I’m taking a break from law and politics this morning to commune with my friends and fellow runners. Can we talk shoes, or the lack thereof, for a moment?
I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends getting into running lately — glad to hear it! I’ve also seen quite a bit of talk about barefoot running. I’d thought I would take a moment and offer some thoughts based on my own indirect experience.
When I first started running, my feet hurt. My knees hurt. My shins hurt. My quads were sore. Pretty much everything below my waist hurt. And the pain didn’t go away.
After a few weeks, I decided that the solution to my persistent problem was to go out and buy the best running shoes I could find. I went to a running store, and told the people there about my problems. They helped me find the fanciest looking, most expensive pair of New Balance shoes in the store — real heavy, severe motion control shoes. I gave the proprietor $120, and went home, consoling myself with the assurance that it was an investment in my health.
After I got home, I put on my new magic shoes and went out running. My feet hurt me so bad, I stopped halfway through, took the shoes off, and walked home — barefoot. I put the shoes back in their box and gave them away at the first opportunity. I had learned my lesson. Turns out, I was actually a very efficient runner with good form. I had just started off too hard and so my body was constantly building up tolerance to my running demands. Eventually, the pain went away.
I learned that I didn’t need fancy shoes, and I haven’t bought them since. I also became very skeptical of experts, yes, even (especially?) the 17 year-old high school running star — or anyone else — who looks at the wear patterns on your soles and then does a biomechanical “analysis” on you at the local running store. I’ve had good and bad experiences at running stores, and love them for the communities they foster, but I don’t put *any* — zero, zip, nada — stock in the recommendations staff give me (and neither should you).
Now, fast forward 10 years…
In 2009, Born to Run took the running world by storm. I read it shortly after it first came out and was intrigued…particularly with its indictment of the running shoe industry (given my prior experience). In fact, in response to its suggestion that running in new shoes actually makes injury more likely, I’ve been running in the same shoes now (almost falling apart) for nearly 3 years. Whether it’s lessened my likelihood of injury, I can’t say — but it’s saved me some money.
To satisfy my curiosity (and investigate what barefoot running was all about) I trekked down to the closest REI (the only place that was carrying any kind of barefoot running skins) to scope things out. The fervor over barefoot running reminded me of what I saw with specialized running shoes 10 years before. If there’s one thing I’ve learned when it comes to running, it’s to be wary of the latest fads. Some of those fads can do real damage — for example, I seriously might be crippled today if I had kept trying to run in those stupid New Balance motion control shoes. So, I soaked in all the excitement and left with the same shoes I had when I arrived.
My sense with barefoot running is it’s all about promoting efficient biomechanics. But are humans really so lazy that we have to force ourselves to run efficiently by stepping on painful rocks, cutting our feet, and bruising our heels? The first time I tried barefoot running was a few years before Born to Run came out. I saw a YouTube video back in 2006 and was so impressed I immediately took of my shoes and spent 10 minutes running (very carefully) on the roads around my neighborhood. After I came home with feet that were a little bit sore (though not too bad), I thought to myself, I can run like this in some light shoes . . . and then I don’t have to worry about rocks, nails, glass, razorblades and all other obstacles that present themselves to a runner. Besides, who can really *run* barefoot on trails, where I really love to run (I’m talking about flying down steep trails with some degree of reckless abandon)? And what about running at night when obstacles are hard to see? Maybe you could theoretically get your feet to the point where you can . . . but I suspect you cannot get your feet to that point while working a job and doing everything else that life requires.
Shoes, when used right, are tools to help you transcend limits your body (or other circumstances) might impose, especially when it comes to running.
I’m no shill for the running shoe industry. I don’t like it the obsession with new shoes every 400 miles, and I’ve don’t buy them very often any more. I think people should run in lightweight fairly minimal shoes, as a rule, if for no other reason than it’s more comfortable. But I don’t think I’ll ever run barefoot when I’m not on the grass, a beach, or don’t have to. I may or may not have been born to run, but I don’t run to chase down antelope on African plains. I live in a world of asphalt, cement, glass, and sharp implements, and I run for health benefits and enjoyment. Maybe I’m just too American, and enjoy blundering down the path using technology to either ignore or destroy all obstacles in my way. Maybe I’d enjoy running more if I felt the rocks between my toes . . . but I doubt it. I like to run where I want to, when I want to. And shoes help me do that.
So, before you get caught up in the latest fad, remember that there is a reason shoes were invented. They have a purpose, and my sense is that, if we’re smart about it, we’re better off running with them, than without them.