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Running Shoes: Better for You Than Going Barefoot?

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It gets really interesting when you consider the research. Studies show that a third to half or more of all runners suffer some kind of injury each year, the vast majority to the lower leg and foot. Yet when he examined the research on running shoe designs, C. E. Richards, an Australian physician writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine this year, found no evidence that any of them protect against injury.

There also is no proof that running shoes are causing injuries, Lieberman and Davis say, though there are two studies that show that people who buy more expensive running shoes suffer more injuries than people who wear cheaper ones.

More remarkably, no one has published a comparison of running barefoot vs. running shod.

In theory, says Howard Osterman, president of the District of Columbia Podiatric Medical Association, efforts to strengthen feet and ankles by gradually withdrawing the support that running shoes offer make sense. But in the real world, he believes, "we lack the intrinsic musculature to run barefoot, or run in these minimalist shoes, without risking injury."

Without running shoes, people would be susceptible to injuries from glass, rocks and other objects. And many exercise regimens would be ended, he says.

"The advent of the more structurally supportive, more cushioned running shoe has taken a lot of people off the couch and allowed them to start exercising," Osterman says.

Representatives of running shoe manufacturers Nike and Asics declined to answer questions about McDougall's book or barefoot running in general. In an e-mail, Nike spokesman Derek Kent cited the footwear giant's Free model, saying the company was "at the forefront of barefoot running" when it launched the minimalist shoe in 2005.

"The key for us is to offer a range of options to suit every runner's needs," Kent wrote. "Some want and need more cushioning, structure or stability, so we create products for them."

After reading "Born to Run," I was skeptical of McDougall's thesis. I wasn't about to run barefoot on asphalt running trails, so I bought an $80 pair of Vibram FiveFingers, one of the handful of shoes such as the Free that try to mimic running barefoot.

The FiveFingers is best described as a water shoe with a tough, thin, almost flat rubber sole. "Barefoot Ted" McDonald, a barefoot running pioneer, ran a 3:20 Boston Marathon in them three years ago, after convincing Vibram to sponsor him.

It took a few minutes per shoe to wrestle my toes into their individual pockets on the FiveFingers. I set out for a slow, 3.5-mile jog down my nearest running trail. (I later learned from Davis that this was a truly stupid thing to do. First attempts at barefoot running should last no longer than a quarter-mile, she said. My lower legs, unaccustomed to the shoe change, were sore and tight for days.)

The unencumbered lightness of running in the FiveFingers is the first thing I noticed. It really is like running barefoot, with all the joy that experience brings. Within a very short distance, I also realized something else: Each stride hurt my heels. Without even thinking about it, I was forced forward onto my mid-sole and began to take shorter strides, straightening my back and my overall posture. And on paved trails, I was -- sometimes painfully -- aware of every pebble, twig and acorn I stepped on.

The FiveFingers was originally designed for water sports. Since Barefoot Ted adapted it for running, sales have tripled every year to $10 million this year, the kind of result that gets attention in the $2.3 billion U.S. running shoe industry. Vibram is now working on a new product that is more specifically designed for runners, said Ann Tommasi, a company spokeswoman.

"I really think this time things are going to get traction," Davis says of the barefoot trend, without a hint of irony.

Maybe. Two days after my jog in the FiveFingers, I went out for a seven-mile run in my regular shoes. All that cushiony comfort was like diving into a pint of Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk after a Pritikin diet. I don't envision giving that up any time soon.

Comments: misfits@washpost.com.


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