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Barefoot Running, Part 1

One of the hottest trends among runners and fitness gurus is the so-called, “barefoot running shoe”. This is, of course; directly related to the concept of barefoot running. So is running barefoot better than running in shoes, and if so, do barefoot running shoes actually help? Let’s find out.

This week, we begin a comprehensive exploration of the newest fitness concepts of Barefoot Running and Barefoot Running shoes. Will this trend last? Can it stand the test of time? Is it even a good idea? In this series, we will challenge the experts and hope to unlock some of these answers.

First, a History lesson:

Like the “Paleo Diet” and CrossFit, the concept of barefoot running seems to be rooted in the “good old days”. In fact; we’re going all the way back to the good old prehistoric days - at least 40,000 years or more. The idea is that Primitive Man didn’t have the technology to make shoes out of animal skins, much less hard soles and elevated heels in this unspecified ancient era. Somehow; this is better, according to the proponents of these fitness trends. Why? Because the human foot was already perfectly designed for its required jobs – walking, running, climbing, even swimming. Proponent experts say: there is no need to improve upon what the Creator (or evolution) has already given us.

          According Dr. Edward R. Laskowski, M.D., of the Sports Medicine Center and professor at College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic:

“Traditional running shoes emphasize stability and cushioning, with thick soles and elevated heels. But there's no evidence that these shoes prevent injuries, and in some individuals they may actually increase injury risk. Although barefoot running does carry risks, shoeless runners may avoid some of the potentially harmful forces that conventional running shoe wearers experience. However, more research is needed, and research is ongoing regarding the potential benefits and risks of barefoot running.”

Then there is a recent University of Nebraska at Omaha study by Hanson, et al. that compared running shod to running barefoot. They reported significantly higher oxygen usage while running with shoes both on a treadmill and a running track than running barefoot. The takeaway of this study is that running barefoot is better because it requires less work and thus produces less stress on the body.

Other researchers point out that the biomechanics of the foot is perfect for running barefoot; whereas running shoes actually force the body into postures that are unnatural, more stressful, and ultimately cause injury to the body.

          But can this obvious scientific logic actually apply to modern civilized society in general, trumping the common practice of walking around with shoes? Well, maybe not. Modern Man has mitigating circumstances that are not factored into the science.

With civilization came international trade, industrialization and modern conveniences. Other important contributions to civilization include war and urban growth. Between 4000 and 2200 BC, the world's oldest known stone-paved roads were constructed in the Mid-East. This coincides with a period of human history particularly marked with constant warfare and the rise of the earliest known cities in the world. What do these things have in common? The need for solid pavement.

          Since cities first appeared, engineers quickly discovered that building with stone and concrete made buildings exceptionally heavier than wooden constructions. They realized that a solid foundation was necessary to keep their buildings from sinking into the ground and falling down. Also, moving thousands of troops and their wagon trains of supplies along a single path softened and churned up the ground. Moving along this road to war worked a lot better when they weren’t having to slog through the inevitable mire of mud that would be formed from thousands of feet, hooves, and wheels. So pavement is introduced to the roads. Nearly as important a consideration; a soldier’s feet has always been considered an army’s most important asset in war and the rigors of the battlefield require protection. Going barefoot was just not an option for the ancient imperial soldier any more than it is for today’s modern soldier.

From 500-312 BC, first the Persians, then the Romans officially codified the idea when they created thousands of miles of paved roads through their respective empires. Of course; this was because they were both conquering empire-builders needing to move their troops long distances, but to them, it also represented the image they wanted to project to their enemies; that their empire was the most modern and powerful society in the region. Creating paved highways that connected conquered lands for the first time in history did that job very effectively.

So, how does knowing all that relate to the modern running experience? This is what we will find out in our next submission. But first, let me leave you with this interesting tidbit:

Glen Raines, known as the Barefoot Caveman, bumps fists with Thomas J. Motherway after crossing the finish line of the 2017 Boston Marathon.  His finish time: 3:40:43.

If you are experiencing pain in your feet, legs or knees from running, don’t wait for your family physician; visit Excel Rehabilitation Services on Burnside Ave. in Gonzales, Louisiana. You will receive thorough, personalized care from an experienced, professional physical therapist!

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