Why I wear barefoot shoes

Two weeks ago I ordered SoftStar Shoes Runamoc Dash, and this evening, I laced up a new pair of Xero Shoes huarches. Why would an overweight, non-runner, have ordered two pairs of "barefoot" shoes?? In the spring of 2010, a lot of publicity was given to the barefoot running phenomenon. I was interested, because I had a lot of knee problems growing up, and of course one of the claims of barefoot running was to help with various foot, leg, and knee problems. I was doing a lot of reading about it, and found "Invisible Shoes", a newly created enterprise out of Denver, Colorado. For $20, they would send a sheet of Vibram sole that you then cut out to make your shoes, keeping them on with the included nylon string.

That first summer, I didn't do a lot of walking, but mostly drove to work, and any time I had to walk any distance in my new shoes ended up with a lot of stretched skin on the balls of my feet. But I still really liked wearing them. It required me to walk in a completely different way, and seemed to help with some foot issues.

By the second summer I had figured out the bus system in the city, and was walking 0.7 miles each way to the bus stop (1.4 miles each day, sometimes more). Very quickly I got used to the shoes, and I started to notice that I was able to walk further, without pain, and stand for much longer periods. Seriously, prior to this I could maybe be on my feet for an hour before developing serious pain in my knees, but by mid summer I could easily be on my feet for 3 hours without experiencing major pain.

I put so many miles on those shoes that I started to develop a much thinner spot on one where the ball of my foot struck the ground first, and I broke the laces on each shoe twice where they are held on by a knot on the bottom. I wore them everywhere, and really enjoyed them. It was amazing to actually feel the ground you were walking on. The one time I went hiking on nature trails with them was awesome!

Unfortunately, winter came, and my feet do not like the cold (even the little bit of cold we get here in Louisville, KY). I reluctantly put up my Invisible Shoes, and went back to my sneakers. The following summer, I remained in my sneakers, dealing with sweaty feet, and sore feet, legs and knees. Last fall, I resolved to find a solution that would enable me to wear barefoot type shoes most of the year.

I went to my local outdoor gear stores and looked at options, finding nothing I really liked, or considered truly barefoot (no more than 6mm of contact, and no drop from heel to toe). I did however find SoftStar Shoes, and their various options for barefoot style shoes. This past Christmas season, I had some extra money, and four weeks ago I finally ordered the Runamoc Dash. It took about two weeks to have it made and ship, but it was worth the wait. I have an extremely comfortable, good looking barefoot shoe, that I can wear pretty much anywhere. This includes the gym, as my gym has a no open toe shoe policy.

I had also kept abreast of the changes at Invisible Shoes, with their switch to Xero Shoes, and a more curved sole that kept one from catching the toe on the ground (a problem I had, especially when I got tired). Last week I ordered a pair, and I have just finished punching the toe hole and lacing them up. This is good, because the temperature just started climbing into the 80s today, and it will be nice to have a very cool pair of barefoot shoes.

If you want to try barefoot shoes, why not give the Xero option a try. It is relatively inexpensive, and you might like them so much you want to get a pair of SoftStar's. Oh, and they don't tend to develop a funky smell like some other brands.

Some Caveats

As with most things, there are always some warnings, things to take note of that I forgot to mention. If you look around at other barefoot sites, you will probably see some of these, but these are 
  • If you don't modify how you walk in these, your feet and legs will probably take a beating from heel striking on pavement. Without any cushion, all the force gets transmitted up your leg, and it will hurt.
  • If you do change how you walk to a mid- or fore-foot landing, it will take time for your legs to adjust. Man did my feet and my upper calves (just behind my kneecap) ache the first few days in my Dash's, and my calves would start to cramp after just 1/2 mile of walking. But after a week or so, I don't have any problems. Don't expect to walk 2 miles or run a marathon immediately after switching.
  • Some people may develop more problems. As usual, as more people are trying barefoot running / walking, some people are finding it is probably not for them. Whether this is really true, or they just never figure out how to change their stride, is open. But that's why I would try the inexpensive option first.
  • You will probably walk slower, and / or take more steps to move the same distance. If you are coming down on your mid- to fore-foot, you can't take as big a step. So it may take effort to keep up with others who are walking in regular shoes. On the other hand, more steps means more energy, which probably amounts to a higher rate of caloric consumption (or those of use with a spare tire to lose can hope anyway).


Reproducible publications as R packages... and markdown vignettes!

I hadn't really considered it before, but R packages are an interesting way to distribute reproducible papers. You have functions in the R directory, any required data files in data, a Description file that describes the package and all its dependencies, and finally you have the vignette, generally in inst/doc. Vignettes in R traditionally had to be written in Latex and used Sweave to mix the written and code parts.

It is very easy to imagine that the vignette produced could be a journal article, and therefore to get the reproducible article and access to underlying data and functions, you simply need to install the package. I don't know why I hadn't realized this before. It is actually a really neat, and potentially powerful idea. I would not be surprised that this was actually part of the logic of incorporating the Sweave vignettes in R packages.

One wonders why this isn't more common, to distribute papers as packages? I am guessing that it is likely from the requirement to use Latex for writing the document. I've written a vignette, and I can't say I really cared for the experience, basically because getting the Latex part to work was a painful process.

 However, with the release of R 3.0.0, it is now possible to define alternative vignette engines. Currently the only one I know of is knitr, which currently supports generating PDF from Rnw (latex with an alternative syntax to Sweave) and HTML from Rmd, or R markdown files. Markdown is so much easier to write, and in my mind the HTML generated is much easier to read. In addition to that, customization of the look using CSS is probably much more familiar to many people who are doing programming nowadays as well, another big plus.

In addition to having to write using Latex, the process of changing, building, loading, and documenting packages was pretty cumbersome. However, Hadley Wickham has been doing a lot to change that with his devtools package, that makes it quite easy to re-build a package and load it back up. This has now been integrated into the latest versions of RStudio, making it rather easy to work on a package and immediately work with any changes. In addition, the test_that package makes it easier to run automated tests, and ROxygen makes it easy to also document your custom functions used by your vignette.

 So, I know I will be using Yihui's guide to switch my own package to use a markdown vignette, and will probably try to do my next paper as a self contained R package as well. How about you??

Edit: As Carl pointed out below, pandoc is very useful for converting markdown to other formats that may be required for formal submission to a journal.