Saturday, June 11, 2011

barefoot running

most of you are aware of, or have been caught up in, the current surge in interest into running barefoot. some of you are doing it. some of you are thinking about it. some of you are curious as to what all the talk--and associated controversy--is about.

i'm not going to rehash the entire debate here, since i think there are more than enough sources to reference the various perspectives on the issue. here's a sample of on-line sources (of, i should note, varying degrees of agenda) that i think provide a useful summary of the topic:
there's one link, in particular, that i think people should reference which offers a much more analytical discussion of the topic, and which i think is much more informative about barefoot running in terms of how it affects the body and things to keep in mind in making the decision to do it.

it's from the Science of Sport, which is, as the name suggests, dedicated to sports science (and incidentally, highly recommended for all athletes), and provides discussion of sports topics from a scientific perspective. you should read their post regarding barefoot running:
my take on the matter is mixed. i recognize the benefits it brings to the body--in fact, i follow many other athletes in scheduling barefoot runs, under the coaching dicta that it helps strengthen the bones, connective tissue, and muscles of the feet, ankles, knees, and hips. and i agree with the arguments that eons ago human ancestors evolved into creatures adapted to persistence hunting (reference my comments on this: born to run), and that courtesy of evolution this means 1) we became suited to long-distance running (courtesy of our intelligence, we were able to outwit prey animals, and courtesy of perspiration, we were able to dissipate heat more efficiently and hence chase down prey animals); and 2) we became able to run over any terrain under any conditions independent of modern conveniences (including shoes).

i, however, have some issues that this evolutionary development means all people in the modern era should discard shoes. it's a leap in logic that overlooks complicating variables. eons ago, when humans did run barefoot, they 1) grew up running barefoot, and so allowed their bones, connective tissue, muscles, and skin to all develop the constitution to engage in barefoot running, 2) did not suffer an obesity epidemic, and 3) ran in an environment devoid of broken glass, nails, trash, asphalt, concrete, or chip seal. all of which pose problems to running barefoot.

i don't disagree with the scientific arguments as to the benefits of running barefoot. but i think it should be understood within the context of modern human lifestyles. some people grew up without physical activity, or are dangerously obese, and so need to exercise caution in taking up any kind of physical exercise (including running, barefoot or otherwise). some people are in environments where going outdoors barefoot is very likely to result in immediate injury (it's one thing to run barefoot on Rodeo Drive, where streets are immaculate; it's another thing to run barefoot in East Los Angeles, where it's questionable if streets are ever cleared at all).

my point is this: barefoot running is a personal decision driven by personal context. it depends on the person and the environment. and even then, it needs to be done under supervision of an expert to ensure that it is done properly, with the proper biomechanics and the proper transition period to allow the body to adapt.

does it work? sure. just like bilateral breathing in open-water swimming works. but it has to be introduced in a way that allows it to work.

do athletes do it? sure. and they've won running barefoot. Abebe Bikila became a legend when he won the men's marathon for Ethiopia at the 1960 Olympic running barefoot through the streets of Rome. Zola Budd, a women's distance runner for South Africa in the 1980s, was famous for competing barefoot. but both of them grew up running barefoot in environments conducive to running barefoot.

do i do it? sure. but i'm judicious in how i do it. barefoot runs are done on sand, grass, or dirt trails. i do NOT do it on Southern California streets full of glass shards, rocks, nails, needles, urine, feces, dead animals, and all other manner of seen and unseen health hazards (hey, i challenge you to run, without or without shoes, on some of the streets in this city...some of them should be closed off as downright dangerous to all forms of life, human or otherwise).

do i recommend it? dude, that's up to you.

1 comment:

Rocketscienist said...

Love your summary of barefoot running. I started last year and I stopped over the winter. I started up again and I have lost 30 pounds so far. One of things that helped for me is I eased into because I was so out of shape.

Some of my runner friends have taken it up but always overdo it. I think you give a great summary. I'll be checking your blog again, thanks.