Saturday, May 31, 2008

Interesting article about barefooting in nyc

I am still injured so I decided to spend sometime doing internet research instead. I saw this interesting article about barefooting in NYC. The author stopped short of actually going barefoot but talks about experience of transition to minimalist shoes.

This story ran a couple of weeks ago in New York magazine, but I just got around to reading it today. The big idea:

Shoes are bad. I don't just mean stiletto heels, or cowboy boots, or tottering espadrilles, or any of the other fairly obvious foot-torture devices into which we wincingly jam our feet. I mean all shoes. Shoes hurt your feet. They change how you walk. In fact, your feet -- your poor, tender, abused, ignored, maligned, misunderstood feet -- are getting trounced in a war that's been raging for roughly a thousand years: the battle of shoes versus feet.

Last year, researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, published a study titled "Shod Versus Unshod: The Emergence of Forefoot Pathology in Modern Humans?" in the podiatry journal The Foot. The study examined 180 modern humans from three different population groups (Sotho, Zulu, and European), comparing their feet to one another's, as well as to the feet of 2,000-year-old skeletons. The researchers concluded that, prior to the invention of shoes, people had healthier feet. Among the modern subjects, the Zulu population, which often goes barefoot, had the healthiest feet while the Europeans -- i.e., the habitual shoe-wearers -- had the unhealthiest. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Bernhard Zipfel, when commenting on his findings, lamented that the American Podiatric Medical Association does not "actively encourage outdoor barefoot walking for healthy individuals. This flies in the face of the increasing scientific evidence, including our study, that most of the commercially available footwear is not good for the feet." ...

"Natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person," wrote Dr. William A. Rossi in a 1999 article in Podiatry Management. "It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot."

If we just accept the premise here -- and frankly, I can't think of any reason not to -- the big question is, what the hell can we do about it? The author, Adam Sternbergh, tried out some shoes that were designed to allow a completely natural gait. Here's his reaction to the Vivo Barefoot:

The Vivos are a totally different experience, since they're as close to going barefoot in the city as you can get. Barefoot walking should be easy to master, in theory, and Clark assured me that I won't need any special instruction. The first thing I noticed while wearing the Vivos is that each heel-strike on the pavement was painful. Soon, though, I naturally adjusted my stride to more of a mid-foot strike, so I was rolling flexibly through each step--but then I noticed my feet were getting really tired. My foot muscles weren't used to working this hard.

After wearing the Barefoots for a while, though, I found I really liked them, precisely because you can feel the ground -- you can tell if you're walking on cobblestones, asphalt, a manhole, or a subway grate. (Striding along that nubby yellow warning strip on the subway platform feels like a foot massage.) Of course, it's not often that you walk around New York, see something on the ground, and think, I wish I could feel that with my foot. But this kind of walking is a revelation. Not only does it change your step, but it changes your perceptions. As you stroll, your perception stops being so horizontal -- i.e., confined more or less to eye level -- and starts feeling vertical or, better yet, 360 degrees. You have a new sense of what's all around you, including underneath.

Later in the story, he points out that you can't wear shoes like this in the rain or snow. You'll get soaked or frozen. But I think there's another, simpler alternative: Keep wearing your worn-out sneaks.

Sternbergh mentions some research suggesting that runners' injury rates are much higher when they're wearing new shoes than when they're wearing older ones. I've mentioned this in a couple of the presentations I've given about how the media covers fitness-related issues. My big point was that magazines can't tell you about research like this because they get so much advertising revenue from Nike and Reebok. You, however, are a free agent; you don't have to do what magazines or shoe companies tell you to do.

I have a really old pair of cross-trainers that I wear to run sprints or play soccer with my kids. The rubber on the soles is worn down, and whatever padding it once had on the inside has been pounded into oblivion. And nothing ever hurts after I wear those, despite my lifelong history of foot, ankle, and knee pain.

I also have a pair of hiking boots that must be 15 years old now. I might wear them once a year. I went on a camping trip with my son's Boy Scout troop last weekend. We didn't do a hike, but there was a lot of walking and brush-clearing-type work. I was expecting to pay a price and be sore as hell by Sunday, but again, I had no foot, ankle, or knee pain.

So what's your experience? Have you tried any of the minimalist training shoes, like the Nike Free?

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