to minor celebrity status, which resulted in an interview in February's Runner's World. (An interesting aside: Runner's World, whose bread and butter is ads for running shoes, did not feature on the front cover the interview with Barefoot Ken Bob and a podiatrist who believes in wearing running shoes.)

McDougall didn't stop with just saying barefooted running is better, but implied that running shoes are actually bad for you. You'll can watch a video version of his frontal assault on running shoes on YouTube. The crux of his argument is that highly engineered shoes, with engineered materials and features like arch support and anti-pronation, place unnatural forces on ankles, knees and hips. Recently a rare and small study confirmed that running shoes do subject the joints and hips to some significant forces that could lead to wear and tear. Gretchen Reynolds wrote an article in the NY Times that discusses some other studies and the pros and cons of running barefooted.

But I don't think any of these studies found much that is surprising or very useful. A basic law of physics is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you compress rubber with force, it will return a certain amount of force. However, when you're running that can be a pleasant sensation because it gives you feeling the shoes are providing a little spring, helping propel you forward. And I have no doubts that running shoes offer some real benefits, especially if you are running long distances on hard surfaces.

When I ran barefoot on Agate Beach in Newport, Oregon, it felt great. Oregon beaches are firm because they are a mix volcanic rock that has been ground through eons into fine, dense particles that when mixed with sand and water provide a forgiving surface on which to run. If you look at your prints, you see the sand itself supports your foot. You don't needs shoes! I look forward to running on that beach again. It does feel great to run barefooted and feel the earth under your feet.

But this TOJ won't be selling my running shoes on Ebay any time soon. In Colorado where I run on rocky mountain trails, my feet would be at high risk for cuts, puncture wounds, deep bone bruises, and frostbite. The human foot, like the rest of the body, is well designed, but it's not perfect. It doesn't perform equally well in all conditions, for people of all physiques and of all ages. I compared the thin soles on my feet to the thick pads on my dog's feet. Paws down, my dog, not me, is born to run barefooted.

Decades ago when I ran track in high school, the soles on track shoes consisted of a piece of thin, flexible leather with a few spikes screwed to it. It was very similar to running barefooted, and after working out on cinder tracks for an hour, your feet hurt like hell. Like all kids back then, if you were athletic, you spent lots of time in U.S. Keds made of a flimsy canvas top glued to a soft rubber sole. They were more comfortable than the track shoes, but not much.

It wasn't until I ran in my first pair of Nike running shoes, with the original black waffle sole, that I began to believe in human progress. The human diaspora out of Africa at the dawn of civilization placed us in environments that are quite hostile to hairless bipeds, whether on remote wilderness trails or city streets. We survived by being clever enough to invent clothes, shelter, and, yes, shoes. Many Native Americans, like the Apaches, where great runners, and they protected their feet with moccasins. Today theTarahumara Indians in Mexico, so admired by McDougall, protect their feet with huaraches. Feet are sensitive, which is why they are often an area of attack for torturers.

When it comes to running, just like any other exercise, we all need to discover what works best for us. For some, like McDougall and Barefoot Ken Bob, it might well be running barefooted. If it would help you, go for it! There are barefoot running clubs popping up everywhere if you need to get some expert advice. And the shoe manufacturers are coming up minimalist shoes that protect your feet while providing many of the advantages of running barefooted. Check them out. But be advised that if you run barefooted, you will run slower.

Ultimately, I think the barefoot mania will fade. I'm guessing a similar small percentage of the running community will migrate to barefooted running as, say, the small percentage of the general population that goes to nudist colonies. Like the Good Book says, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Especially your feet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Okay, funny to see this post. You must have been reading my mind, TOJ. A couple of weeks ago, after reading Born to Run, I wanted to try barefoot running. But, because it was 30 degrees outside and I was responsible for watching 2 kids, I tried it on the treadmill. It was nice not to "bang" on the machine, but I did get a little bit of friction rub from the conveyor belt on my toe. So, I admitted it. Yes, I ran barefoot on a treadmill. Looking forward to trying it outside in the elements. Running barefoot inside kind of defeats the purpose, but I was curious :)