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Why Does My Foot Hurt?

A $20 billion industry that is about to get naked

Published: Sep 28, 2009 09:01:00 AM IST
Updated: Oct 1, 2009 04:59:12 PM IST

Trade unions in the UK are seeking a ban on high heels at the work place.  Doctors are happy, women are not — though their feet, ankles and knees should be reeling with joy.  High heels exert a quarter more pressure on the knee with each step compared to walking barefoot. This leads to degeneration of the knee and to arthritis. 

You shrug your shoulders because this does not apply to you.  Like me, you have never really been into high heels.  We wear sneakers when we can.  The nice, comfy, cushioned, brightly coloured ones. 


Yes, studies are showing that even sneakers don’t stand up to going natural.

In a book called Born to Run, Christopher McDougall sets out to answer a question that bothers many of us: “Why does my foot hurt?” He follows the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, who are famous ultra-marathoners, running distances of up to 160 km at a time.  Still going to brag about signing up for that half-marathon? 

The Tarahumaras run into their late years, and run in home-made sandals.  They do not have the highly engineered and sculpted running shoes that we sport; they also do not have the nagging heel, knee, and ankle pains that we carry. 

Our feet hurt because we punish them in the shoes that we wear. 

Each year from 65 to 80 percent of all runners suffer one injury or the other.  The most common of these include inflammation of the Achilles tendon at the back of the heel, knee pain, and plantar fasciitis, in which the bottom of the foot hurts first thing in the morning. 

Surely, the $20 billion running shoe industry has sneakers that can protect us? If they do, they are keeping their data a secret. 

Last year Dr. Craig Richards, an Australian researcher, published a report showing that there is no clinical evidence that any running shoes prevent injuries.  Since 1972, when modern running shoes were first created, injury rates have increased rather than decreased.

Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard professor and expert in this field, suggests that our use of running shoes may have directly led to these injuries. We rely on support from the heavy soles of our sneakers and weaken our feet muscles. We rotate our ankles more than we should and learn to step with more pressure on the well cushioned heel. 

For those of us who would rather not tie up leather sandals or bare our feet for our next jog around the block, there are a number of minimalist shoes that simulate barefoot running.

A previous piece in our magazine highlighted a brand with a buzz: The Vibram Five Fingers, a fabric and rubber sock that fit the foot like a glove. For those who feel it is rude to wiggle their toes at strangers, the Vivo Barefoot looks more conventional, but comes with a slim 3 mm rubber sole.

And we should not forget that Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile wearing thin canvas shoes.  Big business is sprinting to make sure the barefoot movement does not get too ahead of it. When Nike learned that Stanford athletes who had access to free sneakers preferred to train barefoot, they went to work and came out with the Nike Free range of sneakers for barefoot-like running. In a distracting video campaign based out of Bear Butte Running Camp, they urge us to “Get Naked!” or at least watch premier athletes do so. 

Before we can get naked, we have to first unlearn how we run. Most of us currently run with a heel-strike. If you watch children run barefoot, they have shorter strides and both the heel and ball of the feet touch the ground simultaneously.  This mid-strike distributes weight across the foot, and keeps their posture straight and their ankle, knee and hip joints happy.

Keep running. Just strike kindly and get naked!

Dr Kumar, and our health team, can be contacted at health.forbesindia@network18online.com

(This story appears in the 09 October, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • dr.anildas kumar

    Hi Vikram, I'm every morning in my tennis sneakers for two hours. I get a good grip on the courts but at the end of the day the feet hurts as i feel i don't let them breathe. Uma and her friends went barefoot walking 14 kms at vrindavan around the govardhan mountain last week and all of them were fine after the walk.

    on Sep 30, 2009
  • Dr. Timothy Ryan Hwang

    Ouch indeed! Dr. Kumar, from one medical professional to another, I applaud you for bringing this prevalent and socially significant problem to light. I for one gave my wife Five Fingers last night. She nearly cried with joy, having experienced Five Fingers previously. I highly recommend it!

    on Sep 30, 2009
  • Claude Diamond

    Nike must be freaking out, now less is more. I love it ; as usual the conventional wisdom is wrong. Now we learn that the more expensive and protective a shoe is the worse it is for us; go figure .

    on Sep 28, 2009