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August 20, 2009

Wonderfully Made

(Admin note: this one got a little carried away. Two separate stories, without much common ground unless you’re really reaching. I reached, and mashed them both together here. You can be the judge of how it all came together.)

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

“For you created my inmost being;
You knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

- Psalm 139:13-14 (New International Version)


When I was younger, everyone wanted to fix my feet.

Shortly after I learned to walk, my parents noticed that my toes turned inward so much that I often tripped over myself. My pediatrician observed that my femur and tibia (thigh bone and shin bone, for the anatomically challenged) were excessively rotated towards each other, and that my ankles rolled inward as well. He recommended an orthopedic specialist, who prescribed a lot of bracing and splinting.

Healthy bone development became an indelible crusade of my youth. As a toddler, I slept with a rigid brace that kept my legs in a spread-eagle position, with a metal crossbar to hold them in place. Once I became more active, I wore leg braces like a young Forrest Gump. And when the braces became intolerable, I used various types of orthotics in all of my shoes.

I also had to do a nightly stretching routine that included sitting with my legs crossed – what used to be called Indian style, but now is “criss-cross applesauce” at my daughter’s kindergarten (we’re much more PC nowadays, I guess) – for as long as I could tolerate. I couldn’t tolerate very much at all; a few minutes at a time would be excruciating.

**

Around that same time, a man named Bill Bowerman was pouring molten rubber onto a waffle iron, experimenting with designs for what would become the first modern-day running shoe. Nike’s Waffle Trainer debuted in 1974, triggering the biggest running boom in American history, and inspiring countless other companies to turn their efforts towards grabbing a financial share of one of the most rapidly expanding consumer markets ever seen.


Over the ensuing years, most advances in running shoe technology were geared towards augmenting the apparent shortcomings of natural biomechanics. They cushioned our heelstrike with air pillows or gel chambers or elastic grids. They prevented our pronation with rollbars and medial posts. They limited our ankle motion with stability devices or rigid platforms. The underlying philosophy was that our feet were ill-equipped to sustain a habit of regular running, and that in order to make such an activity comfortable, a shoe had to compensate for the deficiencies of the human foot.

But what if they’re trying to fix something that wasn’t broken to begin with? Barefoot runners, as well as a growing number of podiatrists and orthopedic doctors, will tell you that’s precisely what’s happening.

Think of it this way: if you were engineering the perfect weight bearing structure, you’d create an arch. If you wanted to include ideal shock absorption, you’d allow that arch to flex slightly upon impact, with cords of variable tension supporting the structure on all sides. For dynamic energy transfer, you’d create it with several interlocking components capable of movement in multiple directions. For durability, you’d make the building blocks out of the hardest, strongest material you can find.

Well, guess what you’ve just designed? The human foot! 26 bones and 33 joints crafted together to form a perfect arch, held together by more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments all working in harmony. And yet, for the better part of 40 years, the prevailing philosophy within the running shoe industry is that God somehow made us imperfect or broken, and they took it upon themselves to fix us.

Even worse, when we strive to correct what doesn’t need correcting, we often end up causing more problems than we solve. Any adjustments made at the foot and ankle are compensated at some point higher up the kinetic chain – most frequently in the knees, hips, and low back area. It’s quite telling that while all of the protective and comfort features of modern footwear haven’t decreased the overall injury rate among runners in the past 30 years, our rates of lower back disorders are higher than ever. (That’s something of an oversimplification – for example, there are certainly other factors involved with back pain – but there’s no arguing about which direction the numbers of both injury groups are trending.)

Thankfully, shoe manufacturers have begun to recognize the value of doing less; that maybe the best solution to injury prevention isn’t to create the perfect corrective device, but to eliminate many of the features that had already been attempted. The result is a whole new category of “minimalist” or “natural running” footwear that allows the foot to maintain its normal biomechanics. Several shoe companies have embraced this movement, including some of the biggest names in the industry.

Vibram is far and away the leader in this regard, with its revolutionary Five Fingers, which is little more than a protective layer of rubber on the soles of your feet. Running in Five Fingers is a transformational experience; they enable you to mimic barefoot running almost precisely, without the threat of puncture wounds from broken glass or rusty nails. Danish company ECCO, famous for their luxury dress shoes, has a running shoe called the BIOM which promotes the natural motion of the foot in a high-performance trainer. The Newton company bases its whole product line on the premise of maintaining barefoot biomechanics as closely as possible.

Even Nike has gotten in on the act. The shoe giant invests heavily on research and collaborates with some of the best coaches in the sport to analyze the foot’s natural motion. The resulting product line is called Nike Free – whose initial ad tagline, ironically, was “Run Barefoot” – with the goal of combining the normal biomechanics of barefoot running with the cushioning and support of an everyday trainer. It’s almost like the process is coming full circle, back to the time when running shoes were little more than protective covering for the soles of your feet.

(Admin note: all of the shoes mentioned above will be reviewed here in the near future, starting with the Vibram Five Fingers next week.)

Of course, you can always run barefoot as well - just like people did for centuries before the sneaker was invented, and like an increasing contingent of modern runners are demonstrating every day. So perhaps our feet aren’t broken, after all – and if we let them work in the way they were originally designed, we won’t have to deal with bigger problems further down the road.

**

Fast-forward about 35 years from the baby thrashing in his crib against a metal contraption intended to fix what was thought to be broken. I have a son now - and when he was a toddler, his ankles rolled so far inward that the medial malleoli (the bony prominences on the inside of each ankle) nearly touched the ground. He frequently stands with one leg turned inward so far that the toes point backwards. He has a hard time sitting cross-legged.

Discussing these findings with his pediatrician and a local orthopedic surgeon, I had two separate but very similar conversations:

Me: Is this something we should be concerned about?

Doctor: Does it cause him any pain, or prevent him from doing anything?

Me: No.

Doctor: Then we should just leave it alone. Things tend to work out on their own.

It seems that conventional wisdom in the medical community is almost the exact opposite today than it was when I was a child. Instead of trying to fix things that look like they’re imperfect or broken, we let the body work the way it was designed. We resist the temptation to correct God’s creation with technology, and in most cases, we therefore avoid causing bigger problems down the road.

On some level, I inherently knew this premise even as a youngster. I ravaged against the metal brace so fiercely that my parents soon gave up on it. (To this day, my dad’s main recollection of that experiment was how the noise of me banging the hell out of my crib nearly drove him insane, and how many holes I smashed into the drywall with the metal rods. Needless to say, he wasn’t a big fan of the brace, either.) Likewise, the walking braces were quickly abandoned due to noncompliance, and when I moved out of the house as a teenager, one of my first defiant acts of freedom was to throw my orthotics in the garbage.

I still managed to play sports as a kid, and maintained an otherwise healthy active lifestyle. Later on, as I evolved into a runner and triathlete, I latched onto motion control and anti-pronation shoe models for several years, but eventually bid those particular crutches good-bye as well.

To this day, my thigh bones still turn inward, my shin bones still have an unusual curvature to them, and I still can’t sit cross-legged for more than a few seconds. Whether I would have been better off following the doctors’ instructions for all those years, I guess I’ll never know.

There’s one thing I know for certain, however: God didn’t make me broken. And of all the reasons I could give for venturing into the world of barefoot running, there’s a simple one that speaks the loudest to me: I’m doing it just the way He intended.

11 comments:

don 8/20/09, 9:20 PM  

I remember going to a see a podiatrist in my twenties who told me that I would never be able to run. How ironic that I might have missed out on one of the activities that provides me with so much joy.

I agree with you, there is a lot to be said for running (almost) barefoot. I am very intrigued by it so I am thankful for your post.

Bruce 8/21/09, 4:09 AM  

I agree to , barefoot running the most natural thing you can do. Any shoe that encourages you to run as you would if you were barefoot ( ie mide of fore foot landing) has to be worth a look.

Anne 8/21/09, 4:56 AM  

I wore a back brace as a kid, so I can relate to a lot of what you wrote. And especially accepting our own imperfections as being part of a grand design.

Jon (was) in Michigan 8/21/09, 5:10 AM  

I'm agreeing with most of this, Donald, except the Newton's. Its a bass-akwards way of engineering a shoe. They know the right mechanics, but they overdesigned the shoe to do what a simple pair of flats will do. There's way too much height in the Newton's and it makes them just as unstable as any other high-heeled running shoe out there.

If you can get a pair, I would recommend looking at the Mizuno Wave Universe II, and the Adidas Adizero PR (or the PRO's if you have to). Much flatter, much better for a natural running form.

Also, Nike still doesn't get it about correct running. Their Nike Free is designed to be flexible, but still assumes a heel-striking stride. Even their ads show it. They still don't know that walking and running are two entirely different forms.

Makita 8/21/09, 5:44 AM  

Great post - your topics meshed well, IMO. I agree with Bruce, "Any shoe that encourages you to run as you would if you were barefoot has to be worth a look." I look forward to reading your reviews. I'd love to give barefoot running a try. :)

Backofpack 8/21/09, 8:03 AM  

It's interesting and tempting, but something I can't quite imagine myself doing. I'm sure it would solve my toe nail problems though. What would you do on trails? Rough, rocky, rooty trails? What about traction?

shel 8/21/09, 10:53 AM  

so sorry you had to go through all that awful business with the braces. nicely written and inspirational!

back of pack - actually your bare feet get fantastic traction in the woods. vibram is also coming out with a new shoe called the trek, it will look like one of their other models, except have a thicker sole, with more grips and grooves cut out of the bottom for trail running.

Annette 8/21/09, 11:23 AM  

Amen, brother! :) I get so frustrated with clients I see who have been told certain shoes are bad for them or even that they should never go barefoot. Hello? You shouldn't walk on your own feet? How about exercise? The right exercises can do amazing things for people. I recently saw an ad for running shoes that are so corrective it scares me! I'm glad that there are some companies that are going a different direction. OK - now you've got me started. . . I'd better stop unless I want to write an entire post. ;)

21stCenturyMom 8/23/09, 9:51 PM  

This is really interesting to me. As a toddler I walked like a duck. My feet generally made a V most of the time. I remember a friend in 5th grade cracking up when I took my shoes off and they were in that V shape. However, when I was a baby my pediatrician told my mother to keep me out of shoes as much as possible and just let my feet do their thing.

As an adult I'm a pronator and I have a lot of problems because of it. If I'm in the wrong shoe all sorts of bad things happen - I get shin splints and black toes and sore knees. I'd love to think that the most bare bones shoe is the best solution but my knees would probably say otherwise.


So my podiatric history (if there is such a thing) is exactly the opposite of yours and yet it has lead to the same place - running comfortably.

Anonymous,  8/24/09, 11:06 AM  

Hi Donald,

Thanks for meeting with me on Friday at Starbucks. I hope I gave you a good overview of the BIOM story. I am excited to get a pair of BIOM A in yak leather on your for testing and your review. It seems your readers are excited about running footwear which is minimalist in its design and promotes natural motion. We believe BIOM does both. As you know, you and your readers can find out more about BIOM at the ecco.com website.

Get BIOMized......

David Helter
General Manager
ECCO Performance

Anonymous,  8/24/09, 2:50 PM  

My options were orthopedic shoes, leg braces at night, breaking some bones or be doomed to duck-footedness (and slowness) the rest of my life.
Started running at 27 and was frequently injured - I blamed it on my feet, but it was mostly stupidity (i.e. failing to be patient). When Nike came out with the Sock Racer I set my PRs. Then stupidity took over for 20 years, as I reverted to over-controlling defects.
Look forward to your reviews for my next shoes/coverings.
Richard

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