Archive for December, 2010

HuffPo? HuffGo!

December 31, 2010

OK, after trashing The Huffington Post for this article with ridiculous statements about barefoot running, I have to do the opposite for the article they published today: Barefoot Shoes? The Primal Reason You Want to Take Off Your Shoes.

The article is by Mark Sisson, described as “former elite marathoner and triathlete, author of the best-selling health and fitness book, The Primal Blueprint.”

He notes how we evolved (and did just fine doing so) with bare feet, and goes on to note:

We’ve still got those same feet, but we don’t use them anymore. Instead, we cover them up. We wear shoes that alter the structure and function of our feet, and that weaken the myriad tendons, muscles, and ligaments through disuse. We strap on rubber soles that sever our proprioceptive connection with the ground and restrict our nervous system’s ability to subconsciously respond to changing environments and protect us from tripping or turning an ankle.

He also describes our favorite Philip Hoffman study, “Conclusions Drawn From a Comparative Study of the Feet of Barefooted and Shoe-Wearing People”.

His call? “Go barefoot as often as possible. It’s as simple as that.”

Here, here.

And for some of us, that is all the time. Admittedly, everybody cannot do that, and Sisson also acknowledges that. I’d add that one reason everybody cannot do that is nothing more than cultural expectations, and one of the things that the Society for Barefoot Living is doing is trying to change those expectations and make going barefoot more acceptable. Sixty years ago jeans were restricted to farmers, and then hippies or college students. But today jeans can be worn nearly everywhere. There is no reason the perception of bare feet cannot change the same way.

Sisson also includes a reasonable caveat:

As with any muscle you haven’t been using for an extended period of time, your feet are probably weak, and rushing into mile runs or two hours hikes in unprepared bare feet will be painful and potentially dangerous. Ease your way into it, especially if you’re habitually shod.

Good advice.

It is nice to see many of the arguments we have made over the years make it into more mainstream media, and that the barefooting movement is not just us barefooters talking amongst ourselves.

Airplane Rock

December 31, 2010

You may have noticed that I’ve changed the banner photo to better reflect the season here in central Ohio.

I hiked out to Airplane Rock in Hocking Hills just to do so. Of course, as you can see, I rather screwed it up. You’d think that, after seeing the banner so many times I would remember what it looked like. You’d think that, since I took the original picture, I would remember where I had originally stood. You’d think that, before I left I’d carefully check the original to make sure. Well, you’d be wrong. And so was I!

Here’s the original, so you can compare:

Original Banner

Airplane Rock is one of the mostly hidden, but utterly cool, places in Hocking Hills. Most folks don’t know about it. It was called Airplane Rock by the original Amerindians who lived here, and you can see why from this picture taken from the side:

Airplane Rock

I made a special hike up there yesterday just to get the new banner. After a spate of really cold weather, we had a warm spell, with rain yesterday morning ahead of a warm front, and it made it up to about 45° today (7C). So, I was ready to be out and about. Obviously, there was still snow on the ground, but it had melted enough that the trails were a mix of wet mud and snow. My feet got colder in the snow and then warmed up in the wet mud. But it was pretty comfortable throughout. I was hoping there’d still be a few snow patches on Airplane Rock (just for the picture), and I got lucky.

After the photo shoot (Yay! I’m a model!), I headed down into the adjacent Long Hollow and hiked right to the tip, where there is a 100 foot waterfall. This time of year Hocking Hills gets really beautiful (as you saw in my hike to Cedar Falls). The water dripping from above freezes, and the water that makes it to the bottom freezes into a mound. They are ice stalagmites and stalactites. Here is what the waterfall at Long Hollow looked like:

Long Hollow Falls

My total hike was about 4 miles in 2 hours, and was the usual fun.

I’d also like to address a comment that appeared in an earlier entry, talking about natural versus unnatural surfaces (related to whether our feet could handle such things as concrete). I don’t think it matters whether the surface is natural or unnatural—our feet cannot tell the difference. It is only the hardness or compressibility of the surface that might matter. As you can see from the photos, there is a lot of sandstone at Hocking Hills, just as there is a lot of places throughout the world where people go barefoot (including our evolutionary homeland, Africa). Of course our feet have evolved to deal with it. Here is another photo, from earlier this fall, at Conkle’s Hollow, that shows the sandstone better:

Conkle's Hollow, looking north

(This is actually the background on my monitor at the moment.)

Bare feet can handle all this stuff just fine.

[PS. I am of course joking about Amerindians naming Airplane Rock. I don’t doubt they instead called it something like Turkey Rock, or maybe Turtle Rock.]

[PPS. New camera for Christmas! Yay again!]

Bare Feet and Child Custody

December 30, 2010

This is an old story, but unfortunately I can see it somehow being replayed these days, with a different outcome.

From the The Washington Herald, August 8, 1915, on page 3:

    RUNNING BAREFOOTED UPHELD BY TRIBUNAL


      Judge Quotes Whittier to Father Who
      Opposes Practice Permitted by Wife.

   Blessings on thee, little man.
   Barefoot boy, with checks of tan.

Los Angeles. Aug 7.–If Judge J. P. Wood, in divorce court, were allowed to give his judgment in poetry, Whittier’s “The Barefoot Boy” would have been his expression of a judgment he rendered in the case of Frank Lomonaco. who asked the court to change the custody of his children from his wife, Lena Lomonaco, to himself, be cause she allowed the two children to run barefoot in the Santa Monica Mountains. The couple were divorced two years aso. and Mrs. Lomonaco awarded the custody of the children. But to see Eileen Jane Lomonaco, seven, and Francis Aurella Lomonaco, five, running around barefoot, did not meet with the father’s approval.

Judge Wood denied the father his request.

“I was once a barefoot boy,” he said, “and the happiest days of my life were the days I spent as a barefoot boy.

“The boy or girl who has not had the privilege of running barefoot has been denied a heritage of youth for which nothing that comes later can compensate. The mother in this case is, according to the evidence, to be praised rather than condemned for allowing the children to run in bare feet.”

And then Judge Wood had recollections of Whittier’s poem:

   ‘Ah, that thou couldst know the joy
   Ere it passes, barefoot boy!'”

HuffPo HuffPoo

December 28, 2010

The Huffington Post has a bit of a reputation among real scientists for promoting quackery, or at least promoting “medicine” that is not backed up by science. See, e.g., The Huffington Post’s war on medical science is noticed, Why is there so much medical misinformation in The Huffington Post?, and A science section for the Huffington Post? More like a pseudoscience section! (2010 edition). Now they have an article on barefoot running from Dr. Robert Kornfield, an “alternative medicine” advocate: Barefoot Running Shoes: How Effective Are They?. Dr. Kornfield is a DPM (Doctor of Podiatric Medicine), and I’m afraid his article reads much the same as others we hear from a lot of other podiatrists who are unfamiliar with barefoot or minimalist running.

As far as he is concerned, barefoot running (or, in this case, running in minimalist shoes) is a fad.

Barefoot running shoes are designed to re-create a “natural,” barefoot running dynamic on “unnatural” surfaces like concrete, asphalt, red top, black top, etc. How can we have a barefoot running shoe? Doesn’t barefoot denote without shoes?

Choosing to run on non-yielding surfaces without the protection afforded by proper running shoes can be harmful to the foot and ankle and cause even more problems downstream from compensation patterns. So what really are these pedal marvels and why is everyone running to take their shoes off?

Hey, at least he recognizes that a “barefoot running shoe” is not “barefoot.” But he also starts off with misconception number 1, that there is something different about “unnatural” surfaces. He goes on to say

Barefoot running shoe manufacturers believe that the human foot, unimpeded by synthetic surfaces and restrictive running shoes, should function at its best. That is a correct assumption, save for the fact that the human foot was designed long before the paving of roads. In fact, uneven, grassy surfaces are the most natural surface for the human foot because it helps the body navigate and respond to uneven terrain, while at the same time absorbs shock, stabilizes weight and propels the body forward. In order for this to occur successfully, most of us are born with a flexible forefoot and a rigid or stable rearfoot. In other words, at heel strike — when your heel hits the ground — your leg from the hip down is aligned for optimal function and is stabilized during normal walking.

OK, stop right there. He somehow seems to think that the human foot evolved in some sort of grassy park. Has he never gone hiking? You know, out in nature? There are all sorts of surfaces, from mud to sand to grass to rocks to hard pan. Those latter two are not all that different than asphalt or concrete. They also tend to occur a lot in the parts of Africa we all came from.

And then he talks about heel strike. I guess he just hasn’t heard about the research from Dr. Lieberman at Harvard. Barefoot runners who have been doing it any length of time don’t heel strike. What he does is introduce some sort of false dichotomy about heel strike: that is has something to do with whether you run on a natural or unnatural surface:

The lack of heel strike on unnatural surfaces is not mimicking the way the foot would perform barefoot on natural surfaces. For this very reason, these shoes will eventually come up short, as the foot requires either cushioned heel strike on an unnatural surface or minimal heel strike on natural surfaces.

No. When you run barefooted you simply do not heel strike, regardless of the surface (and if you do heel strike, you are doing it wrong, keeping the lousy habits you picked up from wearing shoes, in which the elevated heel guarantees a heel strike).

He then tries to give us a demonstration of this at work, and tells us that this decreases the propulsion of the big toe:

Try this. Hold your first metatarsal and pull it up as hard as you can, then with your other hand try to pull your big toe upward toward your ankle. You will find the joint will jam up and feel restricted. Now, hold your first metatarsal and apply pressure down toward the floor, then with your other hand, pull your big toe up toward your ankle. You will find a dramatic increase in the upward range of motion of the big toe — this is normalized function.

Huh? Ok, you can test this. The first metatarsal is the long bone just behind the toe bones. It runs from around the ball of your foot back to near the ankle bone (and of course, you have one for each toe). The one he is talking about is for the big toe, which does most of the work, which means its the one at the highest part of your arch.

So, go ahead, do what he says. Just inside your arch, pull up as hard as you can, then see if you can pull you big toe up. It’s really hard, isn’t he. So he is right about that. And if you let go of that first metatarsal, it’s really easy.

But what does this have to do with hard surfaces versus soft surfaces? Absolutely nothing. You see, under your first metatarsal there is a tendon (the one for pulling your toe down and applying force when you are running). When you press the tendon against the metatarsal, that prevents it from moving (you can feel it trying to work as you hold it down). So of course that prevents the big toe from moving against it. Duh.

However, there is a situation in which pressure is regularly applied to the bottom of your arch there (and which would then lead to decreased propulsion). That’s right: when you are wearing a shoe with arch supports, which nearly all running shoes do. The embedded arch presses the tendon against the metatarsal, reducing its range of motion. I have rather flat feet, and back when I wore shoes, those embedded arches always gave me a lot of discomfort as they severely restricted decent (and natural) motion.

And then he finishes with our favorite shibboleth: that only “special” people with “special” feet can get away with running barefoot. Because everybody else evolved with the shoes they came out of the womb with. Right. Oh, and for all those non-special people?

you can safely wear conventional running shoes manufactured by companies who have spent years on research and technology with the addition of a proper running orthotic.

(Emphasis added.)

Yup. Prescribing more orthotics to try to fix the problems that the shoes themselves cause. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: these podiatrists have never seen feet that have not been damaged (and had that damage perpetuated) by shoes. They have no idea what a strong foot looks like, or what a strong foot can do.

Barefoot? or Barefooted?

December 26, 2010

So, which word do you use? My impression has always been that “barefooted” has a bit of a retro feel about it.

Anyways, Google now has a new tool, their Ngram Viewer. This searches through all of the books they have scanned and counts up the occurrences of the words you ask for.

Here are the results for “barefoot” vs. “barefooted”:

Click on image for the full-size version.

It appears that my impression was correct. Up until 1920 or so, “barefoot” and “barefooted” ran neck-and-neck, mostly. But suddenly in the 1920s, “barefoot” took the lead and rushed ahead, leaving “barefooted” in the dust.

I really don’t know why. But I can make some guesses that are pure speculation (and feel free to comment to leave your own guess). The 1920s is about the time when rural areas really started to industrialize. Rural electrification and radio started to spread, and even in rural areas folks were expected to wear shoes. As bare feet disappeared, they were discussed less, and the simpler, and more regular, “barefoot” came to the fore.

Also notice the jump in “barefooted” starting around 2000. I wonder if that is somehow related to media publicity the Society for Barefoot Living started to get around that time? As bare feet were talked about more, maybe that allowed more room (so to speak) for the alternative form.

Unladylike

December 23, 2010

From the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, May 10, 1916 (Deborah Rush appears to have been the “Dear Abby” of the day):

Dear Deborah Rush—I am a young woman of 24. I live with my mother and my sister, aged 29. My sister is very good looking and stylish and is looked on as a leader of her set. She is a graceful dancer. She has taken up the fad of barefoot dancing and dances in this way a great deal. More than this, she goes barefoot about our home and has no hesitation in appearing before strangers in this way. I cannot help thinking this improper, but my pleading with her is in vain, as she insists there is nothing immodest about bare feet. Do you thing this is bad form on her part?

                                                L. S.

There is certainly no reason why a young woman should not take up the barefoot dancing. If one is graceful and supple there is a decided charm about the aesthetic dance. Of course, it is in execrable form to go about the house in bare feet, especially to appear in this manner before strangers. There is, as the young lady states, nothing immodest about bare feet, but it is not ladylike to appear in them except when engaged in that kind of dancing.

Oh, the horrors!

Da Nile

December 17, 2010

It’s more than just a river in Egypt.

A week ago there was an article in The Detroit News entitled Barefoot craze hits everyday footwear. It’s mainly just a plug for a shoe made by Sanuk that they call a “Sidewalk Sandal”. It is yet another minimal support shoe (though, of course, it is not barefoot). I suppose if you have to wear something on your feet for your job, it’s better than nothing. (Huh? What am I saying? Of course, nothing is better. Let me try again: if you have to wear something on your feet for your job, it is probably among the least burdensome. How’s that? But I digress.)

But then the article makes the mistake of talking to the usual coterie of barefoot-ignorant and barefoot-hostile podiatrists:

Podiatrists aren’t thrilled with this celebration of shoelessness. People wear shoes, they say, because in modern society they need them.

Really? Why? Any support for this? Of course not.

Few people have an ideal foot type that doesn’t require support, said Brett Sachs, a Wheat Ridge, Colo., podiatrist. “Most people I see are ones who have flat feet or high arches or are getting other types of symptoms related to the fact they don’t have the support their feet should provide them and stress is getting redistributed to other parts of the body.”

Now this is just crap. How the heck did our remote ancestors ever manage to survive? Practically everybody has an ideal foot type that doesn’t require support. That’s the way evolution works. That’s what was found in the Hoffman study I often cite. This guy, in his daily practice, sees nothing but feet that have problems because they spend all their time in stiff-soled shoes that make them dependent upon getting support. And then he thinks that feet are naturally that way.

I’m reminded of how, for the longest time, it was thought that back belts were the way to go to prevent job-related back injuries. Everybody knew it. Until an actual study was done. A Prospective Study of Back Belts for Prevention of Back Pain and Injury, by James T. Wassell, et al. in The Journal of the American Medical Associationa, December 6, 2000, Vol. 284, No. 21, p. 2727, found no effect at all.

Barefoot advocates say going shoeless makes them feel more powerful, but Clinton Holland, an Englewood, Colo., podiatrist, doesn’t buy it.

“The whole idea of strengthening your feet by not wearing shoes, there’s nothing that backs that up,” he said. But he’s not opposed to shrinking from support.

“I tell patients, if it helps you, do it,” he says. “If it feels better, then knock yourself out.”

OK, I’ve read few things quite as moronical. He is basically saying that exercising a body part will not strengthen it. Really? But it is so nice (and condescending) of him to let us know that he will deign to let us go barefoot. It would be nice, though, if he recognized the limits of his practice.

I’ve mentioned before that podiatrists rarely see people who go barefoot all the time, so they just don’t have experience in the area. When they were in medical school, the learned tons of information, but all that information had been distilled for them (that’s what medical school does—distills and presents the information they need in their practice), and that information had been based on studying a shod population. And when it comes to barefooting, they are operating outside of their field of expertise and often don’t even know it.

It is kind of like examples we see on Monsters Inside Me in which somebody picks up some tropical parasite, and that person has to go through a whole slew of doctors before they find one who actually knows what is going on.

Immune System

December 15, 2010

Over at the Facebook page for The Barefoot Book, author Daniel Howell asks:

Is there a connection between shoes & immunity? Many long-time barefooters report stronger immune systems.

I answered:

I’d be very careful generalizing. This is one area in which confirmation bias could be very, very strong, and an area in which one should be suspicious of anecdotes. I think a careful study with decent controls would really be needed to tease out any effect.

Let me go into more detail here.

First of all, what is confirmation bias? It is the tendency for humans to remember things that agree with what they already think and to forget those that disagree. This effect has been well-demonstrated in many cognitive studies. So, what we need to do is conduct well-designed studies that remove such bias.

Quite a few barefooters report fewer colds since they started going barefoot. Could that be from a barefoot-induced improved immune system? Well, I suppose it’s possible, but I personally tend to doubt it.

I’ve noticed that I tend to get fewer colds since going barefoot. But let me note how confirmation bias and other confounding factors could work into that. First, I have not kept careful track of my colds over the past years, so I really don’t know if I am getting fewer of them now. It may seem that way to me, but without accurate records, that could just be confirmation bias. Second, my kids are older now and have (mostly) left the house. When they were really little, it seems they were always bringing a cold home, and of course I’d catch it. As they grew older, they didn’t need such close care, and were much more careful about covering their noses when they sneezed, so transmission vectors were reduced. And now with them mostly out of the house, the opportunity for catching something from them is really, really reduced.

Now, that period coincides with my taking up barefooting. Without decent controls, it would be easy to attribute fewer colds to barefooting instead of what is the more likely explanation: fewer chances to get a cold.

There is also the question of mechanism. How might going barefooting increase the efficacy of the immune system when it comes to colds? Without at least a scientifically plausible mechanism, it all seems unlikely. I can think of two possible mechanisms, both fairly weak. First, we’ve noted that going barefoot can improve circulation. Maybe that does something, but the circulation is really only in the feet, and I don’t see how a cold virus would notice that, or how that would effectively raise the immune system. Second, and this one is more plausible, stress has been shown to depress the immune system. So if going barefoot gives you a better feeling of contentment and reduces stress, then it could improve your immune system. I’m not sure this is a really strong effect, though.

So, this is why I say it would really take a decent study to figure it all out.

So far I’ve focused only on colds. There are other areas in which I think barefooting might have a larger impact on the immune system. One reason may be the Hygiene Hypothesis, which suggests that an overly clean environment, one that our ancestors did not have, might insufficiently stimulate the immune system and lead to allergies. Of course, if you go barefoot, your body is physically exposed to a lot of dirt, so it could help with allergies.

In addition, there is the famous anecdote of the guy who cured himself of a severe allergy by infecting himself with hookworm. There has also been a study backing that up.

I can see another way the immune system could be strengthened. For all the hiking I do, I do occasionally get small dings on my foot, and those dings come into direct contact with the soil and soil micro-organisms. Of course, my immune system has to react to that. What I seem to have noticed is that (look out for confirmation bias!) while originally I would get some redness as my immune system had to develop new antibodies, the more I barefooted, the less redness would result, presumably because my body could call upon my pre-existing antibodies against those soil bacteria. That could come in handy if my body gets exposed to such bacteria in other contexts, and might give me an immunological advantage over a person who had not had such previous exposure.

Bottom line: there is some possible anecdotal evidence, but it needs to be backed up with carefully designed studies.

Freaking People Out

December 12, 2010

Here in the Columbus area, the past week has been pretty cold, with highs in the low to mid-20s. Yesterday we had a break, with it going up to around 45. I took advantage of the weather to break out of some cabin fever, and I headed down to Hocking Hills for a bit of a hike.

It’s really pretty this time of year, with really large icicles hanging down at the waterfalls and wherever else water drips (a lot of places). There was about a ¼ of an inch of snow on the ground, but that really didn’t concern me.

Barefoot hiking, just by itself, is a lot of fun. All the textures and the opportunity to feel all the foot parts working in harmony is quite nice. But I have to admit that today was fun for another reason: freaking people out.

The temperature when I started was about 35°; I found it pretty comfortable. There were both snowy areas and areas that had been cleared by other people’s footsteps. The route I started out with did not have too many people, and the few I passed did not even seem to notice the state of my feet. The first folks I met were up along Rose Lake; it appeared to be a Boy Scout Troop with leaders. The leader did notice me, and had nothing but words of admiration. I kind of gave him the standard “CIVD” spiel, which he really got. In the end, though, I finished with one of my standard lines: “It looks more impressive than it really is.” And that is true; I was just walking along quite comfortably.

My next real encounter with people was quite a bit later, after I had turned around at a fire tower, and returned to Cedar Falls. There, I talked to the leader of a different Boy Scout Troop (this time I asked). We ended up talking for about 10 minutes before he even noticed my lack of footwear (the boys all assured him that they had noticed immediately). Again, I had a chance to educate a bit.

And here you can see me at Cedar Falls (you can see that much of the waterfall pool was frozen over from the previous week of cold weather):

An Icy Cedar Falls

Farther down I talked to another group. One of the members of the group was more interested just in the fact that I was hiking barefoot (as opposed to temperature), and there I gave another of my standard lines:

We go into the woods to see the sights, smell the smells, and hear the sounds, and then we turn off our sense of touch.

He actually sounded like he might like to try it some time (maybe warmer weather, though). Yay!

At another location on my way back, a woman noticed me and suddenly said, “You’re barefoot!” “Well, yes. Yes I am.” And then she caught me speechless, saying, “That looks comfortable.” “Well, yes. Yes it is.”

Overall, I was out about 3 hours (including the time stopped to talk to people), and I hiked a bit over 7½ miles.

Oh, and I also had a bit of fun imagining freaking out some other people, those who hadn’t actually seen me. This is how:

Snow Print

Tuó

December 10, 2010

Here’s a nice video from the German folk duo, “Tuó”:

“Tuó” is Tasmin Gutwald and Oda Tiemann.


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