A disturbing divide has appeared in what was once considered the long-distance-running "community." Maybe it was inevitable: The more than 50 million Americans who run regularly constitute too large a population to share similar views about anything at all, inluding running!
The divide, which really shouldn't divide us at all, is about barefoot running. Judging by what I've seen on Twitter, Facebook, running blogs, and other popular communications, barefoot running has become not just an important new phenomenon of 21st-century athletic culture; it has also become something close to a religion.
What's disturbing is that religions, while virtually always arising from the most essential and uplifting of human desires--to understand the meaning of our lives--can, if taken to extremes, lead to hardened views, intolerance, and alienation. And sadly, I see signs of that with barefoot running. There's a fervor among barefooters that, if I'm not mistaken, seems to say "If you wear traditional running shoes, you are not a true believer!"
Before I go any further, let me make two quick points that are very pertinent to what follows:
1. I am not "against" barefoot running. On the contrary, in my forthcoming book (coming in October), I include some fairly extensive discussion of the now very persuasive scientific evidence that modern humans evolved as long-distance-running persistence hunters who probably ran barefoot for tens of thousands of years before civilization began. I'll post some excerpts of that discussion in the coming days. There's reason to believe that running barefoot (and naked) profoundly affected many of the sensibilities, pleasures, and preferences we have today.
2. I train and race in traditional running shoes--not minimalist shoes, which I tried decades ago, long before the recent minimalist resurgence--but the kind of comfortable shoes popularized by Nike's Bill Bowerman, Adidas-clad Olympians, and others in the 1970s and '80s. The shoes I run in now are designed for lateral stability, cushioning, and protection of the toes from kicking rocks, and I'm glad I can still get them. I might sound like an old curmudgeon who doesn't know a good new thing when he sees it, but I have to say I'm not just any old curmudgeon. I've been running long-distance races for 54 years in a row, at distances from 2 miles to 100 miles and beyond, and my knees, back, hips, and feet are all still healthy and intact. Might that not say something about the possible value of having protective running shoes?
These two points (#1 and #2 above) might seem contradictory. How can I be an enthusiastic supporter of the view that the human animal is by nature a barefoot runner with my own practice of always running in shoes?
A simple answer is that modern humans left the wild world behind about 10,000 years ago, with the advent of civilization. Civilization arose via the invention of agriculture, which allowed us to settle in fixed locations thanks to the domestication of wild plants and animals. Crops replaced foraging for edible plants, and livestock replaced hunting. And along with the domesticating of animals and plants, we humans domesticated ourselves. That's the part our souls rebel against. We are no longer wild. And sadly, in many ways, it's no longer possible for us to live as if we are.
That's the simple answer. But of course, the reality is more complex. Civilization brought enormous changes to the hunter-gatherer life of our Paleolithic ancestors. Those changes included a now rapidly growing dependence on technological assists to our bodies and brains. We no longer have to lift heavy objects with our arms because we have forklifts, elevators, and airplanes. We no longer have to develop acute mental mapping (as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did) because we now have GPS. We don't even have to manually turn the faucet in a public restroom, because they've installed motion sensors.
The problem is that little by little, the techno-assists cause some of the native capabilities we once had as wild humans to weaken. As athletes, we all know that a muscle that isn't used will atrophy. That's also true of mental functions. A study at the University of London found that taxi drivers who relied on GPS to find their way around the city for three years or longer had a smaller hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for finding your way, among other functions) than drivers who used their own mental mapping. And extensive research has indicated that people who don't read, think, or otherwise actively use their brains are more likely to slip into dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
Weak muscles or weakened mental functions may be what happens to individuals who don't get sufficient physical or mental exercise. But weakening can also be multi-generational, as a result of either biological or cultural evolution. Biological evolution is very slow, and we are pretty much the same animal now as we were in Paleo times. According to evolutionary biologists like Harvard's Edward O. Wilson, we have about the same genetics now as we did 100,000 years ago. That might explain the powerful hold that the feel of sun or breeze on bare skin, or the earth under bare feet, has on so many of us. But cultural evolution can be staggeringly fast, with substantial impacts on brain and body. And one of the parts of us most directly affected is our feet.
When we stopped chasing antelope as a way of life, and started wearing shoes, our feet became profoundly more passive than they'd been. Every foot has 28 bones and a huge complex of ligaments, tendons, muscles, blood bessels, and nerves, and that complex developed through many millennia of running for hours at a time over variegated landscape that necessitated skillful navigation and balance. Every bone, tendon, and muscle had a regular, active, role.
But what happens when those roles are abandoned for thousands of years? The answer isn't simple, but a useful way of approaching it is to ask what happened--over many generations--as wild wolves were transormed into dogs. Some dogs are a lot like wolves; others are unrecognizable. Breeding is accomplished by domestication, not by natural selection. A show-dog poodle wouldn't survive two weeks in the wild. A German shepherd or huskie might be OK.
An analogous situation prevails with domesticated humans. Some of us may still have feet that can successfully re-adapt to that pre-domesticated, persistence-hunter mode; others may not. I'm afraid I'm one of those who don't. I wish I did. But I can still enjoy running, and still run well.
An educated assessment might be this: Genetically, all humans have the capability to feel--and even yearn for--the pleasure of barefoot running. But biomechanically, many and probably a majority of us can't actually do it with any long-run success, except perhaps on pine-needle paths or nicely groomed trails in parks (which are themselves domesticated wildlands). In true wilderness, I'd guess very few can. In most of us, our 28-bone wonders haved gone unused--encased in coffin-like shoes or boots--for too many generations.
So, why can't we discusss this in a reasonable way? Instead of romanticizing barefoot running the way some 19th-century painters romanticized the state of nature as if it were a Garden of Eden, why can't we recognize that (1) we are all genetically capable of appreciating the feel of bare feet on earth, but (2) only a very few of us can do so for very long without injury?
To put this in perspective, I offer two recent observations:
1. At America's largest ultramarathon (the JFK 50-Mile) last November, where virtually all of the 1,000-plus starters were seasoned trail runners, I didn't see a single one of those runners attempting this event with bare feet. Why not?
2. In a recent issue of Ultrarunning magazine, I noticed a photo of an unusual sight in this sport--a barefoot runner. But oddly, this runner was also wearing a large assortment of equipment other than shoes: camel-back hydration system, belt, bottles, shirt, hat, etc. And if I recall, in the list of finishers, this runner finished next-to-last. If you're truly a minimalist aspiring to "run free," why all this stuff? If you truly wish to learn the way of the Paleo runner, and are willing to undergo the training needed to re-adapt your feet, wouldn't you want to do the same with your other needs as well--running as naked and unencumbered as possible, or relying on streams or wild berries (as I did one summer when I fell and my water bottle spilled) for some of your hydration? Wouldn't you want to develop some adaptation to heat and dehydration instead of carrying a ton of water on your back?
The barefoot boom has brought us a great opportunity to engage in a lively discussion of topics that are deeply meaningful to us all: how we evolved as humans, how civilization and domestication have changed us, how much we want to let our native capabilities be replaced by technology, and what makes us differ from each other as individuals while also having so much in common. And finally, how we can live most successfully with the internal tugs-of-war all modern humans must feel--between the bodies and brains we developed in a wild world long ago, and the vastly different conditions we live under now.