Minimalist Shoes, 1915

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In light of Erik’s continuing struggle with plantar fasciitis, and my own neverending search for shoes which fit my monkey feet, we found this 1915 handbook on military footwear, The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe, by Edward Lyman Munson, a fascinating read.

Seems that way back in 1915 we knew that arch support created weak arches, and that thick soles impaired foot dynamics.

The principle message of this book is that if you want your soldiers to able to march long distances, and arrive at their destination in any shape to fight, you have to give them flexible boots which do not squash the toes or impede the natural movement of the foot. Simple as that.

So why, exactly 100 years later, are we still debating whether the foot needs lots of external support and cushioning? Why are overbuilt athletic shoes and supportive inserts still favored by mainstream opinion?

Minimal footwear enthusiasts may find the language below eerily familiar.

You can read the whole book at the invaluable

(o) The shoe should not support the arch of the foot in the sense of lifting it up or buttressing it from below. This fact is opposed to common belief, but the latter is based on lack of knowledge of the anatomy of the foot and misconception as to its function. Rigid support of this region weakens its intrinsic muscles by favoring their non-use, and thus tends to directly cause the condition of flat-footedness which it is attempted to avoid. Barefoot peoples have no such arch support and flat feet are practically unknown among them. . . . In the new shoe, the purpose is to have the leather accurately follow the outlines of the average soldier’s foot arch, but without compressing the sole muscles to such an extent that their function will be interfered with and their development and strengthening be impaired. Every structure of the foot concerned in marching should be left free to function to the best anatomical and mechanical advantage. For this reason, the new shoe has no metal shank as stiffening under the foot arch.

(p) The sole should be sufficiently thick to prevent injury by inequality in the ground. But if too thick, planter flexion of the foot is lost and dorsi flexion much reduced. The foot is thus reduced to the condition of a solid block, hinging at the ankle and simply furnishing a solid support for the leg. Moreover, with thick soles, the leveraging function of the great toe is interfered with…

(p. 51, The Soldier’s Foot)

The Other Kind of Fencing


That’s Mrs. Homegrown on the left back in 2005.

It was with great sadness that we got the news of the passing of our fencing coach Amy Fortune in April. Both Kelly and I were lucky to have taken many lessons with Amy. She was one of those teachers that bring unexpected and valuable life lessons far beyond the topic at hand. She was patient, encouraging and always positive. We miss her very much and send our condolences to her husband Geoff, also an amazing fencing coach.

When I walked into my first lesson with Amy, many years ago, she said that if she were to build a fencing robot from scratch it would look like me: tall and gangly. Unfortunately, what Amy did not know is that I lacked even a shred of natural athletic talent. Which is precisely why I’ve become obsessed with this sport. It offers me a chance to work on things I’m terrible at: strategy, mindfulness, flexibility, speed and endurance.

Continue reading…

Easing the Pain of Runner’s Knee

Salvation in foam.

Update 4/20/13: Foam rollers can be useful, but you need to be careful. I believe that overuse of a foam roller caused a nerve entrapment issue that has resulted in some numbness to my right shin. Before using a roller I strongly advice reading Foam Roller–Friend or Foe, a blog post by manual trainer Adam Mentzell. Mentzell goes over possible unintended consequences as well as some common sense rules for using a foam roller.

First off, many thanks for all the suggestions Root Simple readers sent in when I asked for help fixing my runner’s knee (in my case caused by fencing). The comment thread on that post is now, I believe, a very useful resource for dealing with runner’s knee thanks to your contributions.

While I still have a lot of strengthening to do to fix the underlying causes of my runner’s knee, the pain is almost completely gone. Several things helped. First off was rest as suggested by my doctor. Rest does not mean taking long walks (for a person like me, addicted to cardiovascular exercise, walking seems like rest). Rest means, well, actually resting. It means taking the elevator or, as my doctor put it, “not being a hero” when going up and down stairs.

But the real miracle came in the form of a foam roller. Several commentators mentioned it and my friend Elon Schoenholz actually came over with one to show me how to use it. At first I was afraid that it would make the pain worse. But out of desperation I finally decided to give it a try. After two short sessions over the course of three days 95% of the pain went away. As several commentators mentioned, using it is pure torture. But I can’t believe how quickly it worked. A commenter left a link to this video, which shows how to use a roller.

The “RumbleRoller.” Ouch!

I found a tight knot of pain and tension in the iliotibial band (ITB) just above the knee. Rolling this spot, carefully at first, loosened the ITB and, I believe, eased the pain. Elon, in dealing with his knee pain odyssey, has moved on to a more intense RumbleRoller

But my work fixing my patella femoral syndrome is far from complete. I’ve got a lot of strengthening and flexibility work to do. To that end I’ve signed up again at my local YMCA. I had let my membership lapse thinking that I could do weight training at home and save some money. This was foolish. It’s hard, with a home gym, to do lower body exercises. While some people probably do fine hefting logs in the great outdoors, I need the structure and motivation that a gym provides. Plus I really like the mission and ethos of the YMCA.

To sum up these are the four steps that helped with my patella femoral syndrome:

  • rest
  • weight training
  • foam rolling the iliotibial band
  • gym membership

I have a feeling I’ll be running and fencing again soon.