Happy feet? Runners kick off their shoes

Although running a marathon without shoes is extreme, experts say training in bare feet could decrease injuries

October 27, 2006|By Lisa Roberts | Lisa Roberts,Orlando Sentinal

The shoe fits, but Brett Williams decided not to wear it. After his new running shoes caused sore knees, the 29-year-old Salt Lake City man went au naturel. In June, he ran barefoot in his first marathon. His feat, if you will, created national buzz when a photo of his road-blackened soles appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Barefoot running has been the practice of some of the world's best runners, including Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, who won the 1960 Olympics marathon without shoes. And though most of the world's runners continue to lace up, barefoot ideology might be hitting its stride.

For Williams, an employee of Backcountry.com who goes barefoot at work, the plunge into barefoot running got off to a bumpy start. During his first shoeless jog, he badly skinned a toe. Undaunted, he plodded on, enduring several months of what he calls "transition pains."

His Achilles tendons and calf muscles, both shortened from wearing shoes, became sore. Until his soles toughened, he got blisters from hot pavement and bruises from pebbles. Gradually, though, he adopted a barefoot running style that he feels is easier on his body.

"Traditional running is so very masochistic where you push and drive," he says. "In barefoot running, you can't literally push off the ground for more than a few strides." He describes his new style as a gentle, almost flat-footed gait, during which the midfoot hits first and rolls to the ball of the foot and the heel taps the ground. "You feel no need for support or cushioning when your form is correct," he says.

While doing a marathon without shoes may be taking barefoot running to the extreme, there is a place for unshod feet in training, says Roy Benson, a running coach and exercise physiologist in Atlanta. "Shoes weaken bones, muscles and tendons with all their support and shock absorption." Though his runners compete in shoes, Benson encourages barefoot drills that "give you stronger, healthier feet."

Though research on barefoot running is scant, some scientists note that anecdotal evidence suggests it could decrease injuries such as sprained ankles and plantar fasciitis.

John Roberts, cross-country coach at South Lake High School in Groveland, Fla., said he thinks barefoot workouts on grass have helped cut his teams' shin injuries. Not all of Roberts' team members do drills sans shoes, though.

"If it feels good [to them], I let them do it," he says. "It's something you've got to work into, probably, because it is different. The biggest thing you have to do is find a good place to run barefoot." His teams work out on the football field - "its nice, soft grass is good for that."

Foot shape could be the key to successful barefoot running.

Dr. Stephen Pribut, American Academy of Podiatric Sports president, says Williams has normal "C-shaped" feet, in which the ball, outside foot and heel all make good surface contact and provide adequate support. "It's very safe for [those with that foot type] to run barefoot," he says.

Shoes, however, provide needed support to those who have flat feet, abnormally high arches, plantar fasciitis or Achilles-tendon problems, he says. Additionally, flat-footed runners who overpronate "usually need a shoe to guide the foot in proper directions." Shoes, however, do change the mechanics of the stride, he says. And too much cushioning can create balance issues.

A specialty running store should be able to determine your foot shape and what kind of shoe is appropriate, Pribut says. Or you can determine the shape by dampening your feet and stepping onto a wooden deck or a paper bag. A normal foot will have a C-shape with a wide band of contact on the outside. "A flat foot would be rectangular, like a brick." A foot with a high arch would show contact on the ball and heel, with a narrow band on the outside foot.

Shoes also protect against road hazards such as hot asphalt and concrete, bottle caps and glass, says Dr. Roger Beck of Tavares, Fla., president of the Florida Podiatric Medical Association.

If you choose to give barefoot running a try, "do it slowly and train for it," he says. Runners can injure themselves by plunging in overzealously. He recommends starting with walking and building slowly to running.

Those who want protection along with a barefoot feel have at least two products from which to choose. Nike claims its new Free running shoe ($95) mimics the barefoot feel while promoting foot strength. The Vibram FiveFingers ($70) is a lightweight glove-style shoe with toe slots and a protective sole.

To Williams, though, there's nothing like feeling the pavement under his feet. "We live in such a stifling, stressful world," he says. "It's so much fun to kick off your shoes and relax into a run."

Lisa Roberts writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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