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It’s Fun to Go Barefoot, “Barefoot Shoes???”

04/12/2010

Okay, so it has been a while since I have visited these pages.  It seems I have been slacking on a few disciplines as of late, and among other things, the blog has fallen by the wayside. Really, I have no excuses. Been busy, heck, yes: with writing, music, training hard, all of that shoveling snow and catching up on Lost, but we’re always busy, no? And somehow we always find time to do those things that are important and meaningful to us. Since sharing information and experiences on my favorite pass-time is one of them, I am sorry I have slacked off. But two good things did come out of this:

One: I learned the value of the blog

Two: I have been wanting to write about the barefoot controversy more than anything, as it really hits home, and the extra time has allowed the topic to explode, and also given me some personal experience to add to the bit.

I could write a lot about this, and plan to. But let’s start with a blog on the trend.  Or trends maybe, as to me, it almost seems that there are two now. First, there is within the general running community this new-found attraction for running barefoot, and second, there is the running shoe companies’  response to our newly-found desire to run barefoot–with all of these lovely new minimalist shoe offerings they are giving us. As much as these two are part of the same barefoot trend,  it appears helpful to approach them separately.

Like vegetarians and vegans, the camp has split into those who like to forgo all shoes, and those who like these new minimalist options. And it seems maybe the camp will split along even more lines with the varying degrees of minimalism within the new shoe offerings.  And maybe all of the minimalist footwear is  “gateway gear,” and we’ll eventually all find ourselves running shoe-free.

Sure, McDougall’s book has had something to do with this trend, posing to a larger audience the not-so-new idea that our super-padded, forward-pitched running shoes may be bad for us, are slowing us down, and maybe we should forgo them for less. But really, his is just one voice in a much greater movement, eh?  Nike supposedly was the first to have accrued actual hard data from their shoe research that showed this to be true, and since then, there has been much more experimentation and research, and now plenty of hard science to back up these claims that our shoes have been altering our stride, and not to our advantage. And still, most claim that the research hints, but offers no final word, exactly, as to whether any of it is responsible for our plethora of running injuries. (Who wants grounds for a lawsuit?)

Is this simply another fad followed closely by another chapter in the evolution of running shoes? We’re calling it a trend, after all. But maybe this is one that is actually good for us. A few say Americans, who grew up shod, and have run most of their mileage in highly cushioned shoes aren’t prepared for this drastic change, that we risk even more injury if we shift suddenly to minimalist running shoes. As for running barefoot, even the Kenyans and cross country folks, indeed a lot of professional and semi-professional runners have been running round in the dirt and grass barefoot as part of their training for decades, and some of the coaches keep piping in with a “Hey, I-told-you-so we knew all about this barefoot thing being good for your running 20 years ago, but we still know better than to run on the pavement unprotected,” line here or there.  And we were running in minimalist footwear in the 70’s right? I can’t speak from experience. If I did any running in the 70’s it was mostly barefoot.  But I was a little child then.

It’s what happens next, AFTER our Huarache, Vibram 5 Finger, Nike Free, and Newton experiences that is important, if you ask me. Will we go back to our cushioned Sauconies, Asics and K-Swisses? Will shoe design stay minimalist? Will it take a third and whole new direction? Or will more and more of us find ourselves out there completely unshod? Maybe running on special grass tracks and trails designed for barefooters?

I first learned about this barefoot trend during last year’s Boston marathon. At one early stretch, I got behind thee Barefoot Ted, and caught him in the midst of his story which I’m sure he must have reiterated so many times, even a talker like himself was tired of it by now. He started in about his back problems, then abruptly stopped and told the guy to just go to his website–which he had advertised all over his t-shirt. I did notice he was running completely unshod. I understand he wears Vibrams now. At the time, I had never heard of him, nor this trend, and I was intrigued. But it ended here for me.  I was in the midst of running the Boston. There was a lot to focus on, a lot to notice and absorb, a lot to think about. But this was a terrific introduction into the subject, and it seems it planted a seed after all.

I wish I could have started this blog with a recollection about training barefoot in my college years, but alas, I am not one of those long-time runners like that nice guy at the running store who uses the proper terminology or with a long, detailed back story of growing up in poverty and running in my brother’s shoes like those athletes you read about in Running Times.

My college experience of barefoot running is no more than a faded memory of running around a field after an occasional just-for-fun game of rugby, and periodically running around unshod on a nearby golf course at night,  and oh, an ad jingle from a local shoe store ironically called “Barefoot Shoes.”  Their jingle: “It’s fun to go barefoot, Barefoot Shoes…” seems counter productive. I mean, who would want to rush out and buy shoes after being reminded how fun it is to go barefoot? And yet this is what appears to be happening now. The running shoe companies prey a bit on our fears perhaps, or maybe they simply do as they say they do, they give us what we ask for.  Sure we want to go barefoot, going barefoot is good for our bodies and our feet, but we need protection–from broken glass and rocks and twigs and, uh, used needles, etc. Maybe we do. We want to go on running. We want to protect our delicate, sensitive feet.  I know I do.  Though I really don’t like to admit it, my feet are very sensitive. I like to think I can slap any old shoes on them, but when it comes right down to it, I probably couldn’t be more particular about shoes. Because if this, I have on pretty old, beat up or clunky looking shoes most of the time.

Yeah, it is fun to go barefoot.  Even if you have sensitive feet like me. I run barefoot–sometimes.  In grass, on the beach, through the woods, even on the treadmill, but not for more than a mile or so. The belt gets hot after 10 miles. Sometimes, it’s on pavement. The best was on my birthday last year, running back to work barefoot in a July rainstorm after a luncheon with colleagues. I was wearing these high-heeled sandals that quickly became wet and slippery in the deluge, and wouldn’t stay on. When it seemed walking in them was no longer possible, I stepped out of them, left my umbrella with the co-worker with whom I had been sharing, and just made a mad dash for several blocks. The water was running fast over the road, and ankle-deep in some places. But it felt warm, and the road surface wasn’t slick.  It had me laughing aloud. (It always rains on my birthday, it seems, and I always seem to find myself running in it.)

It seems that old jingle hit on a timeless truth, and largely outlived the store;  stuck in my head after some 15 years. And here is my point. The store is gone. Their shoes are gone. The truth in their advertising remains. It IS fun to go barefoot.  Maybe the new minimalist running shoes are but a trend, but this going about our business of running unshod, my friend, is not. Maybe it will continue as it has before, only in small groups, only under specific circumstances, but it will continue. Even if it proved to not be good for us. Why? Ah, the freedom!  Right? You can feel EVERYTHING in your feet. Over 7000 nerve endings in your foot connect to other parts of your body (next blog will be about foot massage, I promise–there’s a richer history of experience here for me ).

Sure, I like the feel of a nice cushiony shoe, but when running, especially trails or varied terrain, I have learned I really need to be able to communicate with the ground. When I was coming down the rocky stretch of Appalachian trail on South Mountain in the JFK, my stiff Asics trail shoes I bought because they felt like good sturdy hikers, slipped and stuttered over the rocks. They rendered my feet blind. All nimbleness was gone. I crashed up and down the trail, sometimes at full throttle, as if I were wearing 10-pound ankle-high Timberland boots. Not the picture of grace. : )

So. Protecting your feet while allowing them to do their job of communicating the terrain to the rest of your body seems to be the name of the game, as much of the articles on the subject of barefoot running now suggest. Or at least this is the pitch of the ad campaigns for the new minimalist shoes.

And also, of course there are biomechanical considerations: mid foot strike vs. heal strike, using the full range of muscles and tendons, etc.  And most tell us to transition to shoelessness through: building up slowly to running unshod if we are not used to it, choosing your terrain carefully unless–or maybe even if–you have a nice layer of callous, and maybe through buying some of those expensive rubber slippers of shoes. (I’m such a gear freak, I’d hoped to have some of those by now, but thought I would wait for the snow melt, then had to opt for purchasing shoes for Boston, and wasn’t quite ready to tackle that one barefoot or in quite so minimalist gear just yet.) The new running shoes coming out this year, though, as a result of all of this barefoot hullabaloo, ARE really minimalist. And I did get a pair of those–Newtons. Not the Vibrams, yet, but I’m getting close. The Newtons feel like stretchy slippers with some bouncy, grippy rubber right under the ball of your foot. They feel a little weird, like you are standing on a rock, unless you are running. They fit like gloves. They “hug the road.” The guy at the store had me take’m for a spin around the block. I ran in one, with some lesser shoe on the other foot. They were amazing. (no, I don’t have any affiliation with this company other than having just been sold a pair of their pricey shoes.) But I really like them, and can’t usually say this about any shoes, let alone something as specific as running shoes. Usually,  I say, “They’ll do.” These, I say “Wow, I wish I could wear them all of the time.” After Boston, I probably will.  I can run fast in them. They grip so well, they practically carry me up hills. They corner well. They parkour well. They all but banished most of my plantar fasciitis, and I am hopeful they will save my toenails–at least some of them. They are ugly as sin. But to me, they wouldn’t be running shoes if they didn’t look terrible. But I like it when I put them on. They give me that nice illusion of protection the big cushiony ones do. I also like taking them off. I like to feel the grass, the dirt, the pavement.

Let me say, I like this trend. And, now there is even more good science to back it up. To me, it just makes a great deal of common sense. I’ve always tried to live by the “less is more” and “elegance to simplicity” philosophies, and if the trend fits…

Here are some links to some pretty decent writing and research on the subject:

Much Ado About Minimalism

Growing Up Shod

Is Barefoot Better?

Should We Get in Step With Those Who Say Barefoot Is Best?

Study: Humans Were Born To Run Barefoot

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