Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Barefoot Experiment: Why?

In my last post I referred to going barefoot as an experiment, but I didn't put a lot of effort into explaining what I meant by it.

I am, generally speaking, a minimalist. I do crazy things like never wear a jacket unless it is below freezing. To me, the effort of carrying around a jacket all day and keeping track of where it is is a pain in the butt and something I'd rather not do. So instead, I condition myself to go without. Similar, I don't like being weighed down by heaving shirts and warm pants that will inevitably be too warm to wear indoors, where I spend most of my time. So I condition myself to be able to wear shorts and tshirts most of the year. No, I don't live in Florida. Yes, it does snow here in the winter. I am one of those few people who know what kind of traction sandals get on ice and in snow (actually quite decent).

Imagine my glee when I discovered that some people put shoes in the same category as I put jackets. Part of my minimalist nature is questioning things that others see as normal. If I only need a jacket if I'm cold, is there some other way I can manage the problem of being cold? If the human foot when millions of years without shoes, are they really needed? If the human foot is as well adapted to walking and running as the evidence seems to indicate, what would happen if I kicked off my shoes for a while?

The common question other barefooters and I often get is "Why go barefoot?" To me, this question is the first sign of a misunderstanding. The question, as far as I'm concerned, really ought to be "Why wear shoes?"

In my quest for answers, I determined that I actually had no reasons of my own. I hate when that happens. The main reason I wore shoes was because I always had and so had everyone else I knew. That's a pretty lame excuse, right up there with "because!"

Why else wear shoes? Safety is a pretty common one, and also hard to ignore. The modern world has a lot of hazards for bare feet. Glass, nails, discarded needles, dog crap, etc. Well that's a bummer, I already found plenty of reasons to wear shoes. Time to adjust the question. If shoes are needed, what part of the shoe's function is really needed? A quick look over my list reveals: a sole. That's not much of a shoe. Once you bind that to your food with something you've got some form of sandal. Interesting. Is that the best we can do? Sandals are kind of thick soled and numbing, though, so maybe there's something better. Leather moccasins? That'd do the trick. Surely the human race has discovered or invented something better than that though. Oh look, an Italian company did, years ago. Vibram FiveFingers are a modern solution to my problem. A thin rubberized sole with just enough covering to keep the sole on. And the sole is so minimal it does absolutely nothing but protect your feed from little sharp things and scuffing. Sweet, problem solved. As a bonus, they're also light, which goes perfectly with my shorts and t-shirt habits.

Part of wearing such minimalist shoes is watching where you are stepping and adjusting your stride based on the excellent bio-feedback from your soles. I made a couple interesting observations during my first month of wearing my Vibram FiveFingers KSOs. First, my feet were losing their sensitivity. I could no longer feel the small details that at first were almost overwhelming. In hind sight, that should've been expected. The second observation was the breakthrough, however.

I saw hardly ANY of the barefoot hazards I was afraid of! I saw some broken glass at a bus stop, and.. actually, that's it. In a whole month, I saw one single hazard, and it was trivially avoidable. Well now... this might change some things. Some of my assumptions were wrong! Time to re-evaluate my decisions on footwear.

Taking into account what I'd observed myself and what others' had described of their experiences, I decided to take the plunge.

The result: I haven't found enough reasons yet to put my shoes back on. At least not full-time. I do wear shoes, of sorts, for certain occasions and locations. Since I'm such a minimalist and pragmatist, I follow Barefoot Moe's advice on backup footwear and I now carry a pair of $2 flip flops in the lower pockets of my shorts. In my case, I use these backup shoes for places that ask me to wear shoes and in public washrooms. Surprisingly few restaurants actually ask patrons to wear shoes. Equally surprising was that local public transit seems to require shoes (even though they don't post it anywhere but claim to). I went through a rebellious phase before realizing it was just too much effort. Especially since the point was to put less effort into my footwear.

What's next? It's an ongoing experiment. As new data is collected, I am regularly re-assessing the situation. I even have my next set of questions and challenges lined up! What about winter? If freezing is my threshold for wearing a jacket, what is my threshold for wearing shoes? And if I do need shoes, what is the minimum required shoe to address ONLY the temperature problem?

Next time I'll ramble on about some of the things I've learned and questions I thought I'd never ask.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Latest Experiment: Living Barefoot

In reference to this

A couple months ago I read an article about the lack of science behind the modern running shoe. A lucky find in my random surfing. I sent it around and my friends and I talked about it for a bit and mused about what the ideal shoe would be like. Well it didn't take long to discover that several companies were already working on the ultimate minimalist shoe.

In short order I'd found a local retailer for Vibram FiveFingers and had a shiny new pair of KSOs to run around in. It didn't take long to wonder if I could wear the shoes full-time and with that curiosity came more surfing and searching. I was amazed at the number of people around the world who had sworn off shoes entirely, never mind the whole minimalist shoe concept. I was intrigued, to say the least.

I never did like shoes, and it was as if I'd suddenly been told I was right all along. Ya ya, don't believe everything you read, I know... but that begs the question of why do we wear shoes in the first place? I've always been one to question the status quo, so I did. As of this writing, I haven't worn shoes (flip flops, actually) for more than a few steps inside restaurants and public bathrooms in the last month. And that was after a full month of wearing my KSOs full-time.

My feet have changed shape, and I have started developing muscles below the knees the average person has no use for. When I say my feet have changes shape, I'm serious. After wearing KSOs for a few weeks, my Airwalks and New Balance runners started feeling very different. Tight across the toes and forefoot. Almost too tight to put on and certainly too tight to wear for any extended periods. At this point, I can honestly say that I don't even know if my "normal" shoes even fit me anymore!

Where was I? Oh ya... searching the intarwebs..

While in search of local barefooters (running, hiking, whatever!) to meet and learn from, I stumbled upon Al's meetup.com profile, which had a link in it to the Living Barefoot website. There I found forums and a small collective of barefooters from around the world. It's only a few months old, but it sure seems to be picking up in popularity. Oh, and how awesome is this, they are putting together The Living Barefoot Show. If the teaser is any indication, it promises to be a killer show.

After finding several excellent websites about the ins and outs of going barefoot, I was eager to find something in print. I soon learned that, at that time, such a book was mere weeks away from publishing. Born To Run is one of the best books I've read, on any topic. Granted, I don't read a lot of non-programming books, but it's still true. It's an excellent account of the author's journey into the world of ultra-running, minimalist footwear, and the idea that humans are actually natural born distance runners. As it turns out, that first article I read that got me started on this path was actually one of the chapters in this book.

So, if any of the two or three people following this blog have any secret desires to liberate their feet or even just meet some cool people, stop by the Living Barefoot Forums. I post as "Ryan".

If you're looking for great blogs by people on the forums, Barefoot Moe, Tina, and Barefoot Michael are all very active on the boards.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Time For A Change

I've been getting the itch to write again, so I'm starting to jot down notes and ideas for future posts. My first thoughts about the process are what topics and what is my purpose for writing. I think I'll approach it as an experiment, and that ought to cover both questions.

This won't be a proper experiment following any sort of establish method, but more of an open ended self-study. I've got several completely unrelated interests which are different enough that they really ought to be separate blogs. I'm not interested in spreading myself far enough to have multiple blogs, especially when I can't write enough to write for this one regularly. So... the answer to the first part is that I will write about any topic that comes to mind.

The purpose will be two-fold: to scratch my writing itch and to see what my interests really are. After a year or so, or a few dozen posts (sounds daunting already), I'll review what I've written and see how well my topics line up with what I think are my actual interests. I suspect I'll be making heavy use of tagging, or labels as blogger likes to call them. I'm pretty anal about categorizing things consistently, so you'll probably be able to filter out the noise by subscribing to specific labels if that's your thing.

So, to those that have found my little blog through barefooting, worry not, I've got plans for that topic. For those that have found this blog through programming/Linux, I've got plans there too. For anyone else, you're either a family member or a stalker. In both cases, I'm sure there will be enough personal news to make the blog worth following.

And I'll try to keep the meta-blogging to a minimum, I promise. I wanted to make an exception this time more as a commitment to myself.

So until next time, keep your feet bare!