Shoes or Barefoot?

When I was in elementary school, I loved to walk outside on the concrete pavement barefoot. Why? To my 9-year-old brain, I believed that one day, when the world reached its end and we no longer had factories to make shoes, I would be one step ahead of others as the bottom of my feet would be more acquainted with walking without protective footwear. After all, if our biological ancestors could do it, so could I. Plus, I hated to have anything on my feet – shoes? socks? Simply unnecessary luxuries and they cramped my style. My 9-year-old pride also hated being dependent on something else that could easily be taken away from me; I know, I had odd thoughts.

Now, a little over a decade later, the bottoms of my feet are a bit thicker than most so I occasionally like peeling off the extra skin because if I don’t, it can occasionally get too hard. You didn’t need to know that. Anyway, I suppose I succeeded in my goal. Although I’ve thrown that idea out the window for a good number of years now, I still prefer doing things without anything on my feet. This could be for convenience and comfort’s sake or just because I feel lazy.

When I was in Beijing for vacation last summer, I brought along my jump rope so I could get some cardio into it, amidst the mandatory gaining weight phenomenon that people usually undergo. We had gone to Japan before China, but our hostel wasn’t very accommodating to exercise. See, I may be on vacation, but when I returned to Korea, my taekwondo instructors were still going to treat it as if I hadn’t left so I couldn’t fall behind. We stayed with my sister’s friend and one day, before dinner, I decided to get back to it. I moved the coffee table to the side, took a deep breath, and began jumping rope barefoot. On his tiled floor. Smart going, there. I forgot that the floor in the do-jang is made of some sort of padded material, similar to a yoga mat but perhaps a bit thicker. As a result, jumping rope at the speed I was going wasn’t going to end up the same way as it would in the do-jang.

About five minutes straight of jumping rope, I realised something was off. My foot hurt. I did it for another minute, because I’ve gotten my right foot sprained thrice before, two times of which happened when I began taekwondo, so I thought it was just acting up. Then, I realised that this pain wasn’t coming directly from my ankle. Swell. I ended up walking with a limp for the next five days. Just yesterday, I decided to jog around my house. Half of my jogging route is tiled. My feet started to hurt so I stopped after just three minutes, because I don’t want to bandage my foot and ankle again – not when I left my pressurized can of Air Pass and bandages in Korea.

So then I thought about it: I still stick by the fact that our ancestors didn’t possess shoes, so what was the problem? Were the bodies of modern humans that flawed and that dependent on shoes that we can’t get by without them or something with an equally protective covering? Are we truly unable to run without shoes, even inside where there are no sharp rocks to cut and dirt to dirty? I decided to do some light research (I mean light; this is just to satiate my curiosity and isn’t meant to be a school research paper).

What I found was that I wasn’t the only person to believe that as “we obviously evolved as a running species without… the benefit of Nikes”, there was something unnatural about the whole shoe-wearing business [source]. In the article, it followed the studies of a biologist from Harvard, who hypothesized that those who wear shoes change the way they walked, so it could cause problems to one’s lower extremities. According to his findings, taken from a group of both barefoot and shoe-clad runners, those who wore shoes “hit the ground with more than three times the force of barefoot runners”. In elaboration:

“It’s really about how you hit the ground,” said Lieberman. “When you hit the ground, some of your body comes to a dead stop.” For a shod runner, he says, “it is literally like someone hitting you on the heel with a hammer.” But, he said, “the way in which barefoot runners run is more or less collision-free.” The most dangerous moment for the foot is when it contacts the ground, and in particular is at its heaviest for people who land heel-first—which is most shod runners. And the effect remains if you remove the shoes: a habitually shod runner who tries to run barefoot will hit the ground with seven times the impact of a habitual barefoot runner.

So I guess wearing shoes led us to our doom, after all. The article then led to the studies of another professor from the University of Virginia, but this time, it initially focused not on so-called running shoes, but on wearing heels and then evolved to correlate with the previous researcher —

Her earlier research demonstrated that high-heeled shoes can cause women to experience increased knee pressure at particularly vulnerable points in the joint. She associated this with osteoarthritis of the knee, which afflicts millions of Americans. For her more recent study, Kerrigan observed that running shoes similarly elevate the heels above their natural angle. She set out to investigate whether they caused similar joint disturbance. The short answer: yep.

Looking at another article, it elaborated on the risks of these elevated ‘running’ shoes, because I like examples, facts, and the blunt truth:

Strong evidence shows that thickly cushioned running shoes have done nothing to prevent injury in the 30-odd years since Nike founder Bill Bowerman invented them, researchers say. Some smaller, earlier studies suggest that running in shoes may increase the risk of ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis and other injuries. Runners who wear cheap running shoes have fewer injuries than those wearing expensive trainers. Meanwhile, injuries plague 20 to 80 percent of regular runners every year.

So then, what did the two conclude about running – should you be bare or clad? After all, some people who were afflicted with one of the aforementioned foot injuries claims that he got better once he started wearing the minimalistic running “shoes” that resemble socks. The UofV professor said:

“I’m concerned, I don’t think this study should promote running barefoot,” she said. “I think people should run in what they feel most comfortable running in… and whether that’s in a pair of running shoes or in a minimum kind of running shoe, that’s just fine.” Her reticence comes, she says, from the fact that we are not running across the Serengeti—most of us are running across the intersection of Main and Broadway. Sidewalks, in other words, don’t have enough “compliance,” or give. “We’ve evolved to run on compliant surfaces, not on asphalt or concrete,” she said. “You run on something hard, your body has to work that much harder to help absorb those forces, and that can lead to stresses and strain, wear and tear, really throughout the whole body.”

On the other hand, the Harvard professor who practices running barefoot said:

…the key is moderation and good sense. If you make sudden changes, he says, “you have a high probability of injuring yourself.” Instead, aim for changing no more than 10 percent of your running pattern per week. And, he says, exercise a bit of common sense about where and when you run. “We did not evolve to run barefoot in New England in the winter,” he said.

I personally think they both have their points. Both sides of the argument suggest that either side has their advantages: going barefoot could be better but so could running with a protective covering of some sort. The shoes ruined us and we forgot how to run properly without them!!! I may like the au naturel feel, but from my experiences, obviously, my feet aren’t ready for it or I’m just pushing them too fast. Either way, perhaps I’ll consider those minimalistic sock-shoes.

And to think, there’s actually a barefoot running movement out there.

Sources: New York Times, Real Jock (wow, it’s a ‘gay fitness and health’ site!), Wired

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