Beekeeper Kirk Anderson has a simple message, lets bees be bees. Let them form their own comb, raise their own queens and generally go about doing what they want to do. In short, work with nature rather than try to control her. “Duh,” one might say, but Kirk’s beekeeping method just so happens to run counter to a hundred years of conventional beekeeping practices and “expert” advice. Kirk calls his method “backwards beekeeping” after Charles Martin Simon’s eloquent essay, “Principles of Beekeeping Backwards.” Simon’s essay is essential reading, in my opinion, even if you have no interest in bees. It gets you thinking about what other things the so-called experts might be wrong about.
How about shoes for instance?
I was addicted to running throughout my 30s until a series of injuries in recent years, arthritis in the knees and plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of connective tissue on the bottom of the foot, effectively ended my happy morning runs. In the case of plantar fasciitis the doctors and physical therapists I consulted all said the same thing, that I should wear shoes with arch supports at all times, even around the house. A routine of stretching, incessant shoe wearing and abstaining from running beat back the pain for a year or so. But then it returned for no good reason.
Time to take those feet “backwards”
All the interventions of conventional beekeepers, the pre-built comb and endless treatments, have produced weak bees. It may seem crazy, but I began to see an analogy to our feet. We ain’t born with shoes on, after all. So why do we think we need to improve on nature’s design? Could it be that shoes, by atrophying our muscles, cause plantar fasciitis? Could the ever more massive cushioning of running shoes cause biomechanical changes that damage knees? For several years I’d been fascinated with barefoot running, but was always too chicken to try it. Two videos, done as part of a research project on barefoot running at Harvard, convinced me.
The first shows a runner in shoes with a graph of the impact forces. When you run in shoes you tend to slam down your heel first. Note the spike in the graph indicating the force of this heel impact::
When you run barefoot you tend to strike with the ball of the foot first instead of the heel, which eliminates that initial impact spike:
Desperate and with nothing to lose, I decided to VERY slowly adjust to not wearing shoes. I gradually wore them less and less around the house. I began to feel a noticeable difference immediately. My feet felt stronger. In the past few weeks I’ve begun to carefully transition to running barefoot. I’m using a program adapted from a book, Run Less, Run Faster: minus all the advice about shoes: I only run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, resting on all other days.
Week 1: (run 1 minute walk 2 minutes) x 4
Week 2: (run 2 minutes walk 2 minutes) x 3
Week 3: (run 2 minutes walk 1 minute) x 4
Week 4: (run 3 minutes walk 1 minute) x 4
Week 5: (run 4 minutes walk 2 minutes) x 4
Week 6: (run 4 minutes walk 1 minute) x 6
Week 7: (run 5 minutes walk 1 minute) x 6
Week 8 run one mile
Week 9: run 1.5 miles
Week 10: run 2 miles
Week 11: run 2.5 miles
Week 12: run 3.1 miles
While I’m fairly certain I’ll have setbacks, I’m hoping this conservative program will minimize my chances of injury and get me back to running modest distances. So far is seems to be working. I just have to contain my enthusiasm for being free of shoes and keep myself from running too much, too soon. Barefoot running really is liberating. It feels like being a kid again.
Everything we’ve been told is wrong
Dr C Richards, of the University of Newcastle in an article, “Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence based?” discovered that there is not a single peer reviewed study proving the need for running shoes. He issued a challenge to shoe makers,
“Is any running-shoe company prepared to claim that wearing their distance running shoes will decrease your risk of suffering musculoskeletal running injuries? Is any shoe manufacturer prepared to claim that wearing their running shoes will improve your distance running performance? If you are prepared to make these claims, where is your peer-reviewed data to back it up?”
He was met with a resounding silence.
That is, until Nike came out with the “Free,” a shoe that simulates barefoot running. In other words, caught with absolutely no evidence to justify their existence, Nike attempted to sell a shoe that’s not a shoe. Now that’s marketing in action! There’s also the Vibram Five Fingers, an odd looking slipper-type non-shoe. While the Vibram has it’s adherents, especially when it comes to preventing cuts from sharp objects, I feel that one of the points of running or walking barefoot is that it forces you to be more careful about the way you put your feet down.
A paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear” attempted to explain why wearers of expensive shoes have a 123% greater injury rate than wearers of inexpensive shoes. They showed,
“(1) deceptive advertising of protective devices may represent a public health hazard and may have to be eliminated presumably through regulation; (2) a tendency in humans to be less cautious when using new devices of unknown benefit because of overly positive attitudes associated with new technology and novel devices.”
The point about “overly positive attitudes associated with new technology” is a lesson well worth remembering, it seems to me. I could go on and on. I think this poetic video of a young man from Kenya, who has never worn shoes in his life, says it all:
As Kirk Anderson says, “Backwards is the new forwards.” It ain’t about nostalgia for some mythic past, the point is we’re actually going forwards here by working with nature rather than arrogantly trying to control her. And don’t worry dear readers, my hair won’t get “long and shaggy” and I’ll keep the leather boots for beekeeping duties, but you can bet I’ve bought my last pair of $100 running shoes.
For more information on barefoot running see http://therunningbarefoot.com/