Archive for July, 2010

Foot Fault

Here’s a rather odd story:

Serena needs foot surgery, will miss three U.S. Open tuneups

Serena Williams needs surgery on her right foot after cutting it on a broken glass at a restaurant.

The story goes on to say that she cut the bottom of her foot (and in an even earlier story, the implication was that she was barefoot in the restaurant). But then further down, it is stated that when she attended a wedding, she was there with bandages on the top of her foot.

I’m wondering what really happened. Those of us who go barefoot all the time, including into restaurants, know that those places are kept spotless. Not only that, if a plate or glass is dropped and broken, they immediately clean it up. Even if they do a lousy job of cleaning up, they are not going to leave behind a piece large enough to cause a large wound and require stitches. Maybe, just maybe, a small sliver could be left behind unnoticed.

What cutting your foot on glass in a restaurant is is a convenient myth and excuse. For those who don’t know something about it, it seems natural. But I am guessing that something else happened entirely, and this is the cover story, concocted on the theory that people believe it. It so conveniently plays on people’s expectations (that we barefooters know to be false).

I’m not the only one with suspicions. The Daily Obsession also says Serena Williams’ Foot Story Doesn’t Make Sense!.

This will undoubtedly make it harder on barefooters. The shod world will see the story and use it to say to themselves, “See, I told you so.” But what they should probably be doing is having doubts about the story.

[PS. I play tennis and really like Serena. But that doesn’t stop me from calling “foul” when that’s what looks like is happening.]

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The Diane Rehm Show

The Diane Rehm Show is a National Public Radio show. On Monday, her topic was Running in America, with guests Christopher McDougal (author of Born to Run), Dr. Stephen Pribut (a specialist in Podiatric Sports Medicine), and Amby Burfoot (editor of Runner’s World, and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon).

It was a nicely balanced show, and you can listen to it here.

One thing I found interesting is the way in which Dr. Pribut’s views are changing. He was on NPR’s Morning Edition back in 2008, and seemed pretty dismissive of bare feet, flip-flops, and barefoot running, saying things like:

To prevent injury, people don’t have to toss out flip-flops or high heels entirely. But when walking a lot, presumably on hard sidewalks, Pribut says it’s better to wear shoes with some support.


Pribut says the barefoot movement may be gaining some attention for its novelty. And the idea that thousands of years ago, shoeless civilizations had healthier feet could be true.

But back then, he notes, the average life expectancy was about 30 years. And cavewomen didn’t have to contend with glass, nails, hard concrete — or fashion.

However, in Monday’s show regarding barefoot running, his attitude seems to have shifted to, “if it works for you, fine.”

I always appreciate it when doctors update their views as new information becomes available to them.

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In the last entry, I mentioned one of my hikes. I was at Great Seal State Park near Chillicothe, Ohio, so named because the mountains (ok, they’re really hills) appear on the Great Seal of the State of Ohio.

During the hike, on two separate occasions, I startled a deer. In each case I was about 30-50 feet of the deer. They never heard me coming. I really wasn’t paying that much attention, so the first I saw (or really heard) them was when they snorted in panic and took off, though one of them went about 20 feet, stopped and watched me a bit, and then took off again.

This happens to me regularly. Bare feet are just so much quieter than shoes. Part of that, no doubt, is that when you are barefoot you have to pay a bit more attention to the placement of your feet on the trail surface. When wearing hiking boots, you can just clodhop along, oblivious to what is going on below your waist. And it shows.
The other part is that your feet are made of, how do I put this?, more eco-friendly materials. They are not rigid and hard; they do not assault the earth. They mold themselves around it, and thereby stay much more silent.

Bare feet are even more quiet on gravel. One time I was on a guided hike at Clear Creek Metro Park, and the initial part of the trail took us a long a gravel road for a bit. Everybody else, in their boots, were crunch, crunch, crunching along, making a big racket. Barefoot, from me one could hear an occasional sound as one of the stones shifted a bit under my weight.

Go barefoot! Minimize noise pollution!

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I play tennis barefoot, which seems pretty extraordinary to many people. I’ve been doing it for about 9 years now, and never really had a problem. I’ve found descriptions of people trying to play barefoot and getting blisters—never happened to me. Wikipedia even has an entry about Calvin Coolidge’s son that says that he played tennis barefoot at the White House, got blisters, septic poisoning, and died from it. (This is actually false: all the contemporary news sources of the time say that he was wearing street shoes with socks—more anti-barefooting myth.)

So, do I somehow have extraordinary feet? Many newspaper articles about barefoot running will interview an anti-barefooting podiatrist, who will say that really only a small percentage of people can run barefoot. Here’s something from the Denver Post:

But experts caution that only a small percentage of runners can successfully train sans shoes.

“Your muscles, tendons and bones are balanced if your shoe is properly fit and your foot is properly supported,” said Eugene Rosenthal, a local podiatrist, who said he would never recommend running barefoot.

I doubt my feet are amongst that small percentage. So what is going on?

Well, I had been hiking barefoot for at least 4 years before I even tried playing tennis barefoot. As far as I’m concerning, hiking, on natural trails, is probably the best exercise for bare feet. The natural surface does a very good job of stimulating the muscles, tendons, and ligaments to strengthen themselves. Twigs and other irregularities stimulate the skin to build up the thickness of your sole. Thus, by the time I tried playing tennis, all the necessary connective tissue and thickened skin were already in place, and quite usable.

If I have no problems playing tennis, why, then, did I title this entry “I may be playing too much tennis?” When it is not summer, I generally play tennis about 2 hours a week, indoors. But during the summer, the group I play with switches outdoors, and we end up playing 5-6 hours a week. And what that does is wear down the thick skin on my soles, making my feet more sensitive.

That’s fine for everyday activities, and it is even fine for playing tennis on the (mostly) smooth tennis surface. But last week I took a hike in an area with a fair bit of scree-like stones, and I found my feet rather sensitive to it. I had done many parts of the same trail just a few weeks previously, and had chugged along quite happily. This time, however, I had to go quite a bit slower, at least to start out. (In the end, my feet did adapt, and it is not as if the hike was one painful or uncomfortable 6 miles.)

Hiking stimulates growth of a thicker sole. Tennis, while it strengthens the connective tissue, wears it down. It can sometimes be tricky to get the right mix of the two. (I might also add that it is tennis that the feet are not particularly adapted to—we evolved walking barefoot over various trails; we did not evolve playing tennis.)

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Happy 4th of July

Happy Barefoot 4th of July

Happy Barefoot 4th of July

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The Barefoot Book

The Barefoot Book, by Daniel Howell, is now available in bookstores everywhere. This is a great book that every barefooter ought to have.

In fact, every barefooter really ought to have about 5-10 copies, so that you can hand it out to friends and relatives who are wondering just what is it about you that makes you want to go barefoot all the time.

Dr. Howell (he is a professor of biology) starts out on the (bare) right foot: he notes that almost all the feet in the Western world may be “normal” (in that most people you see have them a certain way), but they are certainly not “natural.” The shoes that so many people wear so much of the time have modified their feet into something else. And that has consequences.

The book also contains chapters dealing with all sorts of barefoot issues . . .

Chapter 3 is a marvelous description of the way the foot is put together. I’ve studied this a bit, and even I learned new stuff. This chapter addresses not only the bones and arches of the foot, but also how the skin changes to accommodate barefoot walking, and how the sensory feedback of the bare sole is important.

Dr. Howell then goes on to discuss just what shoes do to feet, running the gamut from overheating them, to how they distort the shape and natural function of them, and just how bad hard soles and high heels are. There is also a chapter on what to do if you are just starting out going barefoot more often, and addresses walking, hiking, and the latest popularity of barefoot running. One of the things I particularly liked in the barefoot hiking section is that he notes that the flat surface of a shoe is ungiving when stepping on any sort of rock. This may provide some protection to the heel itself, but it transfers the weight up to the ankle because the ankle just has to rotate to accommodate it. When barefoot, the rounded heel can better accept that, and there is also the immediate feedback that lets one reduce the weight on that foot.

Around this part of the book is presented “the tap test” (p. 103):

The “tap test” is an interesting way to demonstrate how the skin on the sole changes with use. Once you’ve logged some barefoot miles, simply take a pencil and tap it against the skin on the sole of your foot in various places. The skin on the arch or the top of your foot will absorb the sound of the tap but the tough skin on the heel will tap loudly—almost like you’re tapping on plastic.

I would have liked to have him mention that the reason for this difference is that the skin, when under pressure, produces keratin, the same substance that makes up hair and nails. That is why the tapping gets loud on your heel and ball. It is actually the same mechanism that causes calluses; it’s just that it is not localized (like a corn) and subject to being easily caught or being painful. Instead, it is spread out over the whole bottom of the foot—an evolutionarily useful adaptation.

Minimalist shoes are also discussed. Sometimes you need them, either at work or to get past the shoe police. And finally, there’s a plea just to try going barefoot more often (and the Society for Barefoot Living is mentioned as a good resource).

Long-time members of the SBL really won’t find a whole lot new in this book. They’ll spend much of their time nodding their heads in agreement (and wanting to head out for a barefoot hike), since much of the material has been discussed on the SBL mailing list. The value-added for SBL members is the organization and the completeness (and, actually, the general easy readability) of the book. The real hope is that non-barefooters, or house-barefooters, will come across this book, give it a try, and find out exactly what they are missing. And Dr. Howell’s book does that very, very well.

One more item. The sub-title for the book is 50 Great Reasons to Kick Off Your Shoes. Scattered along the text of the book are these 50 cute little reasons, often located close to the discussion in the main text related to each one. I’ll end this entry with number 3:

Go barefoot because natural is better than “normal.”

Hear, hear.

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