Intelligent Design

Barefoot running and design of the human foot

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Over the years, there has been much interest in the design of running shoes, with product designers building in protection against impacts and other perceived hazards. However, continuing reports of repetitive strain injuries warrant further research and product re-design. The topic has come to the surface recently with a comparison of the forces experienced by feet of habitually shod versus habitually barefoot runners. It emerges that barefoot runners make contact with the ground in a way that avoids impact-related discomfort and injury.

As a matter of observation, most habitually shod runners first contact the ground with their heel. This is referred to as heel-striking or rear-foot strike. Modern running shoes have been designed to reduce the impact forces with the help of additional cushioning at the heel. Barefoot runners first contact the ground with the front part of their feet and bend their ankles more as they run. This is referred to as fore-foot or mid-foot strike. This mode of running results in reduced collision forces and enhanced comfort.
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However, the authors go well beyond the empirical data in their analysis when they ground their work in a framework of evolutionary biology. This is also the starting point for Jungers’ commentary on the research: “A commitment to walking and running on two legs distinguishes humans from apes, and has long been the defining adaptation of the hominins – the lineages that include both humans and our extinct relatives. This form of locomotion (bipedalism) has been around for millions of years, and we have been unshod for more than 99% of that time.” The view, therefore, is that the context for understanding running is that it has evolved as an adaptation under the influence of natural selection.
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There is another perspective on this, which is that of design. Design advocates will affirm: ‘Our feet were designed in part for running’. Humans live in many different environments, and the design issues are affected by the need to walk, jump, climb, carry and run in these different environments. A sensitivity to design means that we need to understand how our feet work best in different conditions, so it follows that runners should adopt a biomechanical and physiological approach to developing good running habits. Runners should train to develop the full potential of the design features of their bodies. An evolutionary story of how ape-like animals developed bipedalism is simply a veneer overlying the empirical data.

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7 Replies to “Barefoot running and design of the human foot

  1. 1
    Steve Fuller says:

    This may explain why I’ve never had any serious running injuries after 30 years of regularly pounding pavements. Though I always wear shoes, I hit the ground forefoot first. This may have something to do with the fact that I never wear shoes indoors, if I can help it.

  2. 2
    tragic mishap says:

    I was told in high school cross country to run like I was barefoot. Wearing shoes makes it tempting to run the wrong way, because it doesn’t hurt as much.

    I would not advise anybody to run barefoot. I would advise you to wear good shoes and train yourself to run as if you were barefoot. That’s the best way.

  3. 3
    TRoutMac says:

    This is particularly interesting to me, as I’ve had to deal with back problems which appear to be related at least in part to my rather defective feet. I have to wear custom orthotics which alter the way my feet support my weight, and I’ve had to learn to walk all over again because, as it turns out, my feet have forced me to walk in a way which is particular harmful to my back… and changing 40+ years of walking habits has not been easy.

    I actually don’t know what to think of the article… I can’t imagine running at all, let alone without shoes. At times it’s very difficult for me to even WALK, so obviously running is just not possible.

    The orthotics help a great deal, and thanks to them I’m able to walk with my toes straight ahead (I used to walk with toes pointed outward quite a bit) and I’m not supinating anymore, either. The orthotics compensate for a very high arch, and for a lack of range of motion in dorsal flexion by jacking up my heel and putting my foot into the middle of what range of motion I do have. My forefoot is also twisted slightly relative to my heel and ankle, which causes further difficulty.

    The guy who made the orthotics beleives our feet were “designed” (his words) to run/walk on a forgiving surface, like dirt, which conforms to some extent to your feet. He claims that nowadays we’ve sort-of rendered that design obsolete with our use of hard, flat flooring, etc., which tends to have bad implications for people whose feet aren’t perfectly formed. Like mine. He, he.

    My sense was that he was coming from an evolutionary perspective on his little theory there, though he did use the word “design” quite a bit. Of course I know that teleological language always finds its way into a Darwinian perspective, so I figure he didn’t LITERALLY mean “design.”

    Interesting issue and question. I envy you people who can run and walk comfortably!!

  4. 4
    Jehu says:

    This is a design argument that I have been aware of for some time.

    A good friend of mine that runs marathons described to me how he uses shoes with the thinnest possible soles because he has found that it reduces injuries and foot fatigue. I immediately saw the design implications.

    The Darwinist perspective is that biology is basically kluge and needs help wherever humans can provide it. This perspective has led to many negative medical practices that have taken decades to reverse. A good example is the now debunked medical dogma that breast milk is not good enough for babies and therefore mothers should use formula. Or the removal of tonsils in young children.

    The idea that runners need thick padding on their feet fits right in with this biology as kluge world view. The concept that the natural foot is the healthiest fits in with a design world view.

  5. 5
    osteonectin says:

    Jehu, doesn’t your “perfect design of the human body proves intelligent design” argument ultimately mean “back to the stone ages”. Actually, when have shoes been invented?

  6. 6
    David Tyler says:

    osteonectin @ 5
    Jehu, doesn’t your “perfect design of the human body proves intelligent design” argument ultimately mean “back to the stone ages”. Actually, when have shoes been invented?

    I’m glad you raised this point. I have been thinking about the numerous charges of “bad design” that have been raised against the human body and other biological structures. Some go like this: “look how many cases there are of bad backs. This is because we evolved from 4-legged ape-like animals that did not walk upright.” This style of reasoning could be applied to running: “The human foot is badly designed, because we habitually strike the ground first with our heels and create impacts that lead to repetitive strain injury.” I hope the analogy is sufficiently clear not to require too much elaboration.

    Unfortunately, intelligently designed bodies are not treated in an intelligent way by their owners. When they go wrong, it is even more unintelligent to blame the designer rather than seeking help from a physiotherapist (or similar). This is not “back to the stone ages” but the “degenerate lifestyle of 21st Century humankind”!

  7. 7
    TRoutMac says:

    Hopefully no one construed my comments as a “suboptimal design” argument. I accept that human feet, from a design standpoint, have to serve a lot of different purposes and it seems obvious that the more design objectives you have, the more compromises have to be made in each area. Add to that the slight deformities which, if I understand it correctly, slowly degrade the genetic information and you end up with folks like me whose feet have (apparently) contributed to back problems… and not from running, but just from walking.

    If we only needed our feet for running, they would likely have a better design.

    There’s definitely a rhetorical trap or two waiting for anyone who’s going to make a big deal about the design of the human body… someone’s bound to quip “Well then why do we need to wear coats when it’s cold outside?” If the human body is so well-designed, they would argue, we wouldn’t need to add all of these accessories. Including clothes.

    I think are excellent reasons for all of this.

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