Joe Maller.com

Barefoot running in the news

The New York Marathon is this weekend, and barefoot running is this year’s “story of interest.”

Neil sent me David Willey’s HuffPo article “Barefoot Running: The Exercise Craze That’s Hit the Streets.” Mr. Willey is treading a very fine line. As Editor-In-Chief of Runner’s World magazine, he is intimately tied to the athletic shoe industry. A tsunami of minimalist shoes will arrive in spring 2011, but however popular the idea of barefooting becomes, Runner’s World would be slitting their throats if they advised their readers to stop buying shoes.

I’m glad to see him exploring minimalist/barefoot running, but I think he misunderstood some key ideas. He claims barefooters insist “the human foot supplies all the cushioning and shock absorption any runner needs.” This isn’t really true. The human foot is a spectacular mechanism, one that we’ve neglected and failed to appreciate for too long. Bare feet force us to land more softly and soft landings don’t require cushioning. Also, the idea of “shock absorption” is counter to running efficiently. Ideally, the muscles and tendons of our feet and legs don’t absorb shock so much as redirect impact forces into the next stride, Ken Meierke calls this elastic recoil “free speed”. Flat heels increase the peripheral heart effect of the soleus muscle on the deep veins in our calves.

Chris McDougall’s NYTimes article “Born to Run the Marathon?” talks about how he “got over himself” and decided to run the Marathon this year.

One of Chris’s persistent themes is how running can bring out the best in people, something I’ve personally found to be true. Runners tend to be fantastically optimistic people. Maybe that grows from realizing accomplishments that first seemed impossible, or perhaps it’s a shared strength found when humans move together. Chris included the incredible story of Derartu Tulu and Paula Radcliffe in the 2009 NYC Marathon, as well as one of my favorite bits of Native American lore:

The Hopi believed running was a form of prayer; before setting off on a long run from Arizona to the Pacific, they’d offer their effort on behalf of loved ones in need of help. “I’m offering my strength to them,” the runner would murmur to their god, the Great Mystery, “and in return I ask for some of yours.”

The comments on these articles have become predictable, though with more defenders than before. Several people rehash the dogma that our feet are weak, or that people are not designed to run. Others makes comments about the ground being gross, dangerous or “harder than the soft earth humans were meant for.” Then there’s always a physical therapist or podiatrist telling about injured patients.

I went to physical therapy before switching to minimal shoes. My knees were a mess, my feet hurt, my hip hurt and my back hurt. After running in my prescribed motion-control shoes I’d stretch and ice my knees, then wait 2-3 days before trying to run again. I thought that was normal. Now, I can run near-barefoot or barefoot every day without pain. The sports medicine doctors and physical therapists never once asked to see me run.

So many people are convinced of human mediocrity despite everything we’ve done.