The Barefoot Running Debate

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My husband’s favorite story to tell about his first marathon is that a woman in stocking feet beat him.

“And it was in Vermont…in October…on gravel roads,” he always adds, still amazed at the freakish phenom.

That was in 2006, and now just over three years later, barefoot running, though clearly not the norm, is becoming more common. (Or nearly-barefoot running is, at least.) Just this past weekend, while running on the National Mall, I saw a runner ahead of me wearing Vibram FiveFingers, the lightweight, glove-like shoes now being sold at sporting goods stores.

Runner’s World, Wired, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and the New York Times have all joined in on the “shoes or no shoes” debate. The barefoot contingent argues that running shoes that promise to provide the needed stability or correct pronation issues negatively affect a runner’s form and may also lead to injuries. “We’re being fleeced,” writer and barefoot enthusiast Christopher McDougall told U.S. News & World Report.

In his bestselling book Born to Run, McDougall writes about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon who run extraordinary distances (we’re talking up to hundreds of miles) in simple sandals without experiencing the injuries that plague most runners. He uses the Tarahumara to prove that, as humans, we are built for this type of running. Running barefoot, people have a more upright body position and shorter strides, landing first on the middle or ball of the foot, rather than the heel, as is often the case when wearing cushy shoes.

Having run track in college and a marathon since then, I’ve had my share of muscle pulls and stress fractures. So my ears perk with this news of a possible remedy. But it takes more than recommendations from “Barefoot Larry” and “Last Place Jason” on a Runner’s World forum to convince me to lose my shoes. What’s tempted me as of late is the release of two new studies—in the December 2009 issue of PM&R: The journal of injury, function and rehabilitation and another in this week’s edition of Nature—that come down hard on shoes. One found a 36 to 54 percent increase in knee and hip torques in runners wearing shoes versus those who did not.

Experts advise barefoot beginners to ease into it and run barefoot only ten percent of the time. This way, they can toughen up their feet and ankles.

Living in Washington, D.C., I fear the shards of glass on the city’s sidewalks—nothing a pair of Vibrams can’t protect me from, I guess. Then, there are the stares from baffled onlookers. But maybe I’ll get up the nerve to give barefoot running a try…

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