British physician Mike Stroud suggested in his book Survival of the Fittest that humans are suited for a hot, not cold, climate. Had some of our ancestors not decided to move to colder climates, we may never have had footwear.
Yet most of us can hardly conceive of athletes running a race without “proper” shoes. Then again, Olympic sensation Zola Budd trained and ran barefoot. In recent years, going barefoot, both for races and regular fitness runs, is finding more adherents in developed countries.
Erik Trinkaus, professor of physical anthropology, Washington University, St Louis, suggested that the first supportive footwear appeared 26,000-30,000 years ago (Journal of Archaeological Science, July 2005). Analysing anatomical evidence from early modern humans and their Upper Paleolithic ancestors, he said, “The bones of the little toes of humans from that timeframe were much less strongly built than those of their ancestors, while their leg bones remained large and strong.” He suggested the most likely cause for this was the introduction of supportive footwear.
If going barefoot is too radical for you and you’re not quite ready for minimal footwear either, you need to know how to make the right choice from the more traditional models of walking and running shoes. To understand the basic parameters of selecting running shoes that suit you, read For the shoe to fit
A quarter of bones in the body are in the feet, 26 on either side. They have 33 joints each, more than 100 muscles, ligaments and tendons. There are 250,000 sweat glands to cool them, which are made redundant when one wears shoes. There are more nerve endings on your soles than any other body part, suggesting that touching and feeling the ground is important. The foot can sustain enormous pressure (several tonnes over the course of a one-mile run) with in-built flexibility and resiliency. The ankle serves as a foundation, shock absorber and propulsion engine. So do we need shoes at all? Or were we designed to run barefoot?
Shod for injury?
It’s commonly assumed that good athletic shoes make a better athlete. Surprisingly, there is no evidence of this. Australian researcher (also a runner and physician) Craig Richards’ team noted in a 2008 British Journal of Sports Medicine article: “Since the 1980s, distance running shoes with thick, heavily cushioned heels and features to control how much the heel rolls in, have been consistently recommended to runners who want to avoid injury. We did not identify a single study that has attempted to measure the effect of this shoe type on either injury rates or performance.”
Dr Richards took note of a Dutch research that found that 37-56% of recreational runners are injured at least once a year, mainly in the leg or foot. The standard shoe recommendation doesn’t seem to work. Indeed, given the lack of research, we can’t make any evidence-based shoe recommendations.
Hence Christopher McDougall’s controversial best-seller, Born to Run. At Harvard University, professor of biological anthropology Daniel Lieberman’s current projects include “How humans run barefoot (and why it may be good for you)”. Dr Lieberman was quoted in the Daily Mail in May as saying, “Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet and had a much lower incidence of knee injuries.”
Is the shoe industry ignoring the facts? Not really. Research and development departments at leading footwear companies have a new goal: A running shoe that recreates the barefoot environment, a good compromise. Called minimalist shoes, these include the startling Vibram FiveFingers and also mainstream brands such as Nike Free or Teva Proton series. There’s also the traditional Mexican huarache sandal .
Should you shed your shoes for good?
Despite all I have said (see ‘Treadmill’), I would find that extreme. Even if we agree that shoes are making our feet weaker, our feet are simply not accustomed to going bare any more. When a cast is put over a limb for 4-6 months, the muscles atrophy by 40-60%, and here we are talking about 20-40 years of wearing shoes for more than 12 hours a day.
If you are keen, change very gradually: first, just walk barefoot around the house; then walk on your lawn grass a few minutes a day; and so on. Honestly, it doesn’t seem very practical on Indian roads, given hygiene and safety issues. It’s more realistic to wear shoes, however basic, for their original protective purpose.
The author is a practitioner of musculoskeletal medicine and sports and exercise medicine. He is also CEO and medical director of Back 2 Fitness.
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