To be or not to be Barefoot. Is that the Question?

English: Barefoot hiking south of Penzberg, Ge...

English: Barefoot hiking south of Penzberg, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barefoot running and barefoot hiking have been discussed continuously since at least May 2009 when Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run was published and fueled nationwide interest in running very long distances barefooted, or, at least with only a flexible piece of rubber under one’s foot and nothing more. McDougall chronicled the ultra long distance runs of the Tarahumara Indian tribe of Mexico who’s members, men, women and children routinely logged long distance runs in a type of sandal.

And barefoot running received a further boost in 2010 when Harvard Evolutionary Biology professor Daniel Lieberman published an article in the respected science journal  Nature  about foot strike patterns in habitually barefoot runners compared to shod runners. In fact, Dr. Lieberman’s work was cited in McDougall’s book.

And since that time ‘barefoot’ has been a hundred million dollar word.

Every major shoe manufacturer and many less well known have marketed ‘barefoot’ running shoes, admittedly an oxymoron, Dr. Lieberman has noted. The shoe sole manufacturer Vibram introduced the iconic Vibram Five Fingers  a cross between a glove and a rubber soled moccasin. New Balance and others heavily marketed ‘minimalist’ shoes invoking themes suggestive of running barefoot.

And bloggers and newly minted experts cropped up overnight inveighing the virtues of the barefoot gospel. If it was good enough for Austrolapithicus, it must be good enough for us, was a general sentiment. Indeed, the modern running shoe as we know it only dates back to the 1970s (of the common era). And even according to anthropologists  who date shoe wearing among Homo Sapiens as far back as 40,000 or so years (Trinkhaus and Shang,  “Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear”, Journal of Archealogical Science 2008), ancient man’s shoes surely did not include motion controlling ethyl vinyl acetate heel cushions and a thermal polyurethane reinforced arch support.

And so authors Tam, et. al of the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town rightly questioned many of the commonly accepted notions about barefooted running in their October 2013 article, “Barefoot running, an evaluation of current hypothesis, future research and clinical applications”, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine published first on-line.

A woman wears Vibram "Five Fingers" ...

A woman wears Vibram “Five Fingers” shoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tam, et. al thoroughly review much of what is known about barefoot running, making their article an important one for someone new to the discussion about this ongoing phenomenon. Their central question remains, however,  Does running barefooted reduce the rate of injuries? And toward that end they quote Daniel Lieberman from his most recently published analysis on the topic. “How one runs is probably more important than what is on one’s feet, but what is on one’s feet may affect how one runs”, Lieberman writes near the beginning of a 2012 article.

However, what Lieberman writes at the end of his lucid, organized and thorough review of barefoot running is perhaps more cogent. In “What We Can Learn About Running From Barefoot Running: An Evolutionary Medical Perspective”, published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Review (April 2012), he writes: “My prediction – which I readily admit is nothing more than hypothesis that could be incorrect – is that shod runners with lower injury rates have a more barefoot style form…Likewise I predict that injury rates are higher among barefoot runners who either lack enough musculoskeletal strength in their calves and feet…or who still run as if they were shod with long strides and slow stride frequencies.”

It seems than that many questions about barefoot running remain outstanding. But some truths have been established. Lighter weight shoes do reduce the oxygen need of the runner with a one percent decreased need for every 100 gm decreased weight of the shoes. A mid foot or forefoot strike avoids the high pressure impacts of a heel strike. And shorter strides with a higher frequency cadence do seem to be correlated with a reduction in injuries.

So while one is vacillating about what shoes to buy, in the meanwhile run like a hunter gatherer may (or may not) have run: shorten your stride, land on the middle or front of your foot and increase the number of steps you take per minute. Unless of course you develop pain in your foot, leg, hip, back or elsewhere.  In that case, go back to whatever you were doing before!

The still, small, voice…

When I finally stopped gasping for air I realized what I had done.

After plodding along for the past few years with no attention to speed I decided to see if I could run faster. I looked around and found many recommendations and decided to try interval training: Run a lap at normal speed than run the same lap faster. Repeat. And repeat again and again.

After panting I realized I was able to increase my speed by 20%, if only for a short period of time. I did not know what I had accomplished while I was running, only after I stopped.

The Jewish high holidays have concluded. The liturgy for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is filled with images of the majesterial as we proclaim God the Master of the Universe. We listen to the primal sound of a ram’s horn, the shofar, to punctuate the day. And in one stirring paragraph we describe the power of that sound upon our hearts. But that sentence is mysteriously juxtaposed to the most enigmatic phrase of the day. The sound of the shofar will be sounded, the prayer states, and a “still, thin sound will be heard”.

That phrase comes from the book of Kings 1, chapter 19 and concludes a section about Elijah the prophet who had reestablished God’s honor before crowds of idol worshippers, including Israelites who had strayed from their belief in God. Tired from his battle for truth Elijah beseeched God to end his life. God responded by sending an angel who led Elijah on a 40 day journey to a cave from where he witnessed a sound so loud it crushed rock, caused a devastating earthquake and a great fire.

“God is not there” we are told after each cataclysmic event. Elijah did not find God in the maelstrom. But than a “still, small voice” appeared and there is where Elijah reconnected to his Maker. Immediately afterward we read Elijah leaves his cave and re-enters the world, appointing a king for this nation and for that one. He begins to re-build the world. 19th and 20th century naturalist writers have borrowed this phrase as well and often refer to the “still, small voice” they hear in the forests and the fields.

And I thought of this scene finally standing upright after bracing myself on my knees doubled over, oxygen deprived, the lactic acid burn starting to ebb. We don’t know what we have accomplished in the midst of the thing, in the middle of a run, or long hike. Or in the midst of raising our children. Indeed, physiologists believe that endurance is increased not during the quickened pace while running but rather in the moments right afterward when the the cardiovascular system adjusts to the new challenge.

It is only in the calm moments that follow our accomplishments that we, like Elijah, can realize the truth of our lives, and the work we have done and the work we have yet to accomplish.

The Power of New Shoes?

Of course new shoes can make your feet feel better. But can they really help your soul?

I ran a trail yesterday I have run many times before. I did not see the Great Blue Heron I once saw there feeding not 15 feet away. Nor did I see the Northern Oriole building its dangling hollowed ball  shaped nest I’ve seen before nor the spring irises lining the trail here and there. Yet I felt newly exhilarated despite the sameness of the scenery. What was different?

Not much. Just my shoes.

New shoes.

The old (Asics Trail Sensor circa 2009) and the new (La Sportiva Wildcat circa 2013)

The old (Asics Trail Sensor circa 2009) and the new (La Sportiva Wildcat circa 2013)

New shoes I had researched and pondered, read reviews about and weighed pros and cons before arriving at my decision. I looked for them in stores and ultimately ordered on the web. Even guessed right on the European size.

I am loyal to my shoes. Not the brand specifically but actually to the shoes. I do not part ways with them easily. I wear them until they are frayed. Until chunks of rubber are missing from the sole. Until I am pretty sure the mid sole layer has lost its cushioning. Yet, I have seen pictures of the poorest of the poor running around or carrying water in tattered shoes, or no shoes and I know even at their worst my old shoes are quite adequate.  And so I relinquish them reluctantly and don new shoes undeservedly.

But I am attached to old shoes for quite another reason too. We have traveled together for so long. The rubber rand covering the front of the shoes is peeling. The lining around the heel has worn completely away after thousands and thousands of steps on streets and sidewalks and grassy fields and trails criss crossing county and state parks, as my shoes and I have hiked our way together across rocks in a fast flowing brook or run across a wooden bridge while looking upstream at  riffles of frothy white water. They were with me when I ran a trail race and badly sprained my ankle and they were with me the following year when I redeemed myself on the same course.

Old sole, new sole.

Old sole, new sole.

I look at the worn sole but don’t see shoes worn out. Rather I see miles walked, hiked, run.

Yet the trail does seem more fresh and alive and spirited with my new shoes, a feeling which I attribute to more than better cushioning and less fraying. I am inspired by the possibilities of the new, real or imagined. The shiny sole of my new shoes with their special features to provide traction on uneven terrain beckons the deep forest trail. And I will even take inspiration from the picture on the shoe box, of men I know not, running toward towering mountains I know not where in a place I will likely never be.

Photo on the cover of the La Sportiva Wildcat shoes

Photo on the cover of the La Sportiva Wildcat shoes

(Old shoes: Asics Trail Sensor. New shoes: La Sportiva Wildcat)

200,000 miles. Driving or walking…

My 13 year old Nissan Altima, may it live and be well, surpassed the 200,000 mile mark this past week. And as I watched the odometer in anticipation of this occasion I began to think about how our Western society is built around motorized transportation of one sort or another. 200000

Whether one drives, takes a bus or train or even plane, we have created a society that depends on the ability to get from here to there quickly and with ease. In the course of 200,000 miles of driving, most of that commuting to and from work, I burned about 10,000 gallons of gas!

I drive at or below the speed limit in part because I like to take in the scenery around me – the trees in various states of seasonal growth, the nascent wildflower patches slowly slowly coming into bloom, frequent sightings of deer and the occasional red tailed hawk perched on a roadside limb. Once I even saw a coyote with his straight back loping along the side of the road. But no matter how slowly I drive I know there is much I miss.


wild blueberries

The past week while walking less than 3 miles per hour in the woods I had ample time to pick and eat wild blueberries, notice types of lichens I had not seen before covering the fragmented rocks on the forest floor and observe a widow skimmer dragonfly stone still on a twig, the first time I saw this interesting insect so up close. Yet ironically, I depend on my car to drive to almost all of the nice spots where I like to hike.


skimmer dragonfly

I appreciate my car for safely transporting me 200,000 miles.  I thank God for such a loyal vehicle. It has enabled me to get to work and home again as well as drive to so many beautiful fields and forests in which I like to walk. But there is a bittersweet note. No doubt our modern lives would be dramatically different if we were a society primarily of walkers and only occasionally of drivers. But how would each of us individually be different if we embraced the opportunity to truly observe and take in our surroundings whilst traveling at a leisurly 3 miles per hour?

Walking as a tonic…

Why do people turn to walking as the activity that will soothe their roiling souls?

A 33 year old recently divorced, long time overweight man who suffers from Crohn’s Disease decided to radically change his life by taking an unpaid leave from work to spend six months on a personal odyssey and hike the Continental Divide Trail, raising awareness about Crohn’s as well. The trail begins in the Big Hatchets Wilderness area in Mexico and ends 3,100 miles north in Glacier National Park on the Montana-Canada border.

Route of the Continental Divide Trail

Route of the Continental Divide Trail

Unlike the Appalachian Trail which originated around 1925 and is well blazed and fairly close to civilization, the CDT was only designated as a National Scenic Trail by Congress in 1978 and meanders far from city lights. Moreover only 72% of the trail is considered to be in its final location. Once entering the United States the trail traverses New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

The Continental Divide is a line of mountain ranges that begins in Alaska and continue into South America. The Divide divides rainfall: rain on the west wends its way to the Pacific Ocean; rainfall on the east runs into the Mississippi River system and Atlantic Ocean. The CDT could rightly be considered the ‘spine’ of the continental United States.

The trail goes north and south. Water flows east and west.

The trail goes north and south. Water flows east and west.

In, blogger Pete decided to hike the CDT after looking in the mirror in 2011 and “seeing a sad fat and depressed person staring back”, he writes in an early blog post.  The trail would be a challenge he could embrace, help cure him of his laziness and procrastination, help him lose weight and make him into someone people could look up to, he writes. And now the hike is underway. Pete posts regularly from the trail, tweets more frequently and posts his breadcrumbs on a Delorme map, techno trekking modes that are becoming commonplace among wilderness adventurers.

Is walking more of a tonic than writing? More than learning to paint? Volunteering in a soup kitchen? When the spirit is roiling, moving seems to be the preferred elixir, and moving through the grandeur of open space among mountains and valleys subject to the vagaries of mountain and valley weather seems to be the specific prescription. After more than 580 miles Pete is already sounding a more positive confident tone, especially as he offers support to others who suffer from Crohn’s. In a recent post he wrote: “I can’t imagine not being out here and I know that making it this far is a privilege that many other suffers can’t do”. Read more at: