06/06/2013 01:05 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Running: Barefooted (Part 1)

The New York Times occasionally publishes sound articles on fitness, but I've found their take on running to be routinely flawed. Tragically so. In following suit, columnist Gretchen Reynolds asks "Is Barefoot-Style Running Best?" and reports that "If foot muscles become tauter and firmer, the scientists say, people's arches should consequently grow higher."

Normally content to laugh and shrug off such errors, today I feel compelled to provide some perspective on running barefooted beyond pointing out that it's ligaments -- not muscles -- that determine the height and integrity of the arch of a human foot. So, here in five weekly installments is "Runnin' Nekkid," a chapter from my book Fitness, Straight-Up.

Bass Ackwards

Mark Twain said, "Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities."

Shoe companies and health care providers have traditionally put forth that various levels of biomechanical shortcomings are the root cause of our locomotive problems. We are inherently flawed, and only cleverly-designed footwear is the solution. It's no surprise then that the Brooks shoe company president, Jim Weber, says, "We strongly believe most of our mileage should be logged in a performance running shoe, not barefoot." He goes on, "Supportive, cushioned footwear is not only beneficial, it also plays an essential role in delivering a comfortable, injury-free running experience." That perspective is not without precedent. Since the 1930s, corrective shoes have been designed and marketed as tools necessary for proper function.

Original Sin

Again, that we are inherently flawed is the presupposition, and indeed, physician R. Plato Schwartz plainly stated that humans need a heel under their shoe to throw their weight forward, step by step. Schwartz, an unseemly-looking gent, had eked out a niche for himself as an insurance company bloodhound sniffing out fake limps from genuine, injury-caused disabilities before he'd give himself fully to gait research. Later, he would claim that the horrors of flat feet could be mitigated with specialized heel-counters that prevent errant movement of the heel bone beneath the shin (pronation).

That Schwartz's research and gait laboratory were directly funded by the Armstrong shoe company seemed to have escaped scrutiny by American physicians. Even his far-reaching claims that his Balance In Motion shoes, "when properly fitted, would correct flat feet, obliterate bunions, and callouses, alleviate sacroiliac pain, and," in certain cases, "cure mental derangements by removing strains from the muscles and tendons of locomotion" weren't sufficient to arch an eyebrow. Rather, it was Schwartz's application of his methods to race horse performance that finally raised the ire of the medical community.

Fashion or Function

Historically, shoes and especially shoes with heels have served several functions, but none (save for, say, protective motorcycle boots) were functional, per se. On the acting stage, heels and platforms were employed to distinguish rank and social status. Ancient Egyptian royalty was depicted in murals wearing heels while commoners were relegated to the lowly stature of bare feet. In Venice, Italy, platform shoes of 18" to even 30" -- chopines -- were worn by those who could afford such finery, along with the concomitant expense of hiring assistants to help them ambulate through street refuse and debris. Eventually, horseback riders found that a heel on their boots was useful for securing their feet in stirrups. The term well-heeled, by the way, derives from the association of the riding wear and the wealthy equestrians who wore them. However, in human locomotion and stance, heels are necessarily problematic.

Consider the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This example of a columnar structure tilted slightly at its base leaves its crown hanging precariously farther afield. We're similar, except our joints allow adjustment that provides a more visually-vertical posture, but not without severely compromising our musculoskeletal alignment, our interface with the ground itself, and our very manner of movement, all so carefully arranged over eons by Mother Nature. I'd like to add that physician Victor Barker, in his book Posture Makes Perfect, describes any heel under a shoe as a "retrograde step ... back towards the four-legged posture." Such a pervasive artifice undermines some 20 million years of human evolution, and precipitates modern infirmity.

As a fashion accessory, shoes have their place. I appreciate a stylish pair of pumps on a shapely set of legs leading up to a short, short skirt as much as the next guy. But aside from the aesthetic, heels of any kind are bad news.

Check out Running: Barefooted (Part 2): Nix the Kool Aid -- "Now, on the sober side there are podiatrists, M.D.s, and researchers who recognize some irrefutable facts..."

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