Saturday, March 20, 2010

Barefoot is the new shoe

It is argued that running shoes are necessary for the health of the human foot if an individual is doing a great deal of running, yet at the same time history tells us a different story. There is now a growing tide of evidence that suggest that the modern running shoe may in fact be the “Achilles heel” of most active runners.

The available literature on the benefits of cushion soled running shoes in decreasing the instances of injury in active runners is scant to say the least. In fact one study (Richards, Craig E. Parker, Magin. Robin, Callister.) from 2008 showed that there is no original research that shows that use of modern running shoes for health reasons is evidence based. The closest I could find was an article (Hirschmüller A, et al.) discussing the use of custom insert orthotics to aid people with running injuries. But what the study did not cover was the origin of the injuries, merely the treatment.

There are however studies starting to come out that point in the direction that perhaps running shoes are to blame for the majority of overuse injuries sustained by runners. One example is a study (Kerrigan DC, et al.)that showed that the amount of torque placed on all 3 of the lower major joints (ankle, knee, hip) was significantly greater while running in modern running shoes. While they make concessions that perhaps some other style of running shoe may give differing results, I think it’s safe to say that as long as the shoe abides by the thick heel over cushioned style it will (to a greater or lesser degree) cause the sort of force loads and shocks to the body that were evident in the research.

Though it is clear that based on the number of studies done on custom orthotic inserts that there is some value in them in terms of offering pain relief for injured runners, they fail to address the issue at hand: what is causing the pain. This issue was clearly addressed in the second paper I mentioned ( Kerrigan DC, et all). The study clearly shows that running shoes and the heel to toe running style exerts significantly greater pressure on the lower body. This kind of repeated stress can most certainly give rise to the multitude of injuries suffered by (depending on who one reads) anywhere from 45%-70% of active runners over the course of a year. The prevailing wisdom of course being that if one suffers pain while running the best solution is 1; stop running, or 2; get custom orthotics. As the study shows, orthotics are effective ways to relieve pain for a temporary time, but that then begs the question; what is it that the shoes are failing to do that gives rise to injuries that necessitate more padding inside the shoe. These shoes are already padded to the extreme so it should stand to reason that adding more padding might not fix the problem. As it turns out we evolved to use our feet as our primary source of information gathering for our body while attempting to balance ourselves (go figure). In fact one study (Robbins, S. E, Waked) found that the softer the landing surface the harder humans land on it. They theorized that the reason behind this is that when landing the human foot is looking for a solid surface on which to find purchase and thus gain balance. The softer the surface, the harder people hit in an unconscious attempt to compress the soft material into something firm that could be used by the foot to secure balance. So keeping this in mind we turn once again to the orthotic study, and one can’t help but think “is more padding what needs to be going on here?” This question is answered pretty clearly by Kerrigan, running in thick cushioned shoes causes the individual to land with much greater impact, which in turn causes significantly more stress for the rest of the body. So where does this leave us? Are people simply not meant to run long distances? One anthropology research paper says that this is not the case (Lieberman, Daniel. et all). In the paper a pretty convincing case is made for the idea that humans are evolutionarily designed for long distance running. Our ancestors would likely not have survived long had they been subject to the injury rate of modern runners. So it would seem that modern running shoes are the root of the problems facing (almost all) modern runners.

There is a growing community of individuals who advocate barefoot, or minimalist running. While these communities are claiming that there is less injury and less stress placed on the body utilizing these methods of running, the movement seems to be having a hard time gaining ground due primarily to the ingrained belief that running shoes are a necessary item for safety purposes. But a cursory examination (or an in depth one: Richards, Craig E. Parker, J, Magin. Robin, Callister.) shows that there is no evidence for this belief. So what is a runner to do if the fear of injury is present but they are unwilling to run without their beloved shoes? I think the answer is to be found in looking at form.

When an individual runs in modern cushioned heel shoes one is almost forced into the heel to toe running style that causes such stress to the body. While running barefoot (or in minimalist shoes) allows the foot to land on the edge of the forefoot slowly dropping the heel rolling across the ball and then springing off of the toes. This style of running is bio-mechanically what we evolved to do. As a result it is the least damaging way for us to run. People’s fear of broken glass and nails, the hard surface of the sidewalk, there are a multitude of reasons to look askance at running in either bare feet or in minimalist shoes. So you don’t want to get rid of your shoes? That’s fine. The knowledge gained by reading these studies can still be applied to how you run now. Adapt your style, don’t heel strike. Sure it will be harder to run in this manner when your shoes are designed to make you run in the exact opposite way you should. But there are ultra marathoners (Scott Jurek comes to mind) who run in racing flats, which while better than normal running shoes are a far cry from minimalist or bare feet. But a good portion of them remain injury free. The secret? they run in the same way someone who is running unshod would run ( see the book “Born to Run“ by Christopher McDougall.)

Injuries are almost guaranteed to occur in active runners, and orthotics seem to help reduce the pain of these injuries. But running in shoes with cushioned soles and heels seem most likely the cause of the injuries in the first place. If we take all the information available we can draw this conclusion; an awareness of style, and adaptation of form can take one significantly closer to running in a manner that will scientifically and significantly reduce the likelihood of injury.

Works cited:

Richards, Craig E. Parker, J, Magin. Robin, Callister. Is your Prescription of Distance Running Shoes Evidence Based? British journal of sports medicine April 18 2008

Hirschmüller A, Baur H, Müller S, Helwig P, Dickhuth HH, Mayer F. Clinical Effectiveness of Customised Sport Shoe Orthoses for Overuse Injuries in Runners- a Randomised Controlled Study. British journal of sports medicine Nov, 1, 2009

Kerrigan DC, Franz JR, Keenan GS, Dicharry J, Della Croce U, Wilder RP. The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques. PM&R: The Journal of Injury, Function , and Rehabilitation. Dec, 2009

S.Robbins, E.Waked. Balance and Vertical Impact in Sports: Role of Shoe Sole Materials*1 Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Volume 78, Issue 5, Pages 463-467

Lieberman, Daniel. Dennis, M. Bramble. David ,A. Raichlen. John, J. Shea. The First Humans-Origin and Evolution of the Genus Homo. Chapter 8; Brains Brawns and the Evolution of Human Endurance Running Capabilities.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Line cook: fire and pain at 9.50 an hour

As I step out the back door at 9:45 and sit down on an old milk crate I light a cigarette and slowly come back into my body. My leg itches, I have to pee, there is a burn on my arm I don’t remember getting. Slowly physical sensations come to the forefront of my mind and I become aware of my body once again. I become aware of the cool air that now surrounds me the fact that it’s dark outside now, and the fact that I am very tired.

It’s 3:00 and I’ve just clocked in. I go to my station and look over my “mis en place” and see what I need to start prepping for the dinner shift. I talk to the chef about what specials we will be running this evening, seeing what extra I need to do to prepare for those. At approximately 4:00 the wait staff starts showing up. I chat idly with a couple of them about service the night before and what’s expected for tonight, how many reservations etc. During this time I am making sauces, pounding out carpaccio, cutting apples, haricot vert, squash, blanching broccolini, scoring duck breast. A seemingly unending list of tasks to complete in the two hours before service lest I find myself trying to make something during the rush, one needs to prep enough to get through service, but not so much that there will be leftover product to go bad. It’s a race to get through the list and a pause at 4:45 to go outback and have a cigarette before shift and talk to the other cooks on the line, mentally going over mis, going over potential problems, talking about possible assists that may take place during service.

It’s now 5:00 and we are officially open for business. What begins as a trickle of orders slowly and steadily turns into a raging torrent. “Walking in second course two new yorks mid, mid well going with a fish special” expo yells over the clatter of pans, the tickets with the waiter’s orders spit from the machine in a near constant stream. The ovens are at 500 degrees the burners are all on full blast, the grill and the salamanders are cranked to the max. I take a moment to look down the line and see the air rippling in front of me, the meat thermometer held in the arm pocket of my chef coat is reading 120 degrees, and I immediately turn my attention back to the sauté pans cooking in front of me. The grill guy yells at me “how long on 43?” I respond “what’s on 43?” The expo yells back “I’m looking for 2 duck, house, 1 tuna going mid well” “3 minutes” I yell back over the washed out noise coming from the fryer. “You’ve got 1 and a half” expo yells at me.

I’m sitting at Denny’s having a milkshake, it’s 12:00 am. I left work at about 11:45. As I sit and enjoy the mediocre milkshake I get a surge of adrenaline and the feeling “MOVE NOW.” I have to keep reminding myself that the noise I keep hearing is the ticket machine for Denny’s, I don’t have to cook those orders, I don’t work here. But like Pavlov’s dog I jump in my seat a little every time I hear the distinct chatter of a ticket machine. I’ve gotten better over time but the instinctual reaction is still there. Every time I see a pan I treat it like a firearm, just as a “gun is always loaded” “a pan is always hot.” I know almost a dozen ways to cut a carrot. I can accurately temp almost any protein. When I eat, when I go out to eat, what I experience is vastly different from what I experienced before I started cooking for a living.

The requirements of a good line cook are roughly as follows; consistency, speed, endurance, accuracy. As a line cook one needs to perform a task (cooking dish X) quickly, correctly, exactly the same way every single time, and multiple times a night. As Anthony Bourdain said (paraphrased) in his book Kitchen Confidential: I don’t want an artist, someone who will sit and play around with my plating all night, I want a craftsman, someone capable of doing something the same way a million times. It’s this repetition and need to perform the task very quickly that causes a certain mentality shift in a person. Or it may further refine said mentality in someone already in possession of it. Cooking requires long hours in small cramped hot dangerous environments with the pressure of time working against every action you take in that environment. To do well in this environment a person needs to be organized both mentally and physically. One’s station must be immaculate in terms of the positioning and the preparation of all items on it so that during the heat of a rush one need not think or look to find where something is. Instead one just knows where something is because you always put it in the same place. One needs to be mentally organized because one needs to keep track of multiple items on multiple tickets, items that may have different cooking times. Keeping this causes a streamlining of thought and of action. There is no time for extraneous motion or thought during the middle of a rush. If I have to think about where I put something I may forget the temperatures of the five steaks I have on the grill, which means that I then have to look at the tickets or harass expo for those temps when I could have spent that time doing something else that needed doing 3 minutes ago.

Cooks look at food in a fundamentally different way. Where the average person will look at plate and see a steak and potatoes, with some sort of vegetable and a sauce, the cook will look at it and immediately know the processes that had to happen for the items on that plate to get there and knowing those processes a cook will judge the plate on the quality of the execution of said processes. In addition to judging the quality of the ingredients these factors will inform the reasoning behind whether the cook enjoys the meal or not. I personally also think about how I would go about setting up the prep for an item, if I receive an appetizer I think about what in this dish could have been par-cooked? What can be kept together in a container and what has to be added at the last second? How have they arranged the elements of the dish on the plate? Would I classify this as simply a messy presentation or are they attempting to be “rustic”. The texture of the sauce, the “mouthfeel” of the soup, the uniformity of the cuts of vegetables, there are a million things to pay attention to when cooking and just because I might not have cooked something doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about them when I’m eating it.

Cooking has made me more direct, more efficient, and more than anything, more aware of what I’m eating. I’m focusing on the flavor of what I’m eating from the moment it touches my tongue till the moment after I swallow. I observe how the flavor profile changes over the course of chewing and swallowing. I try to identify what exactly makes up the flavors I’m tasting, “is that a hint of clove at the end? Did they use a blond or a brown roux in this?” This awareness has changed the process of eating for me into not only a necessity, but something that from time to time can truly be enjoyed. But not in the passive enjoyment that anyone might receive from a good tasting meal. But an enjoyment that extends to the recognition of the skill and the care that went into a dish. I can tell when a dish would be a pain in the ass to make, and I can tell when the cook that made it considers it a challenge to overcome, and when he sees it as a hassle he has to deal with. Emotion shows through in food as clearly as anything else. I don’t believe that one can enjoy food in this way until one has immersed oneself in the finer points of cooking and learned to truly appreciate food.