The Way of Barefoot Running
Here is the working text for my Op-Ed piece in Monday's Christian Science Monitor, titled by the paper as "Boston Marathon and beyond: Running is ready for a barefoot revolution" (read online here)
The Way of Barefoot Running: One Step at a Time
Our ancestors moved over the earth...and found their way into nearly every nook and cranny of the planet...with their bare or minimally clad feet. The foot has been the primary vehicle of our success as a species, allowing us to fulfill our desire to explore, discover, achieve and eat. Yet, most people these days have come to see their feet as broken appendages, unfit for the real world, sickly and weak, prone to injury, in need of support and padding, doomed to suffer. Why?
Good question. What did happen? What made our feet sick? Did we devolve? Perhaps it has something to do with the shoes we wear?
Well, arguably, we are the first generation of runners who have worked with the hypothesis that more cushioning and support equals safer running and reduced impact. We have concluded that modern surfaces, hard and unforgiving, require ever-thickening sole padding to help counter the shocks of landing, but is that true?
It is counter-intuitive, but the truth is, and studies back this up, that the more you block out the feeling of impact in your feet, the more impact you are likely to put into your body, at the wrong time in your stride, by moving and landing differently than you would if you actually felt what you were doing.
All those nerves on the bottom of your feet have a purpose after all. Dulling them from sensing seems to be a bad idea...and the dulling seems to set in motion a series of unfortunate events that ultimately leads to movement patterns unknown to our preeminently capable ancestors...patterns that seem to lead to inefficient movement and injury.
By taking off your shoes, you give your body a chance to reuse some amazingly useful, built-in systems that help you move in a way that need not be jarring nor pounding regardless of the hardness of the terrain, a way of movement that more effectively captures and re-releases stored energy through elasticity in our bodies: the splaying of our forefoot, the arch in our foot, tendons in the lower legs, calves and quads, and form, all positioned ideally to absorb and recoil the energy of movement, smoothly and efficiently, operating in real-time, on the move, a kind of primordial physical intelligence, a birthright of Homo sapiens. This built in recoil system puts to shame the claims of the marshmallow soft, spring loaded shoes that capture the imagination of so many.
So, what went wrong?
My hunch is that we got unplugged...detached...from our own bodies, from our own feet. That disconnect has led to gait patterns and running styles that are unique to a generation of runners...we the first cohort in the history of the world to run distance with cushioned, high-heeled shoes. I think it is a case of the cure becoming worse than the ailment, the ailment being hard surfaces and tired bodies, trying to continue moving when the safe form of moving has exhausted itself and the feet and legs would normally protest about continuing...unless you could give it a little relief, i.e., block pain brought on by less-than-best landing patterns, but once become a habit ends up being a fundamental change in running form...and in my opinion, a dying branch of cultural evolutionary experimentation.
Does it have to be this way?
Nope. Learning how to master the fundamental human capacity of running, sans shoes, is a lot easier than you think...and does not require a purchase. Simply take off your shoes...and start listening to your feet, listening to your body, moving without internal hard edges, with flow. Focus on incrementally redeveloping your feet and lower legs...one step at a time, giving them a chance to feel the world and grow from interacting with it, learning from it. And become a student of your own body and of movement, share your experiences, learn and be inspired by others. Crack the nut of joyful movement in your own body, your own unique vehicle. The resources are available unlike at any other time for our generation. Google it.
The paradigm shift away from the over-engineered shoe is connected with other shifts in thinking about our bodies and being human. In your barefeet you are more connected to your body, better balanced, more aware, mindful, present. Those characteristics are good qualities to mimic in your mental life. There is a relationship between the two.
Becoming healthy in mind and body is an incredibly effective way to experience happiness it seems, and all my research into this topic leads me to feel confident that if you follow these insights to their logical conclusion, you too will become a happy, healthy and free thinking individual, comfortable and satisfied with the awesome inheritance your feet and body represent.
PS. More on my barefoot running philosophy with tips here:
Labels: barefoot running