Sunday, January 20, 2013

A few of my favorite things

There are assumptions and articles of faith that may be hundreds of years old, but they don't work anymore because people ask questions, on the internet, and discover that other people have the same questions.  And because its easy to do the research now, compared to even a hundred years ago, we can quickly discover that these assumptions are groundless, that the assumptions are in fact just coyotes frantically overextending their run off the cliff, high over the desert floor.  Our culture in this sense is a lot like an eight-year-old child: Lots of things happened to us when we were four, and while we were conscious and present through that growth our brains just weren't ready to store them, and so the events underlying our current behavior are a bit of a mystery, and a lot of them we just don't remember.  But we're finally starting to put things together.

For the next few posts I want to talk about a few I've recently come across.

The Vibram Five-fingers shoes launched a revolution that had been brewing for decades.  In the last ten to fifteen years biomechanicians started to question the need for padding and what's known as drop in running shoes.  The mass-consumerization of running started obviously with Nike, a company that made billions off the idea that exercise was fulfilling and fun and they would sell you the best tools for facilitating that exercise.  Exercise certainly is a good thing, and all the more so since half the planet strapped itself into a chair in front of various complex displays of symbols - like the one you're in front of right now - about a hundred years ago.  And there's nothing wrong with making a buck off a good thing; people have been doing that as long as there were people.  If Nike could be faulted for anything - and they're not the only ones who can be faulted, because the other running shoe companies at the time did the same thing - its for arguing that research showed plush, cushy shoes were the key to reducing injuries. 

Instead, in the forty-or-so years since running shoes went from racing flats and flat-soled Keds or Chucks to a gigantic business with lots of technology, injuries from running have skyrocketed.  80% of runners year-in and year-out get injured at least once a year, and as a runner, I can tell you that the kinds of injuries you get are debilitating and impact your daily life and mobility enough that your family complain about the stupid running habit.

Well, it turns out that most of those injuries are caused by the shoes.  Christopher McDougall tells the story in a much more picturesque way, but both books are the links are good starts to understanding where the debate sits.  A huge body of thought, and consequent practice, has developed around the idea that the unshod human foot is a delicate flower completely unprepared and incapable of defending itself from the brutal reality of the trail, or the street, or even the grass.  When barefoot running first came to prominence ten years ago I personally thought it was crazy.  I'd grown up with the assumption that you needed technology to protect yourself: thick soles to keep the shale out, heavy collars around your ankles, shanks to support the base of your foot.  It wasn't even that I'd been taught that I needed big shoes, as a nascent hiker and climber, but over time I just came to believe it.  I would take my family on hikes and sneer at the people doing long steep trails in running shoes, and make sure my own children had their ankles encased in leather, as heavy - and uncomfortable - as possible.  I couldn't, for the life of me, understand why they hated hiking so much, but that would go away with time.  Big hiking boots were just the basic cost of enjoying nature, I thought.  And I was not the only one, obviously.

All the while, nagging away at us in the back of our collective species-mind, was the fact that various pre-Nike or even pre-Mallory people had climbed enormous heights and walked incredible distances without the benefit of 15 mm drop shoes and memory-foam inserts and cushioned lugs that make you feel like you're walking on pillows, and orthotics and various other forms of pronation "correction," and steel half-shanks and mid-calf plastic collars.  The elaborate religious sites found on top of steep mountains that weren't discovered by white guys until the advent of hob-nail boots, the quick spread of human beings from one corner of the globe to the other: all of that was apparently done by people with twisted ankles, sore feet, inefficient gaits, and on sandals, for pete's sake.  Just how dorky is that? 

The assumption is that the foot, which is the result of millions of years of long-distance running in the service of hunting, communication and exploration, is inadequate to the task of running.  It turns out that assumption is wrong, and it wasn't really based on much science or even common sense.  The specific history of that assumption is related ably by McDougall and Katvosky and Larson (and others) in the links above, and I highly recommend you read them.  What's even more fascinating than the history of the assumption, however, is that the debate now is between the people who argue that, even though injuries have increased with the use of built-up running shoes, the onus is on the people who argue technology isn't necessary.  The intervention of technology is now the established norm, and people who argue the foot doesn't need intervention have a high bar of proof to establish that a technology less than fifty years old is less useful than the lack of the technology in the first place.  Running shoes have created a need and while they many not be doing what they're supposed to be they are, the theory goes, better than nothing.  Well, what if nothing is actually better?   

Causation for thee, as the saying goes, but not for me.  And I would just add: people often argue the old ways are best, even when the old ways are actually new ways that everyone just assumes to be old ways.

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