Going barefoot in the summertime was a normal part of my early youth.
My brothers and I would shed our shoes at the first appearance of spring wildflowers and not return to their suffocating confinement until the nippy mornings of October.
Something primal and deep-seated compelled us to fling off our leather shackles and once again set sole upon soil in that most liberating of childhood rituals.
Within two weeks, our feet would form a callus pad and become impervious to gravel, pavement, hot sand and thorns. Then it seemed as though our running, jumping, darting and dodging reached new levels of intensity, excitement and joy.
For me, in those days (1950s), shoes were merely an inconvenient necessity. They provided warmth and protection from the elements—and an acceptance in our sophisticated fashion-conscious society.
Converse and Keds were the hot athletic brands of the day. Then Nike, Adidas and Puma took the track and field world by storm with their lightweight, specialized models. Research and development in shoe technology became a branch of science unto itself.
Shoe design then moved into every area of sport.
Emphasizing comfort, performance, and art, the foot covering became the prominent piece of athletic equipment—not just on the field of play, but on Madison Avenue and Wall Street as well.
And, apparently, even on the mean streets.
Shoe science has certainly played a huge role in the up-tick in athletic performance over the decades since the 1950s. But there has not been the expected decline in injury—especially injuries to the lower extremities. If anything, leg and foot injuries have increased .
This perception stirred me to write an earlier semi-satirical piece on injuries in professional basketball. My instincts as a former barefoot boy have led me to believe that sometimes, in our effort to move forward, we forget to look back.
And now there is a growing body of thought among runners that shoe technology may have inadvertently forced us to run in ways which are not natural to the human form. Consequently, undue stresses have been placed on areas of the body not designed to withstand those stresses.
For example, today’s highly cushioned shoes (especially in the heel area) have conditioned runners to place more weight on the mid-foot to heel, rather than the more natural ball of the foot. The increased pounding is then transferred as stress through the leg bones, affecting the ankle, knee and hip—and adjoining connective tissue.
Also, high-tech shoes by their very nature have given the foot a false sense of security, thereby weakening the very component designed by nature to be the strong foundation in the running motion.
More and more runners are implementing barefoot training in their regimens and are discovering better form and fewer injuries. Perhaps track legends like Zola Budd and Abebe Bikila, both world-class barefoot runners, were really onto something.
While barefoot running may be on the verge of rediscovery as a means of training or competition or simply pleasure, it may not be for everyone. Strict warnings are given to consult an expert first, if one is being treated for conditions such as diabetes for example.
The big shoe companies have wisely not dismissed the current interest in the return to nature. Sensing instead a possible wave of the future, they have designed minimal footwear such as Vibram’s Fivefinger (photo) and Nike’s Free 4.0.
This open-mindedness on the part of Big Shoe has led to internal research which has only validated the claims of the barefoot crowd: running shoeless is more natural, more efficient, less stressful and more enjoyable.
And now, as I lean back in my chair, feeling a bit more justified in my instincts and suspicions, I do the most appropriate and normal thing in the world: kick off my shoes!
Recommended reading: Born to Run
(written January, 2010)