Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nor can foot feel, being shod

Pushups: 10 Pullups: 3

Impressive, yeah?! Actually, I am proud of myself. A couple of weeks ago, I was at Pushups: 0. Pullups? Um... how about 60 pounds of lat pulldown?

So something is healing in my spine.

I'm also back on the bike, fredding it up at HP and RCP. Power and endurance are about what you'd expect from someone with the pushup and pullup numbers above, but it's absolutely wonderful to be able to rest some weight on the hoods again.

One exercise I've undertaken in this long cycling hiatus is running, most of it barefoot.

Two years ago my brother talked me into doing a triathlon. In a few short months, I needed to learn to swim properly, and, since I was completely sedentary, get into running and cycling shape too. I did what academics do: researched.

Amidst the latest running advice, I stumbled across some information about barefoot running. I read about the Tarahumara tribes in Mexico who run hundreds of miles at a stretch in minimalist sandals, trouncing our best ultra runners. I read about the steady injury rates among runners through the last half century, despite advancing shoe technologies. I read about the different landing patterns of barefoot vs. shod runners (forefoot vs. heel), the unique gait barefooting promotes (shorter strides, hips farther forward), the existence of dense clusters of nerve endings in the feet and the independence of the toes (rendered pointless by shoes), and the incredible design of the arch (atrophied and undermined by arch support). I read about Nike's attempt to cash in with its Nike Free line of shoes, about the Newton shoe, marketed primarily to triathletes as barefoot imitation, about the Vibram Five Fingers, basically a rubber glove for the foot. I read about chi running and the pose method. I read Barefoot Ted's site, and Barefoot Ken Bob's.

I was converted. Sort of. I tossed my pricey ASICS and bought the lightest, least structured racing flats I could find, and then took out the insoles. Next I worked on landing midfoot, shortening and quickening my stride.

It wasn't easy. But no shin splints, no left hip problems, and no pain in my right knee. All of these were serious recurring injuries that forced me to stop running or keep my mileage down to fifteen, maybe twenty miles per week tops. I'd actually fractured my shin one time while running through severe shin splints, trying to fit 60 miles into a week. If I had to sacrifice the tiniest bit of speed to run free of pain and injury, that was a tradeoff I'd gladly make.

That's where things stood, until recently. Then, while recovering from the bike accident, I listened to Christopher McDougall's new barefoot tome on audiobook. It's an excellent book, and McDougall is deservedly being profiled / hailed everywhere from NPR to the Post to the Daily Show.

(I'd stay away from the audio version, though, unless you're on a quest to find the cheesiest, whitest narrator in history trying to imitate other white people being cool and celebratory and zesty about life.)

Inspired by the McDougal book, I finally bought the Vibrams, which gave me blisters, then just tried going full barefoot. With each shift, I experienced new soreness somewhere: calf, achilles, arch, or the skin of the sole. But each time, it was way more fun. Pure barefoot running, you can't take yourself seriously. It's like being a kid again.

I've done up to five miles at a time on DC sidewalks and the trails of RCP. Granted, very very slowly. But it feels amazing. Sidewalks have a nice smooth surface and the hardness of concrete is irrelevant when you're absorbing the shock with your ankles and knees anyway.

Today in the NYT, Gretchen Reynolds casts a skeptical eye on the barefoot movement. Check out McDougall's smackdown in the comments. (And again here.) I couldn't have said it better myself. True, there aren't controlled studies that prove the benefits of going with shoes. But don't think the shoe industry hasn't tried, and failed, to prove the opposite.

Imagine we discovered a tribe that wore stiff, incredibly expensive, plastic and rubber mittens all day and thought it was dangerous to go without them. Would we all immediately purchase and wear the gloves because there was no controlled study showing that going barehanded decreases injuries?


Calvini said...

Keep up the great pieces. Really enjoying it.

TerribleTerry said...

I think the barefoot thing is pretty fascinating. I'm pretty biomechanically sound in just about any shoe. But on occasion I raced barefoot simply because you get better traction in the mud. I'd say overall barefoot works excellent for long slow runs (especially in the grass). But I've found if I get faster than 5:30 pace I get too many hotspots and can only handle about 5miles. Probably just too many years in shoes softening my feet.

Now to go do some pull-ups.

qualia said...

You're lucky, biomechanically and aerobically. I can't run that fast in any footwear!

Tim Rugg said...

Terry is a much better runner than a cyclist. I wish he'd just give me his bikes and go for a run.

Barefoot running is the best.

-feels good...
-works out muscles better
-less prone to injury (once you are used to it!)