Runners forgo sneakers for bare feet

The posters that greet customers entering Achilles Running Shop depict a young man and woman — presumably fresh off a daily run — each reclined while displaying the sole of an exposed left foot. Meanwhile, the right foot lays enclosed in a slender product touted as “barely there.”

For those who enter the West 12th Street store, the placards’ message is obvious: less is more, at least in the case for those who run.

For hundreds of years, athletes have sought to find the safest and most efficient way of running. But can the answer really simply reside on the soles of your bare feet?

“I started noticing it for at least three years now,” Scott Gill, manager of Achilles Running Shop, said of the current barefoot running trend. “But I’ve been in running my entire life, and this isn’t really new.”

The concept is as familiar as the back of your foot: take off your shoes and socks and put one foot in front of the other before you find yourself in a different spot from where you began. However, proponents of the craze that has taken the running world by storm offer a brand new reason to ditch the shoes: safety.

For runners who continually suffer debilitating injuries, barefoot running can provide a viable alternative to lacing up the Nikes, Asics or Reeboks.

According to new research —perhaps most notably coming from the findings of a 2009 Harvard University study — those who run barefoot, or in minimal footwear, experience a marked decrease in heel-striking than those who wear padded running shoes. Instead, barefoot runners are more likely to land toward the balls, toes or middle of the foot. In doing so, according to the research conducted, injuries are much less likely to occur, as this motion dramatically reduces the impact felt in the ankles, knees and other joints.

Such is the case for Tom Madura, who is well-known in Erie’s running circles for his shoeless approach. Madura can be easily spotted at Erie Runners Club events as the only competitor lacking any footwear.

“I started barefoot running at least 10 years ago and I used to run quite a bit, and I put in a lot of miles with shoes but my knees started really bothering me and I started backing off on my mileage,” Madura said. “Everything I did was really killing my knees no matter what shoes I wore, so I did some research and at that time there wasn’t a lot of interest in barefoot running.

“I read some things on the Internet that said it was supposed to be good for you and I started trying it a little bit at a time and sort of eased my way into it, and it just changed the way I ran and it helped my knees.”

Madura, who works as a quality engineer at BASF, said he has suffered no injuries since shedding his shoes a decade ago and thinks he has benefitted greatly from the barefoot approach.

“There have been some studies, there hasn’t been a whole lot of scientific studies, but they’ve shown that when you’re running barefoot, you run with a different stride — you land more on the middle or front of the foot, rather than the heel,” Madura said.

“When you land on your heel, that’s when all the jarring motion goes into your knees and into your hips even. Whereas when you land on the front of your foot, it acts like more of a spring and there’s more cushion, so essentially what you’re doing when you run barefoot is you’re running with a springier stride,” Madura said.

Since opting to go shoeless, Madura said he often hears similar stories from fellow barefoot runners online.

“Most of the stuff I’ve seen online is that people say they’ve seen reduced injuries from barefoot running,” he said. “A lot of the folks have the same stories I have — they’re getting a lot of injuries and since they’ve started barefoot running, it’s gotten better.”

Barefoot running has occupied a fringe niche in the sport for years. But the mere idea of running barefoot runs contrary to everything the modern runner has been programmed to think for years, as the concept was previously believed to be used solely out of necessity.

Running became necessary for primitive people thousands of years ago who needed a way to catch food, flee danger and get to nearby destinations. However, as people evolved and society advanced, shoes became the norm for much of society.

In recent decades, the running shoe business has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry while the products have become increasingly more lavish and abundant in numbers.

Gannon University men’s and women’s cross country coach John Carrig said he remembers when runners didn’t have brand names, gel insoles and super support.

“We ran barefoot as a kid,” Carrig said. “In high school, we would run our meets at Frontier Park barefoot. Back then, we ran barefoot because there were just a couple shoes out at the time, there was Adidas and Puma, and you didn’t have the wide range of shoes.”

But it wasn’t until recent years that the shoeless running rage is once again setting the pace.

The movement picked up speed thanks to Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” in which he details his experience with the Tarahumara Indian Tribe in Northwest Mexico. In the book, McDougall seeks to find out how members of this tribe are able to run more than 100 miles at once and suffer minimal, if any injuries.

His answer? The tribe’s thin-soled sandals that, while depriving their wearers of the 21st-century technology available at any American sports store, force them to land in the middle of the foot. McDougall’s book triggered a large following that responded by modeling its stride after his description of the tribe.

The trend has even caused several shoe companies to cater to runners by offering “minimalist” shoes that, with little padding, are designed to result in a similar walking style, or gait.

Moreover, the objective of barefoot running—to land more on the forefoot rather than the heel—provides conventional thinking on a hike.

“I was always taught that for distance runners, you want to land more on your heel, but now they’re saying it’s anatomically incorrect, so I just leave it up to the kid,” Carrig said. “Use your natural stride, whatever he lands on, he lands on and if it makes him faster, so be it.”

Carrig said none of the runners he coaches at Gannon utilize the barefoot method, but that “some of them run in some real thin shoes.”

Among these shoes is the product advertised on Achilles Running Store’s front window—the Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove, as well as the popular Vibram FiveFingers, which have separate slots for each toe.

The increase in demand for minimalist shoes has coincided with the barefoot running boom, and many retailers are quick to cash in.

Gill said that Achilles is willing to test the minimalist market, but that other stores will ignore the trend in the hopes that it subsides.

“We try to kind of come down a little bit,” he said. “Now some stores will totally not get into this—they’re just going to stay true to their roots and not address it.”

However, such shoes do not exist without controversy.

“There’s a lot of debate in the barefoot running community online about whether those are any good or not,” Madura said.

“Most of the hardcore barefoot runners think you should just go barefoot and there’s no need to spend 80 bucks for a pair of minimalist shoes, but there’s a lot of people that are seeing a lot of benefit from those as well. I can’t personally say because I haven’t tried them.”

While some argue about the best way to strip things down to the bare minimum, others question the merit of running barefoot at all.

Jason Willow, Ph.D. —  the director of sport and exercise science at Gannon and the owner and operator of Competitive Edge Performance Systems, which offers performance enhancement through mental training — cautioned those considering the new method, saying only those with proper form should go au natural.

“The thing with barefoot running is that no matter who you are, you have to have the correct anatomical structure to get away with that,” Willow said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re barefoot or if you’re wearing shoes, if you have an anatomical structure, you could put bricks on the bottom of your feet, and you’d still be able to get away with it.

“In my opinion, there’s not really that much of a competitive advantage for running barefoot. In order to be able to do that, you have to have pretty good anatomical structure,” Willow said.

Still, the barefoot craze continues to gain legs.

The Barefoot Runners Society, a national club for shoeless runners, doubled its members in a year after being formed, rising from 680 members in November 2009 to 1,345 at the same time in 2010. Mumbai, India, also held the world’s first exclusively barefoot half-marathon in November 2010, drawing 306 participants.

Even some of Hollywood’s brightest stars have gotten in on the action, as the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson have been spotted exercising in minimalist footwear.

Previously, long-distance Olympians such as South Africa’s Zola Budd and the now-deceased Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, set the trend when they were easily distinguished while competing in events barefoot.

Despite the rise in numbers of participants, research to confirm the benefits has been sparse and questionable.

The craze even forced the American Podiatric Medical Association to issue a statement in April on the subject. In the statement, the body recognized that barefoot running promotes a “more natural running style. However, risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection.”

The organization deemed that “research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice,” and advised all who are considering barefoot running to consult a podiatrist beforehand.

Willow said he doubts there is much to support the claims of barefoot backers, and even the evidence out there may be disputed.

“People are looking for the new thing,” he said. “They’re looking for the magic pill that makes everything better or whatever they can do to not make exercise hard, which it’s supposed to be.

“I doubt there’s much research behind it, and I would be very wary about research that says you’re injured less when you run barefoot,” Willow said. “Often times, if you look at these studies that some doctor says he has a proven method, you can look in the fine print and see that the study was in some way done for a company.”

Indeed, the oft-cited Harvard study that many proponents tout as a watershed moment for the movement did include funding from a possibly partial source:  Vibram, the makers of FiveFingers— one of the most popular minimalist shoes on the market.

But such occurrences do not deter many runners who enter running stores like Achilles in search of the hottest minimalist fashions despite what dangerous effects may ensue from transitioning to the lighter footwear immediately.

“When they come in, that’s what they want to go to, but you are risking injuries—calves, Achilles, because when you’re used to striking a little bit back, there’s going to be a little different feel this way,” Gill said. “We’ve known about it, it’s just we’ve seen a lot of people who want to get into the sport, want to do this right from the get-go. There’s kind of a caution there.”

Madura said that in his own experience 10 years ago, his feet took about six months of transitioning before he was able to ditch his shoes completely.

“I would run a few miles in shoes, then I might run half a mile or a mile barefoot, and as time went on I increased the barefoot percentage until I was running completely barefoot,” he said.

A pragmatic approach that many runners take is to incorporate barefoot running into workouts, but not make the minimalist technique the focal point.

“These are great complementarily,” he said. “You should work them in—that’s how Nike was marketing them, or in my case this is what we go to do our speed work in.”

However, skeptics still remain who are not ready to believe that a stripping down in equipment means anything more than a change in mindset.

“It’s a perception thing,” Willow said. “You might feel like you’re lighter or faster, but if you look at the research, there isn’t really much difference in the speed of a person with shoes and without shoes.”

But even Willow was quick to point out the value that barefoot running holds for some.

“Now, if you think that ‘I’ve been wearing normal shoes and now I’m running with shoes with individual toes’ and now all of a sudden you’re running regularly, then they’ve done their job even though there’s no difference with them,” Willow said. “If you think it works, there’s going to be some value to it, just like a placebo.”

Whatever the reason, the barefoot running craze continues to gain tread, even among those who were hesitant at first, Gill said.

“There are some people who won’t change, but we’re seeing a lot of the people who have been running in the heavier shoes are kind of scaling back.”

And that brings a smile to face for some of the movement’s more ardent supporters.

“I was kind of happy to see it get a little more attention and get a little more mainstream,” Madura said. “It was interesting to see it take off finally, because there was just this group online and now there was all of a sudden all this interest.”

Still the question remains: how long will this phenomenon last, and will it come to occupy a permanent spot in the sport of running?

“It is kind of a fad, but how much? We’ll find out,” Gill said.

“It’s just a fad—it’s just like anything else,” Willow said. “There is no new or better way of doing physical activity.”

But for some, they are content just to kick off their shoes and dart down the path simply for the pure enjoyment it provides.

“I don’t run as much as I used to, but I always liked barefoot running, especially on a nice grass surface,” Carrig said. “It has a more natural feel to it, and if you can get the right surface, it’s really enjoyable.”

Madura said he agrees.

“I’m at the point now that I just really enjoy going out for a run and I don’t think I’d enjoy it at all if I went back to running in shoes,” he said. “I don’t even own a pair of running shoes anymore.”

 

JOE CUNEO

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