Necessary | Unnecessary

Mark Twain said, “Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.”

Shoe companies and health care providers have traditionally put forth that various levels of biomechanical shortcomings are the root cause of our locomotive problems. We are inherently flawed, the argument goes, and our only salvation is cleverly designed footwear.

It’s no surprise then that the Brooks shoe company president, Jim Weber says, “We strongly believe most of our mileage should be logged in a performance running shoe, not barefoot.” He goes on, “Supportive, cushioned footwear is not only beneficial, it also plays an essential role in delivering a comfortable, injury-free running experience.” That perspective is not without precedent. Since the 1930s, corrective shoes have been designed and marketed as tools necessary for proper function. But based on what evidence?

Original Sin

Again, that we are inherently flawed is the presupposition, and indeed, physician R. Plato Schwartz plainly stated that humans need a heel under their shoe to throw their weight forward, step by step. Schwartz, an unseemly looking gent, had eked out a niche for himself as an insurance company bloodhound sniffing out fake limps from genuine, injury-caused disabilities before he’d give himself fully to gait research. Later, he would claim that the horrors of flat feet could be mitigated with specialized heel-counters that prevent errant movement of the heel bone beneath the shin (pronation).

That Schwartz’s research and gait laboratory were directly funded by the Armstrong shoe company seemed to have escaped scrutiny by American physicians. Even his far-reaching claims that his Balance In Motion shoes…

“when properly fitted, would correct flat feet, obliterate bunions, and callouses, alleviate sacroiliac pain, and…cure mental derangements by removing strains from the muscles and tendons of locomotion”

…weren’t sufficient to arch an eyebrow. Rather, it was Schwartz’s application of his methods to race horse performance that finally raised the ire of the medical community.

But, what are shoes, really?

Fashion or Function

Historically, shoes and especially shoes with heels have served several functions, but few (save for, say, protective motorcycle boots) were functional, per se. Ancient Egyptian royalty was depicted in murals wearing heels while commoners were relegated to the lowly stature of bare feet. On the theater stage, heels and platforms were employed to distinguish rank and social status. In Venice, Italy, platform shoes known as chopines — from 18 to even 30 inches! — were worn by those who could afford such finery, and with the concomitant expense of hiring assistants to help them ambulate through street refuse and debris. Eventually, horseback riders found that a heel on their boots was useful for securing their feet in stirrups. The term well-heeled, by the way, derives from the association of the riding wear and the wealthy equestrians who wore them. However, in human locomotion and stance heels are necessarily problematic.

Consider the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This columnar structure tilted slightly at its base leaves its crown hanging precariously farther afield. We’re similar, except our joints allow adjustment which provides a more visually vertical posture, but not without severely compromising our musculoskeletal alignment, our interface with the ground itself, and our very manner of movement, all so carefully arranged over eons by Mother Nature. I’d like to add that physician Victor Barker, in his book Posture Makes Perfect, describes any heel under a shoe as a “retrograde step…back towards the four-legged posture.” Such a pervasive artifice undermines some millions of years of human evolution, and precipitates modern infirmity.

As a fashion accessory, shoes have their place, and I appreciate a stylish pair of pumps on a shapely set of legs as much as the next guy. But outside aesthetics, heels are just bad medicine.

Spit Out the Kool-Aid

Now, incredibly, the problem of gait and shoe research is exacerbated by the presupposition, which is the assumption — and you know what happens when we assume things, right? — that the shod condition is somehow the baseline, the norm. Naturally, this skews all subsequent results. Conclusions are built on faulty premises. Of course, within that context, trying to talk sense to those invested in the medical / shoe-industry complex is akin to admonishing the ills of alcohol abuse to revelers at college fraternity bacchanalia. The intoxicated, you know, know no reason. Now, on the sober side there are podiatrists, MDs, and researchers who recognize some irrefutable facts.

  • Michael Warburton, an Australian physiotherapist, says that…

“Running related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare in developing countries where most of the people are…barefooted.”

  • Canadian researchers, Robbins and Hanna say…

“Where barefoot and shod populations exist, as in Haiti, injury rates of the lower extremity are substantially higher in the shoe wearing population.”

  • Lynn Staheli, MD, renowned pediatric orthopedist also says…

“If you look at a place like China, and you compare the feet of those who don’t wear shoes with those who do you find that the non-shoe-wearers have better flexibility and mobility. Their feet are stronger, they have fewer deformities, and less complaints than the shoe-wearing population.”

  • And, further, the late podiatrist and author, William Rossi (who grew up in Boston, living above his parents’ shoe store) points out that…

“From infancy on, most of the hundreds of millions of shoeless people of the world habitually stand and walk, not on soft, yielding turf (a persistent myth among the medical practitioners) but mostly on unyielding ground surfaces. Most shoeless children are raised in such environments in cities like Bombay, Manila, Mexico City, Calcutta, Jakarta, Bogota, etc., where the streets are either cobble-stoned or paved or hard packed turf. Those uncovered, unsupported feet grow with strong, normal arches.”

Rossi continues…

“A century ago, the rickshaw, which originated in Japan, was the common means of transportation in many Asian cities. In 1910, some 18,000 rickshaws and 27,000 rickshaw men were registered in Shanghai alone. The rickshaw men, most of whom began their occupations in their late teens, averaged 20 to 25 miles daily, trotting barefoot, mostly on cobbled or paved streets and roads. Many stayed at this occupation for 40 or 50 years. The feet and arches of almost all were healthy and exceptionally strong.”

Consider too that researcher Adam Daoud of Harvard University references the 2004 work of Harvard professor, Dan Lieberman and University of Utah professor, Dennis Bramble, when he says emphatically that…

“Evolutionary pressure selected for endurance running ability for around 2 million years before the development of the modern running shoe, [and, that] one would then predict barefoot running to be both efficient and safe.”

What About Injury?

Over the last 40 or 50 years, as recreational running has enjoyed immense popularity in America, foot and leg ailments have become increasingly prevalent. Despite the claimed advances in running shoe technology, rehabilitation techniques, and training methods, there is still no real consensus on the actual cause of these injuries, and thus there has been no real remedy offered in the mainstream. There is, however, the business model that favors treating the symptom to finding a cure because the revenue stream stops right there, with the cure. But, no such tacit collusion could possibly exist within the medical / shoe-industry complex, could it? What is certain, though, is that about half of all runners will be injured by their sport this year, next year, the year after, and it will continue like that indefinitely. This necessarily indicates that the running shoe, and any other external fix, has proven to be — based on evidence — an overall, abject failure. Instead of solving problems, our trusted shoes may be their cause.

The running shoe has been shown to materially alter sensory perception, making it more difficult to respond in correct context to variations in surface firmness. Moreover, cushioning makes it near impossible to sense the additional impact transient of a heel strike (see From the Lab, just ahead), which tends to accompany shod running, but is normally absent in barefoot running. You don’t feel it, but the shock is still there! Compounding this, because shoes insulate and “support” the foot, they weaken it in the same way that helping a struggling chick break free, rather than pecking its own way out of its shell deprives it of initial, natural strengthening.

I know some might bristle at such a conclusion in large part because it’s unlikely many of us know a world without shoes. Most of us were forced into shoes before we were walking! So, such knee-jerk defensiveness of convention can be expected. The tenacious grip of belief can be hard to shake even in the face of irrefutable fact. It’s noteworthy that in research seeking the cause or causes of injury, running technique usually takes a back seat. That’s because running, unlike other sports, is considered to be a natural activity. It’s argued humans already know how to run, which is true. Or was true, anyway.

As children, before we know anything, most of us experience our three dimensional world viscerally. From this most primal level, we begin running with a technique as fluid and efficient as that of any wild beast. Prescriptions of society — restrictive shoes, and fearful or irritated early parental admonitions, “Stop! Don’t run into the street.” — negatively affect gait, and create a cognitive dissonance that can be recognized in the body language of most runners. It’s a curious angle bracket shape: the upper body leans forward, toward its destination; the landing leg digs in its heel against it. This heel-strike, common to about three-quarters of the running population is a startling example of the conscious mind saying, “Go!” and the subconscious mind saying, “No!” Every step slams on the brakes. This running style is a gestalt that reveals just how far we’ve veered from our natural alignment with those physical forces that originally modeled our form to suit our function. Understand that running speed is irrelevant in this equation, and that endemic injury is the smoking gun. That leads right to running technique, because it’s only through egregious misuse that we could so consistently be injuring the most resilient structures of our bodies, our feet and legs.

I address this in lectures and in other, more running-specific writings, but let me just offer a quick aside. There could hardly be a greater voluntary insult to the body (the lungs especially) than smoking cigarettes. Anyone who can recall their first smoke probably remembers the physical effect: quite a bit of coughing, burning, watery eyes, and probably dizziness and nausea, too. That smoking provokes physiological responses akin to poisoning, or allergic reactions, would clearly seem to demonstrate that inhaling cigarette smoke, which contains carbon monoxide, among other toxins, presents a clear and present danger to the physical health of the human organism. Yet, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center determined that the likelihood of getting lung cancer from smoking, which is said to kill about 130,000 people each year, can be accurately predicted by age, sex, and smoking history. For instance, they say…

“A 68 year-old man who smoked two packs a day for the past 50 years and continued to smoke had a 15% (less than 1 out of 7) chance of developing the disease in…the next ten years.”

That 15 percent is at the high end of the scale. Compare that with the certainty that this year about half of all runners will be injured by their sport — running! — which is as natural to human beings as breathing fresh air. The issue here is not the severity of the ailments, say, lung cancer versus shin splints, but their respective prevalence.

How could the odds possibly favor smoking forty cigarettes a day (more than two per waking hour) every day, for half a century? Let me say again: Only through egregious misuse are we able to so consistently injure the most resilient structures of our bodies!

Because the running shoe materially alters natural gait and simultaneously robs us of the feedback necessary to correct and adjust our faulty stride, this protective, supportive device creates and becomes itself a threatening environment. Sadly, with cushioned shoes, we don’t even get the red flag that first drag on a cigarette provides.

What’s the Fix?

In our consumerist society, according to the author of the best-selling book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall says, “We’re told to just buy something, instead of to just learn something.” Then, after purchased pain killers, hi- tech shoes, and orthotics fail, we still seek other passive remedies, dismissing learning how to run differently as too much bother. Lack of consensus confounds the issue. McDougall, in his book, queries Irene Davis, MD, head of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware, “So, what’s the right way to run?” She replies, “That’s the eternal question.” And, it gets worse. “There is no correct running form — and you can’t learn it. Form is God- given…If you systematize it, you destroy it,” says Olympian, Kip Keino in Roy Wallack’s book, Run For Life.

I say, however, that there must be one correct running form because Nature is parsimonious. Her process painstakingly fashions function and filters out the faulty. Correct running form is defined by that technique that allows each of us, with our functionally identical musculoskeletal systems to run in harmony with Nature. That means to run comfortably within the framework of the same physics (including gravity and ground reaction) that determined our morphology and physiology, and to do so without shims, splints, or crutches. If you cannot run barefooted with a particular running style — heel striking, paw back, foot drag, what-have-you — then that style is necessarily invalid. By the way, McDougall learned how to run barefooted, and in so doing he cured an injury that stymied two MDs, and a marathon-running podiatrist. Barefoot is potent medicine! Well, more accurately, let’s just say that running barefoot removes a primary cause of injury.

While running form itself is a whole ‘nuther discussion, and beyond the scope of this book, I’d like to describe how running really works. As a Pose Method running coach I consider running in a novel way, but one that’s as natural to humans as are the undulations of flying to sparrows, and swimming to elephant seals. That means, regardless of medium, on this planet, horizontal locomotion requires us to hitch a ride with gravity. In running it’s like this:

  • Under influence of gravity, from the moment our (fore) foot touches the ground until mid-stance, aka the running pose, our bodies hinge from that support on the ground. As they do this our natural biomechanical spring — that musculoskeletal system so carefully arranged through eons of evolutionary processes, and which includes the arch of the foot, the ankle, knee, and hip joints, and all their elastic tissues — is being compressed, not unlike a pogo stick. From mid-stance, this spring quickly recoils and pushes us up to where we can again give ourselves to gravity.
  • Following this rebound, as our stride continues, the hip, knee, and ankle extend farther, but not to push us forward. This extension serves only to keep the foot in contact with the ground so the body can fall through a longer arc, pivoting about its support like a tree felled in the forest. This increases the horizontal displacement of the center of mass. Beyond a certain point foot traction begins giving way to slippage.
  • All this occurs in under a quarter second and between -6 and 22.5 degrees from the vertical, depending on speed. In faster runners it happens more quickly, there is less knee flexion, and vertical oscillation is reduced.
  • The last step is to change support. That is, to lift or pull the foot from the ground. The center of mass — meaning the body — then begins free falling more downward than forward into the next stride.

I’d like to mention that an erroneous concept in running — the push-off — endures perhaps because of a visual illusion. An extended lower limb appearing to powerfully drive an archetypal running stride reinforces the impression of strong muscular effort in fast running. Yet, for the push-off to work as described the posterior ground reaction force (PGRF) would have to be greater than bodyweight to provide acceleration. This, according to Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. But, it isn’t. PGRF is always below bodyweight, and thus insufficient. it cannot drive the runner forward. Push off is an illusion.

What’s more, ground reaction forces are the same between faster and slower runners at the same lean angles, meaning faster runners are not pushing themselves any harder. You see, both speed and PGRF increase with lean angle because of angular velocity (of the body rotating about its contact with the ground). Posterior ground reaction, instead of being the seat of propulsion assumed by conventional wisdom, since it remains below bodyweight, turns out to be merely supportive. Posterior ground reaction is a frictional force that allows a longer horizontal resultant vector. It’s vertical GRF that matters, as any push is upward.

So, running correctly and naturally is elegantly simple: just Pose, Fall, Pull. I advocate and teach this running technique because I’ve researched running thoroughly and recognize the Pose Method to be precisely the singular correct form that allows safe and efficient movement. While it’s not Romanov, but Nature, that devised proper running mechanics, Romanov’s system of Pose Method drills effectively distills and ingrains those mechanics, and all-important perception, so that runners can know consciously, by feel, when they are running correctly, and more importantly when they are not. While having such a blueprint dramatically shortens the learning curve, just by barefootin’ we tend to move closer to the natural ideal, anyway, each time we run. Our success becomes a matter of awareness, practice, and patience.

From the Lab

It’s also worth mentioning that because of my interest in running stride analysis, and because I’m one of the few Pose Method coaches in Los Angeles, my friend and colleague, Julie Guthrie, DPT — an elite athlete with whom I’ve worked on running and bike fit — had me demonstrate Pose running at her state-of-the-art facility, Synergie Physical Therapy, near LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). Among other data, we gathered force plate measurements that vividly reinforced salient points addressed by Pose Method, and barefoot running, perhaps clarifying otherwise turbid technique elements that fly over the heads of many who should know better.

The Vertical Ground Reaction graphs here are stylized versions of the force plate tests we conducted. In the top graph I ran across the sensor using a heel strike. The PT who was running the computer said, “Great! We got it.” I said, “No, we don’t. Not yet.” I ran again, this time with a natural foot fall. “Now we have it,” I said. The PT on the computer was astounded, and asked, “How’d you do that?” The point is, and this is significant, the impact transient — that initial spike on the top graph — is the injurious shock suffered by those runners who heel strike. It is absent in a natural foot fall. Cushioned shoes mitigate sensation, but not the damaging impact. Barefoot runners tend more toward a natural footfall because a naked heel strike hurts. Such feedback — pain — indicates something’s wrong. Pose runners are taught to avoid this by landing on their forefoot, beneath their center of mass (GCM).

In the Long Run

Whether or not you will choose to learn the Pose Method — and soon start running farther, and faster, with less chance of injury — my recommendation for now is that just by taking off your shoes and runnin’ nekkid you will immediately begin to reconnect with the natural function of your body. Injurious and inefficient heel-striking will soon give way to springy forefoot landings, a quicker cadence (foot turnover), and a much greater proprioceptive sense, which over time will allow you to run across a variety of terrain, lightly and comfortably, with or without shoes.

So, barefoot running is best learned during the preseason when fitness is a lesser concern. Unless you are already regularly barefooted the progression toward appreciable distance takes weeks for some, and months for others. Avoid rushing this! Should you be able to get through two miles on your first time out, prematurely exposing your tender feet to the harsh world, you could be rewarded with deep blood blisters, surface abrasions, and aching and burning sensations that can last for more than a week. That’s hardly encouraging. You might erroneously conclude that barefoot is not for you. Frequency, not duration, is your key to successfully adding barefoot to your training. Run a city block every day for a week. Then run two blocks for two weeks. Run three blocks for three weeks, and so on. Get the feel for barefoot and give your bones, muscles, and soles of your feet the months of time required to sufficiently develop and strengthen. Your body will adapt at its own pace.

By the way, Andrew Weil, MD, in his audio book Breathing: The Master Key To Self-Healing, describes one of his patients who, suffering terribly from stress and anxiety, was prescribed specific breathing exercise to elicit his desired calm and relaxation. Though it took several years of practice before the patient would realize the full internal peace he sought, he did eventually take charge of his own state of mind instead of continuing to give himself over to passive, anesthetic treatments. My point is, however long it takes, it’s worth your time and effort if you can learn to run without restrictive, numbing, and gait-altering shoes.

Choosing Your Path

Some consider running barefooted a fleeting fad, but I consider it a foundation of freedom. So, as you weigh the evidence on both sides of the argument, and perhaps apply Occam’s razor — the simplest solution is probably correct — you could very well determine for yourself that shoes are an unnecessary necessity. Or not.

I don’t really expect that you will throw away your shoes for good and now only run barefooted. Indeed, because of additional traction, protection from ground-surface heat, the occasional bottle-cap, or piece of broken glass, or the unknowns of nighttime running, a light, flat pair of shoes is probably a good idea. Nonetheless, the compelling reason for you to include unshod sessions in your training is that barefoot supports and generally strengthens your feet, and therefore your fitness, overall.

Short of admitting they got it wrong all along some major players in the shoe industry have hopped aboard the barefoot bandwagon with various iterations of minimalist footwear. For instance, New Balance has introduced their Minimus shoe, a flatter, wider toe-box offering designed to compete with the likes of Terra Plana, and Altra. Other options for minimalists include slipper-like, lycra foot-mittens from ZEMgear, the triathlon-transition-friendly Be Real mesh shoes (sort of an aqua sock / racing flat hybrid) and modern iterations of the time-tested Huarache sandal from Luna. These days, Xero makes a decent flat with a wider toe box.

For What It’s Worth

In October, 2010 a local Los Angeles runner, Patrick Sweeney, won the Manhattan Beach 10K, setting his personal best of 32:43 wearing Luna sandals. He reports winning other longer and shorter races running in Vibram Five Fingers, and barefooted. Apparently, since getting out of ordinary running shoes Sweeney stopped heel striking, which means his stride has improved right in step with his race times. While yesterday’s running shoe mythology is still likely to persist, today’s runners finally have choice. Naturally, when runnin’ nekkid, I prefer to go without shoes. But, when I do wear a foot covering I use the Vibram Five Fingers, “Classic,” the Vivo Barefoot, “Primus,” and Xero, “Prio.” As well, within dress shoes, or motorcycle boots, if I wear socks at all, they’re normally the Injinji Toesocks because traditional socks are too constrictive. Even within the confines of shoes, freeing the digits matters. So to sum it all up, instead of cultivating fragility and weakness by wearing medicating shoes, my aim is to celebrate the primal form, function, and resilience of what Leonardo da Vinci called a masterpiece of engineering — the human foot — by using it.

Please note: This lengthy post is a section from my first book, Fitness, Straight-Up, that’s about barefoot running. There, it’s “Runnin’ Nekkid.” Here, it’s “Streaking” because thus far my blog posts have single-word titles.