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Should We Get in Step With Those Who Say Barefoot Is Best?

By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It's time for an intimate discussion of a certain part of the human anatomy that doesn't get much coverage in a family newspaper.

Feet.

Mine are long and narrow, with completely fallen arches. They often hurt, especially when my plantar fasciitis -- a nasty inflammation of the connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot -- flares up.

They are spectacularly ill-constructed for their weekly task of running 35 to 45 miles on various surfaces, in the name of fitness and faster marathons.

What do I do about it? The same thing everyone does. I swaddle them in foam, gel, air cushions and all manner of polyrazzmatazz, the latest, lightest and softest materials the running shoe companies provide. I support my flat feet with custom-made orthotics. I slip an extra layer of gel inside my shoe.

But what if all that padding and expense isn't helping at all? What if those shoes and orthotics actually are causing my ailments, or making them worse? What if, all along, I should have been shedding this protective cocoon instead of spinning it ever thicker?

This is the heretical theory of author Christopher McDougall, whose best-selling book "Born to Run" examines a tribe of Indians in Mexico's remote Copper Canyons, the Tarahumara, who run 100-mile races, even into old age, in thin sandals made from strips of rubber tires.

McDougall has reignited the debate over whether everything we think we know about running and running shoes is wrong. This time, there is an ever-larger body of research, and a growing number of runners, to back him up.

"People have been running for at least 2 million years and walking around for millions [of years] before that, and nobody ever wore shoes until fairly recently," says Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, who has begun to run barefoot himself. "I do take an evolutionary approach to running, and I do believe one can run safely and healthfully barefoot."

In a nutshell, here is the argument against the modern running shoe: That raised rear section of the shoe, which offers so much comfort, fundamentally alters your stride, encouraging you to land on your heel. But the heel that nature gave you was never intended to handle the impact forces of running. Each running stride brings forces equal to as much as three times your body weight down on your foot, which, according to McDougall, was designed to absorb that impact on the mid-sole and forefoot.

Because they offer so much protection, and because many models control the way your foot lands, the shoes have made the muscles, ligaments and tendons in your foot and lower leg weaker, the argument goes. Over time, this can lead to injuries. The shoes also bunch toes that were meant to splay outward for balance.

"You wouldn't want to walk around with a neck brace on for the rest of your life if you had sore neck muscles," says Irene Davis, a professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Delaware and an expert on the biomechanics of running. "It wouldn't make sense. It's the same thing" with running shoes, she says. She also is running barefoot these days.

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.

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