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Health Hack #50 - The Barefoot Thesis

Our Innate Human Advantage

We don’t immediately think of ourselves as prime endurance athletes, in the face of nature at large. A dazzle of zebras trekking countless miles across the savannah. But there’s quite a bit of evidence suggesting that we’ve evolved as nature’s most expert long distance runner. That we’re born to run.

We possess one highly unique feature that gives us an advantage that is insurmountable to a species like zebra; a trait that, were the race to be boundless in scope, would allow us to prevail, if properly conditioned. The uncanny ability to cool our entire bodies through sweat, and to do so on the move.

Virtually all animal species and other mammals resort to panting in order to cool their body temperatures. This is easily observable in watching a dog behave once it chases after a ball a few times. Were the dog prodded to fetch a ball in succession for any length period of time, it’s very likely that it will take an unannounced break, find a stationary position, and pant incessantly until it feels physically competent enough to resume movement. This is quite exemplary of most species, as it struggles to properly cool itself while on the move.

There are a few exceptions to this no sweat rule, but once you dig a bit deeper, it emerges that our human abilities remain quite unique. Horses maintain the ability to sweat, for example, yet their primary cooling mechanism remains the pant. Other primates such as apes sweat also, however they do so in more limited regions than us humans. If you’ve ever spent time in a hot sauna, you can envision the bubbles of perspiration that crop up on every inch of our bodies, even areas like our feet, which we don’t think of as being prone to heavy sweat.

Why might we have evolved this highly specialized componentry? What bearing would it have on our survival? After all, evolution is quite selective. Mother nature does not endow us with certain attributes by mistake, given that she’s had millions of years to sculpt our most useful version of ourselves.

Born to Run

The story is as straightforward as it is elegant. We evolved the ability to perspire and to cool ourselves more efficiently than any species on earth out of the need for our very survival. This is typically the driving force behind any evolutionary adaptation.

Born of the savannah, our earliest ancestors had it rough. Plant foods, though nutritious, were not as abundant as we needed them to be before the agricultural revolution. As we touched on recently (The Lost Art Of Nose to Tail Eating), the discovery of animal foods catapulted us into our next phase of evolution towards home sapiens. The nutrient density was immense. Foraging on plants all day long like an elephant was not only unsustainable, it suddenly became inefficient. Amplify the one in hand beats two in the bush mantra tenfold, in this context. One animal could sustain the appetites and health of an entire tribe, potentially for days, and leave much time to idle and play; whereas endless fields of scrub brush may find us burning more calories than we’re consuming during the forage, and require us to eat all day long, keeping us from our families, forcing us to forage endlessly from sunup to sundown, and diminishing our quality of life.

There remain today indigenous cultures that continue to practice persistence hunting. An online search of the term is likely to yield documentary footage by the likes of David Attenborough. The practice of persistence hunting personifies our evolutionary advantage around perspiration beautifully.

We remain the most capable species on the planet of keeping ourselves sufficiently cooled while moving. There are human beings who compel themselves to run in excess of 100 miles without stopping. All of these extreme endurance runners would drop dead in the very early stages of this feat were it not for our ability to sweat so proficiently. Virtually all animals, and certainly all of those that became known as food to our early, ancient ancestors, cannot simultaneously cool down and continue moving. Instead, they’re given a choice. Stop to cool, or continue moving. No animal can run 100 miles without stopping. They’re not endowed with our innate ability to perspire so effectively. Persistence hunting preys on this key vulnerability. Are you faster than us? Yes, by an extreme order of magnitude. We were the sleuth of the savannah. Are you stronger than us? By all means. Tow to tow, bareknuckle, our force generating capabilities pale in comparison to the brute strength of most wild game. Can you outlast us, though? That is the key. Through cunning (which plays on the comparative advantage of our brains) and persistence (which plays on the comparative advantage of our bodies), we were able to overcome two seemingly insurmountable obstacles and track down the zebra.

The premise of persistence hunting is simple. Strategically employ tribesmen to track a large land animal and keep it in perpetual motion. Flank it from all directions and slowly wear it down. Bring it to the point of exhaustion where it’s left with no choice but to stop moving or drop dead, and then charge in for the kill. Bear in mind, the advent of this process pre-dates the advent of most modern tools. We’re not talking about bows and arrows here. The ability to solidify a successful hunt was contingent on our ability to get within striking distance of an animal far faster and stronger than ourselves. We made this happen through endurance.

The Barefoot Thesis

This article could have easily ended at the previous sentence, suggesting that we were born to run. It’s a fascinating tale, and one not very well known. However it poses modern day implications, which, unfortunately, are equally as unknown and as undiscussed as the evolutionary narrative itself. And after all, we’d be remiss to publish an article devoid of some nugget of advice meant to improve our well being.

Noted above is the obvious and broadly accepted notion that the forces of evolution are deliberate and considerate. Evolution is also stingy, and quite scrappy. What is superfluous dies off. What is necessary but non-existent slowly creeps into existence.

There is not a single species on the planet that has seen the survival need to devise footwear for itself. Whether it’s the camel on the fiery sand or the polar bear navigating the frigid arctic tundra, both hands (where applicable) and feet have grown the ability to interact with their respective environment without issue. Now a counterargument is fairly clear. We’re the most intelligent species that we know of. Maybe our brains get ahead of our bodies some, allowing us to short circuit mother nature. Good point. However, as we’ve alluded to in many prior articles, our biological adaptations are extraordinarily slow. If we’re going to make a stark change that compromises our physiology, it’s going to take a very long time for our physiology to adapt.

There are circulating theories as to how and when the footwear industry ran afoul of our biology, and there are many opinions suggesting that it didn’t, and that things are in great shape. But it’s objectively undeniable that our feet have become far more compromised than ever before, and over a very short period of time. This is typically a recipe for a physiological mismatch.

Envision all of the wonderful capabilities of our hands. How we grip, push, pull, tug, massage. They’re extremely resourceful tools, and it's hard to understate their importance to our very survival and quality of life. Just imagine if we constricted our hands inside of tight, leather mittens, during all useful points in the day. We typed and wrote with them on, we drove with them on, and we ate with them on. Ironically, we took them off only while we slept, which is really the only time that we didn’t need to utilize their full sprawl. Wouldn’t this seem a little backwards?

Modern shoe manufacturers have taught us that our feet are these precious little snowflakes that require supreme support and protection 24/7 (or, better phrased, 16/7, as we ditch them while we sleep). We must constrict them such that our toes have very little room to maneuver, and we must pad our heels such that we have an imbalance in foot posture while we move (in footwear parlance this is known as a “drop”, i.e. the height disparity between the raised heel and the lower-lying toes). While running and exercising especially, this sudden need for added support was even more pronounced. Taken in the context of evolution, does this make even a little bit of sense?

Our ancestors did not use motorized scooters to track down their prey. They used their feet. They used their bare feet, throughout almost all of history. And they could run. True, they had no modern concerns, such as jagged asphalt or shards of glass, and true, their brains were not as highly developed as ours, so the notion of building protective footwear that might propel them to run faster and longer was lost on them. But they allowed the expanse of their feet to function as it was intended. To run, to endure heat, to climb when necessary, and to do a variety of other important things.

There is a barefoot movement that has emerged within running culture. Running went from a lost art to all of the rage in the 1960’s, at which point many couch potatoes joined the bandwagon. Like all other physically demanding activities, one must build a tolerance before diving in headfirst. As a result of this key consideration being overlooked, many runners decided to hop on the proverbial bike without ever learning to ride with training wheels. An epidemic of injuries ensued, and Nike phoned in experts to diagnose the problem. Was this spike in injuries due to the fact that so many self-purported runners picked up the sport with virtually no experience or guidance? Nope. Why would that make any sense? Instead, their determination was that it was a lack of cushioning. And so was born the modern “running shoe”. A softer, sportier, less obvious version of a high heel that also narrowed the width of the toe box.  

Running barefoot naturally goads the runner towards making contact with the ground with the forefront of the foot. Running with a heavier shoe with dense cushioning towards the rear prods the runner towards making contact with the heel of the foot, best known in runner parlance as heel striking. We spent more than two million years honing the craft of landing on the forefront of the foot while running, and utilizing the full span of musculature inherent in these epic tools that are our feet, only to be told that evolution had it all wrong. We don’t realize it intuitively, because we’re guided towards moving our feet in manners unintended, but the forefoot has 4 layers of intricately patterned muscles, designed to optimize for our two primary points of contact with our environment. In the span of only 50 years, an overwhelming majority of us have now been trained to walk and exercise in a manner that displaces this muscle building emphasis towards other areas of the foot. Evolutionary intuition would suggest that we haven’t corrected the issue first detected in the 60’s and 70’s, and that we’ve instead made it worse. The proliferation of foot related injuries (many related to running, but some not) over this past half century happen to agree with mother nature’s intuition.

Social acceptance and health code are two of a variety of obvious factors preventing us from returning to a barefoot existence. Instead, thanks to some footwear innovators who’ve tapped into the power of their highly evolved brains, a new brand of attire has emerged over the last decade or so, known as minimalist footwear. These shoes are built to emulate the movement of our barefooted, evolutionary path, but are mindful of the inherent dangers and the need for protection in our modern era. They typically have zero drop (meaning the foot remains perfectly flat throughout the shoe) and can be folded up into a ball (a characteristic of their malleability, versus the stiffness and thickness of most modern sneakers). They themselves have evolved over the last decade, as far as styles and comfortability. And don’t mistake going minimalist with the need to purchase a pair of Five Fingers, the shoes that look like a glove for your toes. Nowadays brands like Xero and Vivobarefoot have created highly functional minimalist shoes for everyday life. Running shoes, hiking shoes, everyday shoes, even more formal shoes.

For lifelong, experienced runners, be mindful of a very sudden, drastic change in footwear. Consult a foot or running specialist before doing so, but ideally one who is open-minded to the merits of minimalist shoes. And if you’re just starting out with running, or, if you simply want to explore the idea of getting back to your roots, truly allowing your feet to breath and move as they were designed, consider starting with a pair for everyday life. This may be going out on a limb, but we may very well find this minimalist movement to bear a strong analogy to Tesla. A decade ago they were a rarity on the road, and largely inaccessible due to their price point. Nowadays, as the merits of a more eco-friendly lifestyle have come into being, and as demand and innovation have both improved the quality and reduced the entry level pricing, a Tesla sighting is an everyday occurrence on the road. Don’t be surprised if in 5-10 more years, the minimalist shoe culture truly begins to shine, as it well deserves. The advantages are not yet fully understood or appreciated, nor are the aesthetics and price point quite there, but all of these current disadvantages are trending in the right direction…