“Born to Run” Running Strong After a Decade

“Born to Run” is one of the most successful and influential books ever written about running. More than a decade since publication I can make that declaration for three reasons.

First, some of the people featured in the non fiction account of the arcane world of ultra long distance running still promote their association with the book as an important part of their credentials. Second, according to author Christopher McDougall’s web site, best actor Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is scheduled to star in a film version of the book.

And my third reason is the most convincing evidence of this book’s outsized influence. During the current COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, my wife and I have desperately searched the house for new books to read. I found and re-read “Born to Run” and loved it all over again. I urged my wife who is an adamant non runner and lover of fiction books to read this non-fiction book about running. She read it in one day. The very next day, she laced up her vintage white Keds sneakers and went for a run! 

“Born to Run” fueled greater interest in running and a new curiosity about running barefooted or in minimalist shoes. Minimalist running shoes were marketed nationwide in the years following. The book’s popularity also probably helped at least a couple of careers and shined light and Ivy League caliber research on an indigenous people for whom running is a preferred mode of transportation.

McDougall introduced his readers to a running niche unknown to the general public and not well known even to most recreational runners in May 2009 when “Born to Run” was published. While most people were familiar with the New York and Boston marathons, fewer people knew that runners were meeting almost every weekend somewhere around the country to run 50 and 100 miles races some lasting more than 24 hours.  During these ultra marathon events runners made brief stops to shovel food in to their mouths, change out of blood stained socks and have their weight checked to make sure they were not dehydrated and risking kidney failure. Runners were lining up in California, Colorado and Tennessee to name a few, not to mention at Badwater 135, the self proclaimed “world’s toughest foot race” starting in Death Valley and crossing through places like Furnace Creek. The asphalt along the route was hot enough to melt the rubber off your sneakers.

But that was not even the most interesting part of “Born to Run”. The primer on the world of ultra marathons was merely a necessary backdrop for the true crux of the book. McDougall takes us on a wild ride to a place most of us have never heard of to meet a motley collection of colorful eccentrics. To tell his story he introduces us to a middle-aged lanky bald runner who Hollywood could never have made up: Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, also known as Micah True.

And that was just chapter one.

“Born to Run” brilliantly weaves together the true story of how the enigmatic Caballo Blanco, an American who re-located to be able to live and run in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, created one of the great running races you never heard of. The book deftly tells the story that brought together the Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous people who use running for transportation, recreation and sport and a disparate group of American runners, including a professional with product endorsements, some relative unknown college students, personal trainers, the author and someone who actually defies categorization, Barefoot Ted.

Along the way, McDougall introduces readers to an assortment of physical therapists, athletic trainers, renowned running coaches, a Harvard evolutionary biologist and a New Zealand professor all of whom have devoted themselves to the study and art of running.

The story follows McDougall’s quest to finally resolve his own struggles with recurrent running injuries and his attempt to train and run a 50 mile race through the Copper Canyons. But the book is not an ego trip for McDougall, as many books written by runners turn out to be. In fact, McDougall’s running plays a minor role since he shines the light on those who have mastered the art. He brings us as close as he can to Micah True. He introduces us to the world of the Tarahumara which leaves you kind of flabbergasted that this community lives about 270 miles south of El Paso, TX and is not a lost tribe in the middle of the Amazon.

Tarahumara men running. credit:https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/skeleton

Much of what makes “Born to Run” inspirational is the author’s uncovering of how running is innate to humans and the role it has played in our development as a species. And for that he cites Daniel Lieberman a Harvard professor who studies human anatomy with a focus on anatomical features unique to humans that allow us to run distances longer than any other species. He tells the story of David Carrier, now a professor of Biology who with his brother tried to prove the ‘Running Man’ theory by attempting to run down an antelope to exhaustion over the course of several days. We are also introduced to a South African mathematician who became so obsessed with the idea of humans as persistence hunters that he left college to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari to learn exactly how they used running as their primary hunting tool. 

As McDougall discovers that the Tarahumara, the Bushmen and even Barefoot Ted can run just fine in flat sandals or, in Ted’s case, bare feet he questions the need for our modern over engineered running shoes and the multi national industry behind them. McDougall proceeds to take down modern running shoes and in the process the industry leader Nike. He draws support for the idea from physical therapist Irene S. Davis who’s treatment for injured runners evolved to recommend that they strengthen their feet, not their shoes. Cushioned over built shoes have existed only since the 1970s when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman brought the world cushioned Nike running shoes. Nike provided their shoes to competitive runners than marketed them to a growing number of recreational runners as the jogging boom began to ramp up.

The story concludes with an epic ultra marathon pitting modern running technique and technology against an ancient one as Caballo Blanco managed with difficulty to bring together some of the best ultra marathoners in the United States to race against the best of the Tarahumara runners over 50 miles in the Copper Canyon.

“Born to Run” has not only inspired people to run and still ranks among the best selling running books but the book likely had an influence on the running world. Barefoot running had a moment after the publication of the book with introduction of stripped down shoes which tried to mimic the unstructured sandals worn by the Tarahumara. I saw a young man trail running in New Jersey with a home made version of the ‘hurrache’ sandals the indigenous runners would make themselves and I saw a woman hiking steep terrain in the Catskills barefooted. Even today running races of various lengths and terrain will often have at least a couple of barefoot runners.

Corporate money capitalized on the barefoot running phenomenon too. Vibram, an Italian leading manufacturer of rubber soles for shoes and boots, launched the Vibram Five Fingers, a ‘shoe’ that looks like a glove but for the foot with shaped toes. The rubber bottom provides some protection for the sole of the foot. Vibram was sued for allegedly making some claims that running in Vibram Five Finger shoes “reduces running injuries” based on how the shoes changed a person’s gait. Vibram settled the lawsuit putting aside up to $3.75 million but denied fault and liability. The shoes are still sold. And as for Nike, “Born to Run” did not hurt the world’s leading shoe brand. Nike has gone from selling shoes that give you more support to their now famous very engineered Vaporfly that give you even more cushioning plus a carbon fiber plate to propel runners faster.

While mass enthusiasm for barefoot running has waned, the notion that our feet are stronger than we realize lives on. Physical therapist Irene S. Davis who was at the University of Delaware at the time of the book and now heads Harvard’s Spaulding National Running Center encourages patients to strengthen the muscles in their feet through a series of exercises and not to rely on over built shoes. Daniel E. Lieberman, at the time of publication already an established professor at Harvard and author of the idea that humans are anatomically adapted for long distance running, began studying the running biomechanics of the Tarahumara in 2012 adding to his research on natural barefoot runners in Kenya and attempt to fully understand just what our feet are capable of.

Some of the runners featured in the book went on to further success. Jenn Shelton who was in the early days of running ultras at the time “Born to Run” was written  went on to compete around the world and win various marathons. She now is a running coach. Scott Jurek was already one of the most winning ultra marathoners at the time he was featured in “Born to Run”. He went on to set a fastest known time running the 2, 190 mile length of the Appalachian Trail and for running 167.5 miles in 24 hours. Jurek’s bio on his web site proudly proclaims in large font Born to Run.

Other runners featured in the book openly promote their association with this juggernaut of a running book more than 10 years after publication. Eric Orton, the author’s running coach during the build up to the first ever Copper Canyon ultra and an author himself advertises on his coaching web site that he was “a featured character in the worldwide best selling book Born to Run”.  Barefoot Ted mentions his “Born to Run” bonafides in the first line of his web site and he mentions his appearance in the book multiple times. He also sells his own line of minimalist running sandals and leads running trips and races in the Copper Canyon. For that matter, Christopher McDougall’s web site also mentions “Born to Run” in the first line above the titles of his more recent books. But he is the author after all.

And the Tarahumara continue to live and run in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, with their health and safety challenged by environmental threats and the risk of violence from drug cartels. The first ultra marathon organized with great effort by Micah True featured in “Born to Run” continues as an annual event, drawing runners from around the world. And as for the Caballo Blanco, several years after publication of the book he collapsed while running in his beloved mountains where his body was recovered. His spirit runs on.

Howard E. Friedman

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Wet Foot, Cold Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot

This morning was a crisp autumn one, cool, azure sky with feathery brush strokes of cumulus clouds scattered about. No precipitation I thought, until I ran through ankle high grass and weeds. My feet became saturated since I do not wear water proof shoes and the thin dewy moisture on the grass blades and small clover petals soaked right through my fabric shoes, penetrated my mostly polyester socks and sent a distracting cold and wet sensation directly from my toes to my brain.

Water proof shoes are heavily advertised as a must have feature. Gore-tex lined shoes whether for running or hiking are de rigueur, it seems. But I have persisted in buying only non water proof foot wear, with the exception of winter boots. One way or another, your feet will be getting wet. Wear water proof shoes and your feet will perspire yet the shoes will not release all of the moisture. Wear non water proof shoes and your feet will absorb moisture from the dew or rain on the ground or when you land in a puddle or tip toe through a stream.

But at least in my case, I know that eventually my feet will dry, since moisture can evaporate out of my unlined shoes, especially as they are warmed by my hyperthermic feet. In a gore tex lined shoe, moisture is trapped inside your shoe and can not evaporate until you take them off and let them air dry. Your feet are cocooned in a most un-natural layer of impermeable fabric.

I accept that feet will get wet on the trail or off road, and even cool of chilly.  I am not running or hiking on a sidewalk and thus, having some of nature encroach upon my feet is a small price to pay for keeping my feet, and me, more in touch with the ground they tread upon. Of course, if I really wanted to be in close contact with the ground, I would run or hike barefoot, as some intrepid people do. But I am not motivated to that level. Yet I do feel that my rationale, which I adapted after reading the thoughts of ultra long distance hiker Andrew Skurka, a number of years ago, have served me well. I enjoy the unexpected cold burst of wet feet that surprises me from time to time in the same way I am pleasantly surprised by a chance encounter with an unexpected sighting of an eastern bluebird or scarlet tanager or northern oriole, or deer or chipmunk, or very rarely, a bear. The exposure to what nature offers, when dosed in safe and rational measures, is part of the experience of being out doors. And as part of being rational, for example, I do not endorse going coat less in a dousing rain or hat less in a blistering sun, actions which would just be foolish and unsafe.

But wet feet once in a while can actually enhance the day outdoors, connect you to the trail or path you have chosen to follow and help create an all encompassing trail experience.

Scott’s shoes for the Appalachian Trail Record 2015

Scott Jurek shows his feet after 2,180 miles on the AT (from Scott Jurek's Facebook page)

Scott Jurek shows his feet and re-fuels after 2,180 miles on the AT (from Scott Jurek’s Facebook page)

What do you wear on your feet if you plan to run and hike more than 45 miles a day, seven days a week for more than six weeks, on hard packed dirt and rock covered trails, running over tree roots, through the water, pounding stone and sharp rocks, slogging through mud and either running up or down steep terrain and even mountains for much of the time?

Last week, ultra long distance runner Scott Jurek set a new record for the fastest time to complete the entire 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail. Jurek ran and power hiked the trail in 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes, breaking the previous record by 3 hours. For some perspective, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy which oversees the trail suggests people allow 5-7 months to complete the entire trail. Jurek took just six weeks and four days.  But the Trail Conservancy estimate allows time for resupplying food along the way from towns near the trail as well as the slower pace of a backpacker carrying all his or her own gear. Jurek, on the other hand, ran the trail “supported”, meaning he did not carry his clothes or a tent and his food and a place to rest or sleep were prepared by his support crew, which for most of the effort, was his wife, Jenny.

Jurek closing in on Mt. Katahdin, a terminus of the AT, wearing Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes (from his FB page)

Jurek closing in on Mt. Katahdin, a terminus of the AT, wearing Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes (from his FB page)

Nonetheless, covering that distance in that amount of time still required Scott Jurek to run or hike on average close to 47 miles a day, day after day, seven days a week. So what did he wear on his feet?

I put that question to Brooks Shoes‘ Derek Lactaoen. Brooks, based in Seattle, WA is a long time sponsor of Scott Jurek’s long distance trail efforts. On this AT effort Scott went through 8 pairs of shoes, Mr. Lactaoen reported, which averages out to 272 miles per pair of shoes, if he switched them at regular intervals, which no one was really tracking. At that calculated average, Jurek did follow Brooks’ estimation that its trail shoes will last between 250-300 miles.

And what shoes did he wear? For a record breaking run of the AT, you would need real grit.

Brooks Pure Grit 4 trail shoes

Brooks Pure Grit 4 trail shoes

And, of Scott’s eight pair of shoes, seven pairs were from Brooks’ Pure Grit shoe line, three pairs of Pure Grit 3 and four pairs of Pure Grit 4. The eighth pair were Cascadia 10 shoes. No information was available about why he selected these models, but at this point after running so many of his ultra marathon races as a Brooks athlete, the fact that he used primarily the Pure Grit shoes says something about what he is most comfortable in. The Pure Grit 3 shoes are low weight, about 10 ounces, and have a relatively low heel drop, about 7 mm, according to Runners’ World. And, according to Brooks, Jurek had no significant foot problems on his run with the exception of some blisters. He did have to deal with an injured quadriceps and a sore knee, injuries that have been well reported.

Brooks Pure Grit 3 trail shoes

Brooks Pure Grit 3 trail shoes

So, what can an average runner or hiker learn from the selection of shoes Scott Jurek chose to wear for his 2,180 run and hike of the Appalachian Trail? The take home message probably is that when it comes to shoes, stick with a brand and model that are comfortable and work for you, and if you can afford to change shoes as they wear out, definitely do so.

Oh, and it’s okay if your are running in last year’s model. Scott did.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Another New Trail Shoe Trend

(originally appeared in Trail Walker, quarterly publication of the NY/NJ Trail Conference Spring 2015)

Extra thick soled hiking and trail running shoes are being promoted this Spring and hikers will even see extra thick hiking boots heavily advertised soon, as well. Some of these shoes, referred to as “maximalist” shoes, have soles that are more than three times as thick as even standard hiking and trail running shoes. While ‘maximalist’ shoes have been around for a few years, they were mostly a niche product available from the manufacturers on line or in independent outdoor gear stores. Now, national and regional retailers like REI and Campmor are even selling this unique type of shoes.

The maximalist trail shoes stand out primarily for one feature – mid-sole material almost 1.25 inches thick, often made of a proprietary mix of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) foam blended with rubber to create increased cushioning.

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

, like the famous Western States 100 mile race  (Karl Meltzer) and posting speed records on the Pacific Crest Trail (Heather “Anish Anderson”) and John Muir Trails (Liz Thomas).

Hikers, backpackers and ultra-marathoners have embraced these re-designed shoes for three reasons. First, the generous cushioning through the mid-sole layer of the shoes provides shock absorption whether running or hiking on the trail or on the road. Second, the shoes have either minimal “drop”, (the height difference between the heel and the forefoot), or, no ‘drop’ at all. Proponents of shoes with minimal or zero “drop” claim that they promote a natural gait with a less forceful impact and allow for a more efficient functioning of the achilles tendon. Third, the maximalist shoes, which now include mainstream brands such as Vasque, Brooks and Skechers, in addition to the two most popular brands, Hoka One One and Altra, generally have a wider and more anatomically shaped toe box. Altras have zero drop while Hoka Ones have a minimal drop.

A few years ago when shoe manufacturers promoted “barefoot” running and trail shoes, like Vibram Five Fingers, they cited research and quoted biomechanics experts supporting the shoes’ benefits. And, they maintained that their shoes hearkened back to our ancient hominid roots as barefoot walkers. Now, very few ‘maximalist’ companies are citing any research backing their claims and the thick soled shoes in no way mimic human ancient foot wear or ambulation. Yet, the shoes are catching on with elite and recreational trail runners and hikers. And some weekend hikers claim that these cushioned, low drop shoes with a lot of room for their toes, helped resolve nagging problems like heel pain and shin splints. One note of caution, thogh.  Theelevated  platform design of these shoes may prove unstable to anyone prone to ankle sprains. And, if you are getting good results with your current hiking shoes, than, no need to switch.

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On the Trail: Boots on the ground

"Wild" from Fox Searchlight Pictures, featuring Reese Witherspoon, and Danner boots,

“Wild” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, featuring Reese Witherspoon, and Danner boots,

The movie “Wild” is coming to a theater near you, the screen adaptation of the eponymous book about Cheryl ‘Strayed’, a newbie hiker who set off and thru-hiked the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail on a journey of self discovery and emotional healing.

When you see a trailer for the movie, you will see Cheryl’s boots, the camera pointing straight down toward her heavy backpacking boots. Big, solid leather boots with prominent red laces and metal lacing hooks. For the movie at least, the actress Reese Witherspoon wore Danner boots, made by the long-time boot manufacturer in Portland, OR. I know this because I ordered a pair of Danner Station boots which I wear to work and therefore I am on their email list. They proudly sent me an email newsletter with a short film about the making of Reese’s boots, including footage of the Danner manufacturing plant and interviews with the employees, craftsmen, really, who assemble this old-fashioned bespoke footwear. (See Danner’s well done promo about their Mountain Light Cascade boot worn in the movie here).

Danner;s Mountain Light Cascade

Danner’s Mountain Light Cascade

Over the past several years, hikers, backpackers, runners and anyone who takes more than a passing interest in walking or running, shoe wear and design knows that the trend toward lighter weight foot wear has taken over much of the industry, at least for the shoe cognoscenti. Hikers are routinely thru-hiking the country’s longest trails, the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails, in running shoes or low cut hiking shoes.  And the reasons are simple. Researchers have established incontrovertibly that every 100 gram decrease in shoe weight results in about 1% less oxygen consumption required during activity. Basically, lighter weight shoes are simply easier to wear over long distances.

But, is there a hidden cost to our light weight foot wear?

Cam Honan who Backpacker magazine says “trekked 50,000 miles” on foot is reported in the March 2014 issue to have worn through 28 pairs of shoes on a 15,000 mile hike of all of the longest trails in the US including the AT, PCT and CDT. He switched out shoes on average every 535 miles. His experience is not unique. Long distance hikers often literally wear out multiple pairs of shoes. Old shoes, if we are conservation minded, get donated to a charity, if they are in any kind of wearable condition. Otherwise, they get added to the growing pile of the world’s refuse heaps.

So while boots like Danner’s Mountain Light boots are very heavy (probably approaching 2 pounds each), they are resoleable, what Danner calls “recraftable”. Perhaps Cam Honan could have covered 15,000 miles in two boots, the one he was wearing and the one that was being resoled. Who knows? But as we embrace lighter weight footwear, we should think about the issue of durability and having to throw more junk into our landfills.

The hiking and trail running shoe manufacturers should start to take a cue from rock climbing shoes, which take a beating, getting scraped and brushed against all manner of hard rock surfaces, yet, can be resoled and more than once. I have been wearing a pair of Five Ten Guide Tennies for a number of years and have had them resoled. Why can’t hiking shoes be light weight and resoleable?

I challenge hiking and trail running shoe manufacturers to design technical footwear that is both lightweight and ‘recraftable’. That way we can be both good to our feet and good to the planet.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: An Ode to Old Shoes

Fare thee well, old running and hiking shoes,

companion for oh, about 15 moons.

Time has run out on thee, though I am fond of you,

like the day I first spied thee in thine box.

 

Do not be angry upon me my Italian Wildcats

You have served me well, o’er hill and dale

La Sportiva Wildcat

La Sportiva Wildcat

and along the Escarpment Trail.

And through puddles and snow, and in day and in night.

 

But you show your wear, though thee be but one year and some months old.

Your midsole is full of lines, creases, that cannot be ignored.

It is beaten down, and you feel hard beneath my soft feet.

Though, to be kind,  overall you still look so youthful.

 

But oh thy tread, thy tread, it is too worn, flattened smooth in areas

And gives me great fear on slick wet rock or damp tree roots

lest I go glissading, skittering into the air,

only to land and break a vital bone or tear a sinew.

 

We have indeed had joyous times,

running here, walking there

or sitting in quiet contemplation. But time moves on

And moreover, my fickle self also seeks a lighter model with a lower heel.

 

Lest you think me cruel, I will not totally abandon you.

Nay, I shall not drop you in the Salvation Army donation box

Or, send you to Soles 4 Souls, though that be wise and kind and useful

No, I will keep you in my closet, to don once a fortnight or so to run an errant errand.

(Until such time as I will decide to donate you at last.)

 

And no Wildcats, I will not make you meet your heir to my feet.

La Sportiva Helios

La Sportiva Helios

But know they too hail from your same Italian villa, and, probably are a close cousin,

But a full year younger, and lighter, and, oh, their tread, it is just fine.

No, Wildcats, you need not meet Helios now.

 

Rather, you will meet them in the closet, in, oh, about a year or so.

 

 

H.F.

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On the trail: the fast keep getting faster

Much has been written recently about the widening income disparity in the United States. The rich continue to get richer while the poor stay poor and the income of the middle class slowly erodes.

This phenomenon is not limited to the economy alone. The fast get faster, too, while the slow, well, let’s just say they don’t get too much faster.

AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles, from http://espn.go.com/sports/endurance/index

AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles, from http://espn.go.com/sports/endurance/index

This past week in the 2014 Berlin Marathon, Kenyan Dennis Kimetto set a new world record for the 26.2 mile road race, completing the run in less than two hours and three minutes, beating the previous record by over 20 seconds, which is a significant improvement. Even the second place winner, Emmanuel Muthai, also broke the previous world record. Both runners are still a long way from crashing through the psychological and likely physical barrier of running a sub-two-hour marathon, though.

Kimetto, Muthai and the two top female finishers all had one thing in common. They wore the same type of shoes, the adidas Boost series “made up of thousands of energy capsules that store and return energy in every step”. I would be interested in running in these shoes to experience the sensation addidas promises.

adidas Adizero Boost

adidas Adizero Boost

I was initially excited about Mr. Kimetto’s finish, foolishly thinking somehow that it augured well for me personally, raising the bar of the possible, dangling a new aspiration. I am similarly excited to read about lightening fast speed records set hiking the entire Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails. Maybe I should buy the same shoes those record setters wore. Or, eat the same pre race meal.

But I have no illusion that Kimetto’s shoes will make me run appreciably faster, just as I have no illusion that driving the “luxury sedan” I see advertised on TV or wearing the very expensive watch mountaineer Ed Viesturs wore on Mt. Everest will appreciably enhance my life.

Most likely, or, shall I say, most definitely, mimicry of the elite is just mimicry, and will not result in significant change. So each year the Kenyans get faster while the middle of the pack runners continue to own the middle. And, the five-plus hour marathon finishers, well, they are happy just to finish.

One reason we humans focus on time and speed is because the discrete numbers are easy to measure and easy to understand.  But we should appreciate that, for the non-elite among us, watching those elite athletes push themselves to run and hike faster and faster, breaking record after record, is really, just entertainment. What happened in Berlin last week says lots about Dennis Kimetto and Emmanuel Muthai as runners, their training regimens and their ability to endure pain, and yes, perhaps something about their lung and heart capacities too. Their accomplishments do reveal something about the potential of the most fit members of our species. But, the new world marathon record, most regrettably, says practically nothing about me as an individual.

But hey, that’s entertainment.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Really Smart Socks

published in Trail Walker Spring 2014, official publication of New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, nynjtc.org

By Howard E. Friedman DPM  Image

High tech companies keep trying to push their products onto the trail either in your backpack or on your wrist. Mapping apps for smart phones and ipads. Solar powered recharging stations so you can recharge your ipad and smart phone. But many hikers, backpackers and trail runners continue to eschew the idea of letting technology get between them and the trail. But this spring the newest high tech product for hikers will actually come between you and the trail – as long as you are wearing socks. Really smart socks.

 This spring a new high-tech sock will be available to runners and hikers that will record and project an image of exactly how your feet are striking the ground. Are you a heel striker, forefoot striker or mid-foot striker? Do you put all your pressure under your great toe but no pressure under your smallest toe? Understanding how the foot strikes the ground can be an important distinction especially for runners since many researchers suggest that mid-foot and forefoot strikers are less prone to injuries than heel strikers. (Walkers and hikers are normally heel strikers). The socks can also detect if the wearer’s gait has changed during a hike or run.

ImageCalled Sensoria, these socks will also record distance traveled, cadence (number of foot strikes per minute), number of steps taken, calories burned, as well as other metrics. A number of existing products can also tell you similar information, such as the Nike+Sportswatch. But no other device on the market geared for the athletic consumer can generate data and images of the pressure generated under your feet.

The Sensoria sock made of a washable, synthetic wicking fabric will be available this spring from Heapsylon LLC, a  Redmond, WA based technology company, Ceo Davide Vigiano said in a telephone interview. The company also manufactures a shirt and sports bra that use a sensor to record heart rate.

The sock incorporates three sensors, one each under the heel, near the big toe and near the small toe, which are less than 1 mm thick. To activate the sensors, the hiker or runner attaches an anklet to the sock via snaps. The  battery powered anklet contains an accelerometer and other technology which allow it to capture data from the sensors in the sock. The user can then see the data as it is being collected on his or her smart  phone or even Google glasses, with pressure reflected as either green, the lowest reading, or yellow or red, a high reading. Or the user could download the data from the anklet via Blue Tooth technology  or using a USB connection, after the hike to see a video strip of their foot strike history and other data, like distance traveled. Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman Ph.D, who has authored many studies on barefoot running and is the author of The Story of the Human Body (2013 Pantheon) is collaborating on the mobile application, according to Mr. Vigiano. The sock sensors do not have a GPS but can be paired with existing GPS units, Vigiano said.

Image

These smart socks are ideal for trail or road runners who not only want to know how far and fast they have traveled but also want to modify their gait, be notified if they have started suddenly pronating or supinating and want to try and minimize injury. Moreover, the sock could give a before and after look at exactly how an arch support or foot orthotic changes the pressure under the foot.

Howard E. Friedman

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 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)