Perceived wisdom

Something that has been on my mind for a while is perceived wisdom. There are so many things that we take for granted as being true that we don’t ever really challenge them, they just are what they are.

In my head, this growing awareness probably came from my running. A couple of years ago, I started running, prompted by a recognition that I wasn’t doing my body any favours by sitting at a desk all day and getting very little movement. And certainly nothing that could even remotely be described as exercise. I found the trainers I had bought a few years previously, the last time I thought I should do some form of exercise, and off I went. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and it felt a lot worse. But in time, and with some training, I could go further and a bit faster. I can still remember the day I ran my first half marathon distance, not something I had set off to do when I set out. It just felt good on the day. I returned full of a sense of triumph to find my family variously playing piano and working on a quilt (with the piano teacher). Running can be a solitary experience.

And of course I then started reading about running. Lots of do this, don’t do that. And then I read ‘Born to Run’, which it turns out is rather well known in running circles.

The book is a series of stories about different runners, all of whom have achieved remarkable things. Including winning a 135 mile ultra marathon through Death Valley. In the summer. Yes, really. (I should note that the race has since then had to move, something to do with the potential damage to the Death Valley National Park – I think the potential damage to the participants is the greater risk, but what would I know?) People enter this race to win, not just to survive. But the thing the book is best known for is the story of a people, the Tarahumara, who live in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. They run – a lot. And they are fast, which shouldn’t really be a huge surprise as running is a part of their daily lives. Enter Ted McDougall, an American better known as Barefoot Ted, who learns about sandal making from the Tarahumara. They use old truck tyres strapped to their feet and run in them. About as basic as you can get. Of course, sandals are a form of footwear used thousands of years ago across many civilisations. But wait, you can’t run in sandals nowadays, you need support, cushioning, padding.

Except you don’t. Not in my experience anyway. Of course it takes time to change ingrained running habits and your calves will hurt for a while. And at first you can’t run anywhere near to the distances you were running in trainers, so you  have to plan the transition. If you rush it, you will end up injured. But that’s not because you need support and cushioning, it’s because you have to learn to run differently. Rather in the way we would run if we were truly running barefoot.

We were at a sports shop this weekend to get a pair of shorts for LoLo. While she was wandering around, I went to see the trainers. I was amazed to find these shoes being sold as ‘barefoot’:

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In case you hadn’t noticed, look at the cushioning on these things:

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And these are ‘barefoot’?

Personally I wouldn’t even call my sandals barefoot, because they aren’t, and I can tell the difference when I’m actually running barefoot.

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But almost everyone I meet tells me I need support and cushioning. Perceived wisdom.

And then, just this year, the American College of Sports Medicine issued new guidelines on what running shoes should offer (see here for the detail). Avoid high, thick cushioning and orthotics, don’t get motion control or stability features and make sure they’re light. Sounds rather different from the ‘barefoot’ shoes above, doesn’t it? But perceived wisdom is very ingrained. I suspect I’ll remain the only person running races in sandals in Scotland for a while. The upside is I think I have the most fun, and I have some lovely conversations with people along the way, as well as getting some extra cheers from some of the spectators who notice!

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