Barefootin’ – a new (old) trend in running

Sole upon soil: one of life's simple pleasures

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)

Published in: on January 15, 2011 at 9:37 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Pocket

It was summer, in the late 1950s. I was a young kid about to enter the “Sandblasters” – an intermediate baseball league, just a step below Little League.

My old hand-me-down ball glove was feeling it’s age, so I was saving my money for a new one. The fact that all my friends were sporting new gloves may have fueled my motives as well…

Finally the day arrived when I had enough cash to plunk down $8.95 at the Montgomery Wards store and buy my very own mitt. I didn’t care that it was a Hawthorne, Wards’ economy “house brand”.

It had a great new-leather smell and it was a Stan Musial signature model.

After the initial thrill began to wear off, I noticed it was rather stiff and felt awkward in my hand. It had no “pocket”, like my old glove.

Horsehide in cowhide - one of sport's simple pleasures.

A pocket is important in a baseball mitt. It is the very heart of the glove—a vague yet tangible “sweet spot” inside the webbing, where every hit or thrown ball would ideally be captured.

In the mind of a yet unspoiled and innocent lad, the pocket held a certain mystique—a magnetic attraction to any spherical horsehide object in motion.

My brother told me how I could quickly form a pocket in my new glove: oil the mitt generously with goose grease, place a ball in the web of the glove, then close the glove around the ball and tie it tightly with a rawhide shoelace.

For some yet unknown reason, it was also important to place the bundle under my pillow and sleep on it.

The next morning I anxiously unwrapped shoelace, glove and ball to behold my masterpiece.

My attempt to produce a feature which only time, repetition and everyday use could form, left me with a greasy, stinky glove—a grimy pillow case—and still no pocket.

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A ready-to-eat microwave meal may be convenient, but it will never have the flavor, nutrition or satisfaction of a slowly simmered stew.

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Clever marketing tells me I don’t have to break-in my new/old stone-washed, faded jeans. I am led to believe some peasant washer-woman has already scrubbed the life out of them at river’s edge.

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In an effort to circumvent the natural maturing process, some of our greatest athletes have turned to “trainer’s little helper” in order to reach their career goals a little sooner.

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A writer takes a questionable, yet effective shortcut to achieve a notoriety only years of wadded-up misfires can produce.

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Need I expound on the virtues of a fine, aged wine as opposed to a jug of Ripple?

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Most good things in life take time. The cheap imitation ultimately disappoints.

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I put that greasy Stan Musial signature glove on the shelf and played ball that summer with my faithful old mitt.

Eventually the strings rotted away and the cotton stuffing began to spill out. I pulled the Hawthorne off the shelf.  It was my introduction to a new journey in the lessons of “seasoning”.

People are a lot like a baseball glove.

We begin some new task feeling a little stiff and awkward. The first few balls hit our way may bounce off the heel of the glove – or escape like a spilled ice cream scoop off the top of the webbing.

We may be tempted to bypass the break-in period.

But then, after a few more stinging line drives and bad hops, we loosen up a bit and a comfortable sweet spot begins to form in the very heart of our being.

We return to an innocent child-like “knowing” that the object of our endeavor will eventually find it’s mark.

It’s called “the pocket”…and there are no shortcuts.

 

-written June, 2009

Published in: on November 21, 2010 at 9:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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