Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Footwear and an Integrated, Inductive View of the Foot

By Michael Gold

In Mid-May, some of my new shoes arrived -- and I threw out, in a very fitting way (don't ask!), my old, $120+ New Balance running shoes. Here are my new shoes (both pairs of which I highly recommend):

Why new shoes? Why not modern running and dress shoes? Aren't the shoes we already have modern and scientific? And don't they have a lot of orthopedic- and physiologic science backing them up?

Quite the contrary, I think. Unfortunately. Modern shoes are based on incomplete "science." They are not based on Aristotelian science: inductive, integrated knowledge of cause and effect.

We need to follow the Aristotelian program, and think what function(s) our feet are supposed to have. To figure out how to use and care for our feet -- and to see whether modern shoes are good or bad for our feet -- we need to appeal to physics, anthropology, study of primitive cultures, evolution, physiology, exercise science.

A good general primer is Mark Sisson's blog post "How to Strengthen Your (Bare, Flat) Feet."

The study that Mark Sisson mentions in his post -- "Conclusions Drawn From a Comparative Study of the Feet of Barefooted and Show-Wearing Peoples" by Phill. Hoffmann, M.D. -- is available for pdf download on the website of the JB&JS, the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. That website also has a summary of the article.

The pdf includes the B&W pics that Mark Sisson has posted on his site, and more. In his research, Dr. Hoffman looked at ancient sculpture as well primitive cultures, and provided some pictures of sculpture in his article. He took a much more comprehensive view of the human foot than most moderns seem to do.

A good study of the physics, physiology, and exercise science of using our feet is being done by Harvard's Skeletal Biology Lab: Biomechanics of Foot Strikes & Applications to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear. On their home page, they say:

There are many discrepancies between the way some of the press has reported our paper "Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners" (Lieberman et al., Nature, 463: 531-565) and what the paper actually reports.

Here is a summary of our findings, which we try to explain in simple terms, videos and images in the following pages:

Our research asked how and why humans can and did run comfortably without modern running shoes. We tested and confirmed what many people knew already: that most experienced, habitual barefoot runners tend to avoid landing on the heel and instead land with a forefoot or midfoot strike. The bulk of our published research explores the collisional mechanics of different kinds of foot strikes. We show that most forefoot and some midfoot strikes (shod or barefoot) do not generate the sudden, large impact transients that occur when you heel strike (shod or barefoot). Consequently, runners who forefoot or midfoot strike do not need shoes with elevated cushioned heels to cope with these sudden, high transient forces that occur when you land on the ground. Therefore, barefoot runners can run easily on the hardest surfaces in the world without discomfort from landing. If impact transient forces contribute to some forms of injury, then this style of running (shod or barefoot) might have some benefits, but that hypothesis remains to be tested.

Please note that we present no data or opinions on how people should run, whether shoes cause some injuries, or whether barefoot running causes other kinds of injuries. We believe there is a strong need for controlled, prospective studies on these problems.
We can find out more about connecting the use and care of our feet to the use and care of our body by studying the work, writing, and systems of Ester Gokhale, Erwan Le Corre (founder of MovNat), Natural Posture Running, "Shoes, Sitting, and Lower Body Dysfunctions" (HT to Christian W), and others.

With this background and more, I bought the moccasins and VFFs.

So far (it's been a month now), I love them both. On the right are the Vibram Five Fingers (pictured are the KSO Trek; I have a pair of KSO on the way). They are very close to barefoot -- though, as I have gone barefoot a lot (around the house; when sprinting; when working out with kettlebells at home; when doing Crossfit-style workouts at home) for about a year, I find barefoot is better. But I would not go barefoot to the gym or a public restroom! And the VFFs provide good foot protection on ground with rocks or sharp objects. The VFFs have a minimal sole, a low profile, and a pocket for each individual toe; they allow you to feel the surface on which you are walking, allow your foot to function naturally, and allow you to have better posture. (Do I need to add a proviso for the FDA, USDA, ICC, and all the other alphabet agencies, that I am not receiving any benefit from these companies? Well, except for the shoes I bought and paid for. And the consequences deriving from said shoes that I bought.)

Like the VFFs, the mocs -- I bought a pair of Double Bottom Softsole from Totem Pole (HT: Kara D) -- are very low (e.g., I can roll onto the sides of my feet with a smooth motion; I do not have the sudden falling clunk as with running shoes); they are very flexible; they make me feel "grounded;" they allow me to feel the ground surface I am walking on, as opposed to "anaesthetizing" running shoes or dress shoes; I feel like I am walking on earth, not an air mattress or water pillow; and they make it possible, and encourage, good foot strike on the ground. I do not have to make myself not use my heel as I did when wearing running shoes. I feel more like I am walking barefoot, as far as foot strike goes -- and this is important to me. In the month I've had them, I've noticed that proper foot strike is much easier to achieve than it was with running shoes, and walking is much more enjoyable.

Sometimes I feel -- with the nice, smooth compressions of my feet by concrete sidewalks -- like my feet are getting a massage. The VFFs sometimes allow the toes to feel stimulated like they cannot be in running shoes.

And sometimes, as quiet as my footstep can be, I feel like an American Indian on the hunt. Priceless.

Course, in the mocs, my toes are not spread out and capable of individual motion as they are with the VFFs. But I can wear mocs to work and to a restaurant, which I could not do with the VFFs. And the mocs provide more give than conventional running shoes or dress shoes, which are rigid; the mocs have a leather top and bottom, which expands and stretches with my foot.

I liked the first pair of moccasins I bought so much, that I bought more (arrived June 4th):

Pictured are two pair of Leather Laced Softsole (they are the only pair of mocs I have that are padded; but they are still low-profile and flexible) and, in the middle, a pair of Moosehide Double Bottom Softsole. The middle pair is for nicer, more formal occasions. The other pairs are for horseback riding and messing around.

Someone new to going barefoot or to wearing "minimalist" footwear might want to start with the padded mocs. As for me, I like the double-soled mocs much, much better. But I've been sprinting and exercising barefoot for over a year now. When the padded mocs wear out, I'll replace them with some double-soled mocs rather than another pair of padded.

Barefoot would be optimal, allowing you to feel the ground (thereby giving you sensory data and feedback that you miss when wearing shoes), adjust to minor and large-scale variations in the terrain (again, you miss this when wearing cushed-up shoes; but this is not so much an issue with mocs and VFFs), develop muscles and tendons needed for balance and strength (with modern running shoes, this does not happen as much as is optimum; VFFs and the mocs are very close to optimum).

But I need something I can wear to work and something to wear to the gym to work out. Vibram Five Fingers or barefoot would not be appropriate to wear to work. Even moccasins will probably be pushing the bounds for some people.

Some notes on mocs and VFFs:

1. I have been going barefoot, i.e., sockless, in my mocs so my feet are getting discolored. You might want to wear socks.

2. The mocs are secure and comfortable, but easy on, easy off.

3. One night, when walking in a wet grocery store parking lot, wearing a pair of the Laced Leather Softwole mocs, I found myself slipping a little on some steps. I'd like better traction than that. And, since the mocs were made from a single piece of leather, my feet were getting slightly moist/damp. It would be a good idea to get a pair with a thin rubber bottom or a pair of hard-soles. And maybe to apply some water repellent to a pair.

4. The recommendation for sizing on the Vibram site seems accurate. Follow the instructions for sizing on Some people have recommended getting a size bigger than what those instructions say.

5. Re perspiration in VFFs, you can wash the shoes, then let them air dry. I have not, of course, had to deal with that yet. I've read some things (not much) about cleaning and deodorizing them; someone recommended baking soda.

Update (6-24-10, 10:10 PM):
6. The VFFs and mocs, being lower to the ground than running shoes, might require you to roll up your jeans/pants or buy some new jeans/pants.

7. The padded mocs (which have a single piece of leather for the sole) seem narrower than the double-soled pair. Maybe it was my imagination. I'll have to measure them.

8. The size 42 VFF KSOs, I received last Thursday (6-18). They did not have a lot of toe room, as I worried they would. They fit good. In fact, they make me want to try on a size 43. But, as I said, the size 41 KSO Trek fit just fine.

9. Since there is such variation in the shoes by style, and since it's looking like I should be wearing a size or two bigger shoe than I measured to fit, I think you should decide what size to get by trying shoes on.

Here are some companies and individuals that sell similar footwear (HT to Kevin A and David L for some of these):

Vivo Barefoot -- minimalist shoes

Russell Moccasin -- handmade, custom moccasins, boots, and shoes

Sa-Cinn -- moccasins and mukluks (appear to be authentic & handmade)

List of companies/people who make American Indian moccasins

Native Arts Trading -- handmade, custom authentic Indian moccasins

Spirit Connection Store -- Native American-style moccasins and moccasin kits

Feelmax Footwear -- minimalist footwear

Barefoot Ted's Sandals -- sandals and more

I'd be interested, of course, in hearing what others have to say. Questions? Thoughts? Criticisms? Further input?

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