The Barefoot Revolution

“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.
- Leonardo da Vinci

We’re on record several times claiming that running is the simplest sport in the world; all you need is a pair of shoes.

However, a steadily growing contingent of runners is determined to prove that notion incorrect. Not the part about the simplicity - the part about needing shoes.

Barefoot running is nothing new, of course – it dates back many millennia before the waffle sole launched Nike into the stratosphere. Some anthropologists believe our prehistoric ancestors were tremendous runners, hunting animals by chasing them to the point of exhaustion. (It makes sense if you do the math: hominids were on Earth 6 million years ago, but mankind’s first known weapons are only 500,000 years old. Unless those cavemen were vegetarians, they must have had some means of catching and killing prey.)

Even in the modern era, barefoot runners have competed at world-class levels. Abebe Bikila won a gold medal and set a world record in the 1960 Olympic marathon. Zola Budd is notorious for her collision with Mary Decker at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but she also won back to back world cross-country championships in the 1980s. A handful of elite ultrarunners often run barefoot on mountain trails to complement their high mileage training routines.

Your may think that this is terrible for your feet – but the truth could be exactly the opposite. There’s currently a philosophical war among shoe manufacturers: on one side, the folks who think that foot asymmetries and irregularities should be corrected by various means of support and motion control. The other side believes that less is more: just allow the foot to work naturally, and the other irregularities don’t matter. Not only that, but overcorrecting the foot’s natural motion actually leads to higher injury rates.

Think of it this way: if you were engineering the perfect weight bearing structure, you’d create an arch. For perfect shock absorption, you’d allow that arch to flex slightly upon impact. For dynamic energy transfer, you’d surround it with several interlocking components that move in multiple directions. For durability, you’d make the building blocks out of the hardest material you can create.

Well, guess what you’ve just designed? The human foot!

From a biomechanical standpoint, there’s no reason why you need to wear running shoes – so why doesn’t everyone just run barefoot? The primary drawbacks are comfort and speed.

Running barefoot is certainly uncomfortable right off the bat; our feet aren’t used to the lack of artificial cushioning, and our skin needs time to build resiliency to irritants like gravel, sticks, and pointy rocks. In order to accommodate these, the runner is forced to slow down much more than he’s normally accustomed to.

Most of us aren’t patient enough to put up with it – but the drumbeat of barefoot runners is growing ever louder; so much, in fact, that the running industry has taken notice.

Vibram makes a brilliant product called Five Fingers, which is basically a glove for your foot with a thin rubber coating underneath: they allow you to run barefoot without worrying about injuring yourself on ground hazards. Other high-profile shoe companies, including Nike, ECCO, and Clark now have shoe models that allow the natural biomechanics of running barefoot.

One important caveat to all this: to become a barefoot runner, you have to progress extremely slowly to avoid injury. Donald has been experimenting with barefoot running recently; if you’re interested in finding out how to start, contact us.

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Fighting Obesity

The Center for Disease Control recently sponsored the first “Weight of the Nation” conference, where it was announced that the medical cost of obesity in the United States each year is $147 BILLION. Almost one-third of American adults are officially categorized as obese, with rates in many (mostly Southern) states approaching 40%. Even Oprah Winfrey is overweight again.

What’s the solution? The CDC has a standard laundry list of recommendations to stop the obesity epidemic, but it’s the same things we’ve been told for years: healthier food choices, lower caloric intake, more physical exercise. This is all old news, yet obesity rates continue to rise.

So we’d like to suggest some changes in perspective for all of us – the first of which is to encourage support from selected “influencers” who can connect with large numbers of people.

One such program is right in our backyard: the Big Sur International Marathon’s JUST RUN program. As we said, the formula for what works is no secret: less food, more activity. The Just Run program instills this lesson in elementary school children, and gives them opportunities to make healthy choices from a very early age. Good habits start young.

Our educational system can go one step further and make physical education mandatory in all schools. Programs can be supported with minimal cost, even at schools without a dedicated PE teacher – all it takes is a committed volunteer to get students walking or jogging every day. Healthy activity is just as important to our kids’ quality of life as art and music and great literature.

Parents play a key role as well. We should teach our kids to be participants in athletics instead of spectators. Modern-day sporting events (and their accompanying advertisers) emphasize tailgating, beer drinking, and pigging out on unhealthy food just as much as they inspire sandlot games and schoolyard shoot-arounds. It’s our job as parents to remind kids that the fun of sports is in doing, not watching.

Professional sports leagues can even get in on the act. Imagine if championship sporting events had associated running races, like a marathon on Super Bowl Sunday, or a 5K before the local pro golf tournament. Have the pro athletes make an appearance beforehand, or provide discount tickets to encourage participation.

Another approach is to borrow a page from the anti-smoking playbook, and make it cost-prohibitive for people to be unhealthy.

For instance, what if you had to pay for cable or Internet screen time in the same way that you pay for excess usage of water or electricity? Since obsessive screen watching makes people less active and obese – how about creating a graduated “sin tax” beyond a certain threshold?

Insurance companies can base their premium rates on physical fitness tests like the ones that used to be given in grade schools. Cardiovascular fitness is the most important predictor of overall health – and if you struggle with a 2-mile test, chances are that your health is lousy. People can be recertified every 2 or 3 years, just like smog inspections, where an independent timer verifies your 2 mile time, and insurance rates would correspond to your speed. Would that make you take your fitness more seriously?

These ideas may sound crazy – but that’s indicative of a larger problem, which is complacency to let things carry on the same way they’re currently going. If prioritizing our health continues to be seen as the “counterculture” approach, we’re in for far more troubling costs in the days ahead – both from a health standpoint, and a financial one.

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