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May 29th, 2010 · 2 Comments

(A Post by Matt)

I’ve been running recreationally for a good decade now – not a lot at a time, and not that fast, but enough to keep some basic level of fitness. I prefer bicycling for its sheer enjoyment factor, but running takes less time and less equipment. Like so many other things, it appeals to my engineering side – efficient, practical, and meets the goal of keeping me some level of in shape. On time and under budget.

And while I get it at some level, I’ve never totally understood people who truly love to run just for the sake of running. I mean, if you have time to go out and run for an hour or more, why not get on a bike and really see some terrain while you’re at it?

So a week or so ago, Joyce set out to replace her worn-out tennis shoes. And after some work and research, she orders in the mail these crazy excuses of a shoe that have no cushion, no structure, really not much of anything to them. And she noted that she just felt better barefoot, and that there was some evidence that the less shoe that you wear, the better off you are. Always ready for a good debate, I dig into the issue myself, and I was really taken by two related pieces of research that somehow I hadn’t heard about before.

The first concerns shoes, specifically running shoes, and more specifically the lack thereof:

  • A 2009 study watched a group of people run, with high-end Brooks running shoes, on a treadmill. They then had the same group of people run on the treadmill at the same speed barefoot. The measured hip and knee joint torque was 35-50% less for the barefoot group.
  • The January 28, 2010 cover story in Nature studied much the same thing (in addition to a few others points, discussed below), and concluded that the collision forces of someone running barefoot on a hard surface are less than someone wearing padded shoes. The biggest difference is in the way that the shoe forces the foot to land.
  • Previous research (1989 onward, quoted extensively elsewhere but I can’t get my hands on the text of the original) correlated injury rates vs the price people paid for their shoes based on survey results. The more expensive the shoe, the bigger the risk of injury.

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence: The guy from Burbank who was so frustrated that a pair of fancy running shoes caused him pain that he stopped at the post office on his run home, mailed them back to the manufacturer, and walked home barefoot. By the time he got home, he realized that he felt pretty OK. He started running barefoot and qualified for the Boston Marathon (and more). The magazine writer who went from having pain every time he ran to completing marathons by running barefoot. The technology reviewer who absolutely swore by using cushioned running shes, until he had leg problems. So, in desparation, after trying everything else, he took off his shoes – and was cured.

The best short summary I found is here: Dr. Lieberman, the author of the Nature article, posts a very easy-to-read summary of his data and conclusions on his website. A longer (and more captivating) summary is the book by Christopher McDougall, which a neighbor just happened to share a couple of days ago. (currently #80 on Amazon’s bestseller list, even after a year of publication)

And as I looked for evidence to the contrary, I found basically nothing. I figured the shoe industry has plenty of money and could fund some researchers to publish a couple of studies to the contrary – but there aren’t any. Even Nike – the company that invented cushioned shoes – seems to agree with idea that structured, cushioned running shoes aren’t good for you.

So on Tuesday, partway through my usual half hour lunchtime run, I took off my shoes and gave it a go for about 1/3 of a mile. On concrete. And it felt great – the force and impact of running just felt softer, the ground didn’t feel hard at all, and everything just worked. I followed the basic advice on the internet (search “barefoot running” and there’s plenty):

  • You want to end up landing on the forefoot, not the heel. And you want to end up landing with feet almost directly below the body, not reaching in front of you. And you want to stay upright, not leaning forward.
  • And if you think about all of this (ie, how to put your feet down), you’ll end up trying to manipulate the process and nothing will work. So don’t. Just worry about picking your feet up off the ground, and quickly – more quickly than people usually run with shoes – to make up for the somewhat shorter stride. Nature, and gravity, will make sure that your feet eventually come back down again.

There was one catch. The concrete path where I run is not smooth. It’s roughened up with lines perpendicular to the path, so that its surface resembles coarse sandpaper. While everything else felt great, the skin on the bottom of my foot was less than thrilled with the friction on the sandpaper. Perhaps if I was more experienced, I could learn how to run with less friction, and this wouldn’t be as much of an issue – but I didn’t quite know how to figure all of that out.

So I bought a pair of Vibram Fivefingers, which are little more than a piece of rubber strapped to the bottom of your foot. After a mile and a half run with them, I’m sold. Plenty of muscles feel sore (and apparently should – it’s reported to take weeks to months of conditioning to strengthen foot and calf muscles), but everything else feels great. The challenge is that after wearing the Fivefingers, its tough to go back to putting on normal shoes. So this week I ended up donating a sizable fiscal stimulus to the minimalist shoe industry (including a pair of Vivo Barefoot casual shoes).

The second piece of research (from the same Dr. Lieberman, whose day job is studying human evolution) is more profound than practical. About two million years ago, the basic human shape from the neck down was more or less fixed. But why are we built the way that we are? What is that body shape really good for? We can’t sprint like a greyhound, fly like a bird, swim like a fish, lift like a gorilla, or swing like a monkey. Walking probably wasn’t the driver – we had been walking for a long time previously, and a lot of the features of the human leg and foot aren’t needed for walking. Tools weren’t the driver – bows and arrows and spears and knives didn’t exist for millions more years. And while we as a species are proud of ourselves from the neck up (no other animal has the brainpower to bolt a partially-functioning blowout preventer to the ocean floor), we don’t normally think of ourselves as beating the rest of the animal kingdom from the neck down.

But two million years ago, the human body was apparently profoundly useful for something. Without sophisticated stone tools, we were able to survive and reproduce and spread amidst plenty of strong and fast competitors. Lieberman’s data suggests that there is one innate skill that we have that bests most of the rest of the animal kingdom: we can run. Not extremely fast (we can’t outsprint the greyhound), but we can keep running for a long time, even in hot weather, even in the middle of the day. A group of people can chase down a Kudu (or just about any other animal). The animal can sprint must faster than we can, but only for a short period of time before it overheats. We can keep going, and if we have enough water to keep sweating off the heat, we will lead the animal into heat exhaustion within an hour or more. Why do people enjoy running? Perhaps its the thing that, more than anything else, our bodies are really built to do.

I’m not planning on chasing down any deer or running a marathon (no time to train at that level). But I do have a deeper appreciation for my simple running routine. And I have even more reason for keeping my footwear as close as possible to what we wore a long, long time ago.

Tags: Bigger Pictures

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Paul Reisdorf // May 29, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I am also sold on the barefoot running idea after hearing an NPR talk on the barefoot running concept and the book “Born to Run” (http://www.amazon.com/Born-Run-Hidden-Superathletes-Greatest/dp/0307266303). I bought a pair of Nike Free Run+ shoes: (http://inside.nike.com/blogs/nikerunning_news-en_US/2010/04/29/free-like-feet-want-to-be) and have been running in them for 2 weeks now. I love them. The Nike Free shoes have a bit more cushion in them than the Vibram Fivefingers, so they are a good shoe to help transition your running style.

  • 2 Scott // May 29, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Awesome!
    I read that Christopher McDougall book. It is excellent. I am curious how it is working for you. There is this guy, Barefoot Ted, who is mentioned in the book and was on the news recently about completing marathons in bare feet (http://www.barefootted.com/). I am tempted to try it. Paul is making switch now with Nike Free shoes. The Fingers shoes are interesting. I will have to talk to you about it more. Very fun.

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