Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Beyond Barefoot

OK, Boomers out there (Heck, the way things are going, I could ask a 16 year-old the same questions!): When's the last time you climbed a tree? When's the last time you hopped over a fence? How about a forward roll? While hiking, when's the last time you got down on your belly and crawled under a log blocking the trail rather than looking for a way around? If you found yourself on the tenth floor of a burning building with no elevator and no shoes, could you save yourself? Could you save your companion?

When's the last time a book changed your life, even a little bit? I won't try to review Christopher McDougall's Born to Run here. It's been all over the news, and by now just about anyone who has an interest in running has read it or as heard all about it. What I want to do is reflect on how some of the revelations in the book have influenced my thinking about a lot of things.

I'm a cynic. I know it, and everyone close to me is sick of it. But, as I like to say, I come by my cynicism honestly. One of the main threads through this book deals with the myth and the scam of the modern running shoe. Humans evolved for millions of years and survived by running barefoot, yet in a few short decades the running shoe industry has everyone convinced that they can't jog a step without the the latest high-tech - and high-profit - footwear. OK, I am predisposed to the argument that running shoes can wreck your body because I'm suffering with a nagging and persistent case of plantar fasciitis, but the basic argument makes sense to me: Because of their form, support and cushioning, running shoes encourage runners to land heel-first, putting tremendous unnatural strain on the body. Furthermore, by supporting feet so thoroughly, these shoes actually weaken them.

Born to Run is mostly about running barefoot, but it is helping me to braid together several threads of thought that have be twisting around in my brain for some time now. What it is boiling down to is that we American adults - in typical Boomer over-achiever fashion - are going about exercise all wrong. How many of us spend hours on a treadmill bored out of our minds, going nowhere? How many millions of miles have we pounded out on asphalt running in straight lines preparing for 10K's and marathons? How many millions of dollars have we spent because we are convinced we need gyms, trainers and fancy equipment? I say, rather than behaving like machines or drones, we need to behave more like cavemen, or - dare I say it - children.

We need to make exercise more interesting, varied, fun, simple, and maybe even a little risky. Lately, instead of a typical slog on the road for an hour, I like to go for trail runs. I'm lucky in that from home I can quickly run to Moose Hill or nearby Town conservation land. I'm not ready for barefooting yet (Plus it's February in New England.) and I don't have any of the new minimalist footwear yet (I'm still a little skeptical about that, too.), so I focus on landing more on my mid-foot and less on my heel.

As I move across soft and variable trail surfaces, I notice that my foot doesn't hurt nearly as much as it does on pavement. Moving through the woods, I watch the terrain in front of me and try to let my body flow with the landscape; moving left and right, up and down. I start to feel like a wild animal moving gracefully through the forest. (OK, I'm an overweight mid-50's guy with a bad foot and a bad shoulder, but endorphines are powerful drugs that help me hallucinate.) As I run, I scan my surroundings for playthings: A log on the ground makes a good balance beam. A granite bolder lets me become king of the hill. A low-hanging tree branch is a good pull-up bar. I look for different ways to move my body: I bend to clear sticks from the path. If a log is in my way, I don't hesitate to hop over or crawl under. I look for stones to lift and throw. If I see a soft spot on the ground, I might do a somersault. The idea is to vary the movement and use many different muscles to stretch and strengthen the whole body, not to become over-trained in just one way. With all that running, bending, rolling, climbing, throwing and crawling, one should be ready for any physical challenge that comes up in everyday life.

There is also another component to my new thinking about exercise: Useful work. Let's be honest: Most of us have to exercise because we live cushy lifestyles and work at jobs where the biggest physical danger is the risk of a paper cut or maybe carpal tunnel syndrome. For most of us, exercise is actually something of a leisure time luxury. I don't think migrant farm workers go home at night and yell: "Let's go to the gym!" How about this: Next time it snows, don't call the plow guy. Get the kids off the couch and go out and shovel for an hour. Rather than agonize over the price of heating oil for next winter, go out and chop some firewood. Rather than drive to the Piggly Wiggly for your Pringles, hop on the bicycle and pedal over there for some whole wheat flower. Rather than hire a lawn service, push a mower for an hour a week. Better yet: Get out a spade and turn that lawn into a garden. We can find lots of way to get some exercise while doing something useful.

I like to find new ways of looking at our everyday world. I like to think about simple ways to make our lives and the world a little better. Born to Run is helping me to do that.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Agreed! Nothing improves my mood and my spirit more than physical play and physical work.