Wild Animals: Running Shod In The Modern Context

Looking back I saw two coyotes cross the road, and at the same time the howls and barking up ahead suddenly stilled. It was in that moment, I knew I messed up.

Laguna Beach, California, is a hub for tourists in the summer, and a haven for artists in the winter, when there aren’t any tourists. It’s also one of the most biodiverse areas in that part of the world, having seven distinct ecological zones in close proximity. The run up the canyon road is absolutely exquisite, any time of the day or night. In the morning, you might see a fleet of road cyclists, and in the afternoon, a pack of mountain bikers pedaling to or from the trailhead. And, of course, every once and a while, another intrepid soul trusting to their own two feet.

In 2009, one night, I found myself unable to sleep and running called to me. I laced up, I think I was rocking some Merrell Road Gloves, back when those were a thing, and threw a water bottle in the same Camelbak Mule I’m using now. I headed through town, rocketed down 1st St., and out the canyon road. I’m pretty sure the plan was to try and get to Irvine and back.

There’s an animal hospital and a shelter on the canyon road, so at first the barking and howls seemed totally normal. I got a bit of water, adjusted the strap on my pack, checked my form. Then there were these animal noises … there they were, I was still hearing them … where were they? What were they from? The animal hospital and shelter were both on the right (and weren’t they both south of El Toro Road?), and this was … on the right and the left?

My headphones had been put away for a while now, and I was spurred on by a few barks behind me, but then there was a sudden quiet. I turned to look behind me and froze in my tracks. Disappearing over the ridge were two coyotes.

Oh ****! Those two must have been trying to drive me toward the rest of the pack waiting by that rock formation just ahead, ready for an ambush!

“Nnnope!” I pivoted on the spot and ran, and best believe right then my form was dialed in better than it had been in my entire life. My glutes were activated, my back was straight, and my whole body was, for a few minutes (probably until the adrenalin wore off), a perfect spring in golden harmony.Man running.

It’s easy to think of humans as categorically different than animals. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely on Team Human, but it is useful to bridge that gap sometimes from a tactical perspective, so let’s talk a little bit about running shoes in the modern context.

Humans have been running for a long time. 200,000 years1, give or take, is how long the anatomically modern human has roamed the earth, and we’ve been doing it by running. If we include our recent ancestors, we’ve been accomplished endurance runners for more than a million years (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004). Humans and other runners have a ligament at the back of the neck called the nuchal ligament, and it helps us hold our heads steady in our bounding stride. This adaptation, along with upright bipedalism and relative hairlessness, helped us acquire the amount of protein that was required for our brains to grow so large, and even that adaptation was well-suited for running, as our larger brains mean we’re less susceptible to heat death, because you can lose a little bit of grey matter and still be okay. We also developed a throwing arm, dextrous hands, and communication that’s significantly advanced to abstract and make possible a record of information, and these helped us advance even further, but for a long time we collected root vegetables, seeds, and berries, and ran herd animals to death, because we could go the distance in the hot sun, and they couldn’t. This is called persistence hunting, and it’s still practiced in some places today.

Shoes were an invention rather late in the game. The skin that forms the sole of your foot, when conditioned, is six times thicker than your normal skin. The nerves that run up from your toes are a supercomputer, relaying information that affects how your 26-bone suspension bridge articulates, and, importantly, when force is applied, creating unprecedented efficiency in over-land locomotion. Gerald Hartmann, PhD. may have said it best, quoted in Born To Run:

“Just look at the architecture,” Dr Hartmann explained. Blueprint your feet, and you’ll find a marvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries. Your foot’s centerpiece is the arch, the greastest weight-bearing design ever created. The beauty of any arch is the way it gets stronger under stress. The harder you push down, the tighter its parts mesh. No stonemason worth his trowel would ever stick a support under an arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the whole structure. Buttressing the foot’s arch from all sides is a high-tensile web of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, twelve rubbery tendons, and eighteen muscles, all stretching and flexing like an earthquake resistant suspension bridge.” ― Christopher McDougall

The books Born To Run, Barefoot Running, and James Stewart's Calculus on a shelfIn 2015, the majority of the public is generally unaware that barefoot running is a thing. At what cost? At least 30% of runners go down from injury every year, and the primary diagnosis is “runner’s knee.” Before the modern running shoe, “runner’s knee” was not something that you could have, and Dr. Lieberman of Harvard and his contemporariesBarefoot footstrike collage figured out exactly what’s going on. If you’re wearing a shoe with a wedged heel and excess material between the foot and the ground, you’re likely to slip into a pattern of striking with the heel and over-striding. If you’re not getting instant feedback, it’s hard to know when to apply force, and if there’s a cushioned heel under you, your body thinks that the safest strategy is to swing way out in front with the foot and slam back with the heel, and one way or another at least you’ll probably get some purchase. However, this causes a dramatic spike in the amount of force applied to the ground, and most of this force is jarring the ankle, knee, and hip joints. Using bare feet to return to proper running form is the surest way to achieve a smooth stride.

To be clear, this is from the biomechanical standpoint, and I’m not some hippy protesting by going barefoot hoping to stick it to the man, so lets take a step back. Two of the times when a modern running shoe can be really fantastic are in elite sports. Track runners are pushing their bodies in an extraordinary fashion, and racing flats are probably a good idea, since the perfectly uniform track isn’t exactly natural, and the foot would most likely fail under consistent extreme force. Sprinters are unlikely to heel-strike and over-stride, though. Try heel-striking while running uphill. It just doesn’t work, often hilariously.

The other case, here, is elite marathon runners. Again, they’re unlikely to heel-strike and over-stride, because their form is already good. Some of the best marathoners in the world are from Kenya and Ethiopia, and they grep up running back and forth to school, and don’t have any poor form to train out. Some of Dr. Lieberman’s research in 2010 looks at traditional running cultures and running form, and finds that there’s a pretty even spread of fore-foot, mid-foot, and rear-foot striking patterns, and that as long as your center of gravity is directly over your foot at the apex of force production, it’s going to be a smooth stride.

There are a few more common scenarios where shoes are fabulous. First off, I think it’s more important to run, than to run at the peak of athleticism, and if you’re used to a raised heel, switching to a minimal shoe or going barefoot and trying to run the same amount is going to land you with an achilles tendon injury. Tendons take longer than muscles to adjust to a different movement pattern, and going from a raised heel to zero-drop is a big change in articulation. Transitioning necessitates decreasing mileage and increasing strength training. Taking this step with care can mean avoiding injury down the road, and perhaps avoiding being injured ever again.

Transition is the main scenario for the everyday athlete where shoes are awesome. After half a dozen years running with a raised heel, it took me quite a while to transition to better form, and I’m still working on it. I had already developed a fore-foot strike from Parkour, because it’s absolutely essential to landing technique, and that was a major advantage, but there are protocols developed by the exercise science community for developing reactive landings for people in any condition, so leaping from buildings is not a necessity. Going for some barefoot walks is important to re-develop the reflexes associated with being barefoot, and to start building up the footpads. Besides just how to position the foot and how to apply force in different situations, there’s a reflex to take the weight off your foot if the ground is extremely unstable or if there’s an object underfoot.

People who have never heard of running barefoot will inevitably exclaim “what about broken glass?!” when the idea is introduced. This has literally never been a problem for me. If you’re running barefoot, your senses are alive and you’re looking where you’re going, and even if you do encounter something pointy, your reflexes will not allow you to put your full weight on it. Most of the time, the offending object is going to just roll right along with you. Hopefully you’re running somewhere nice, and unless you live in Hypodermicneedleville, this is a non-issue.

Print in snow
No worries, mate

In transition, and if you’re training for endurance events, one of the best ways to use shoes is to put them in your pack, start the run barefoot, and when your pads have worn down a little, throw your shoes on. I use the Merrell Vapor Gloves, or sometimes the Trail Gloves, now, and they weigh significantly less than my water bottle. Definitely anything over ten, sometimes over five, I’ll throw them in my pack and switch whenever it feels like time. The other advantage of a lightweight minimalist shoe is running efficiency. Shoes are great, sometimes, but even in the best case, they’re still a weight at the end of a lever. Barefoot is measured at 4% more efficient than shod running, energetically2. Try running with boots sometimes, and feel the pull on your hamstrings, and run barefoot for a bit afterwards, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

One important caveat is that barefoot running can be good for severe diabetics, but really it should be done in a controlled environment, as the blood flow in the extremities can be such that any abrasion whatsoever can get infected easily.

Another interesting time for shoes is during races such as the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135 mile run through Death Valley and then into the mountains. This race is so hot that participants run on the white line painted on the road because it absorbs less light and is therefore somewhat cooler so their shoes melt more slowly.

[Tweet “Shoutouts to @jakeOruns on his transcontinental barefoot run!! #UnRunUSA #running”]

Frankly, most of the time I put on shoes for a run, I’m not thinking about running form. I’ve thought about running form and trained in good movement patterns enough that most of the time I’ll be fine no matter what’s on my feet. Sometimes I just want to go for a run because I go stark-raving mad without exercise, and I’ve had a long day, and I know my mind is going to be elsewhere and I don’t have the energy to be really focused on where I’m going. When I do go barefoot, though, and I can afford the luxury of having a really good run, it feels amazing. And, when I’m stressed to the gills, running barefoot can let me feel really alive, and it puts all my worries right into perspective.

Enjoy your body, enjoy some runs, and even enjoy what good running shoes give you, though, of course, apply caution. Also, be careful that you get the best price on a set of running shoes that will be the best for you, by using Fastblr.com’s engine to get yourself the best price on running shoes from a variety of retailers. Have you tried barefoot running? Is there something holding you back? Leave a comment below! Best wishes!

1Human Evolution: A Neuropsychological Perspective. By John L. Bradshaw. Pg 185

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