Running bare: no-shoes movement gains a toehold
Running bare: no-shoes movement gains a toehold
STEPHANIE DESMON October 1, 2009
David Engwall gets home from work, slips on his running clothes and leaves for a run, his runners still at the door. Yes, that man jogging down the road in the middle of the urban streets is barefoot.
The only one in Arbutus, an area in Baltimore County, who will run with a barefoot Engwall is his dog. It isn't that his girlfriend is embarrassed to be seen with him. She's just worried the 26-year-old will step on a piece of broken glass or pick up some bacteria.
''She threatened to call my mother,'' he said.
Engwall is part of a mini-movement of barefoot runners that has taken shape over the better part of the decade and appears to be gaining ground. One driving force behind it is an underground theory that the expensive running shoes everyone is wearing actually could be contributing to jogging injuries.
The runners say our feet have become weak because the fancy sneakers with their arch supports and thick cushioning do all the work. They point to cultures with long traditions of long-distance shoeless running, to the barefoot Ethiopian athlete who won the marathon at the Rome Olympics in 1960, to Olympian Zola Budd, the South African runner who trained and competed without shoes.
And many new converts seem to have been inspired by ''the book,'' Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, released this year.
At its heart is the true story of the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe isolated in some of Mexico's most treacherous terrain and whose members can run hundreds of kilometres with ease - and all without expensive running shoes.
McDougall writes that there were few running injuries before the 1970s, when Nike intro- duced the first cushioned running shoe. The author has taken up ultra-marathoning and reportedly trains barefoot, believing that is the way humans were meant to run.
''Obviously, it's resonating with people,'' said Dr Ben Pearl, a podiatrist in Arlington, Virginia, who has spoken on barefoot running. ''It's become a culture of its own.''
Pearl says there isn't enough data to know whether barefoot running is safe or if it prevents injuries. He says people in good shape shouldn't be afraid to try it, but they must start slowly. Their feet need to develop calluses. The rest of the body has to adapt.
When barefoot, he says, a runner touches more lightly on the heel and lands more on the ball of the foot, which is different than the way a runner in standard shoes hits the ground. This takes getting used to.
''Sometimes people get so committed to the idea of barefoot running that if something happens to them, [they blame] something else,'' Pearl said. ''They rationalise it.''
''It's unlikely to be incredibly harmful for people with normal feet,'' said Dr Gregory Guyton, an orthopedic surgeon at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore who specialises in foot and ankle reconstruction. ''There's a lot of people that have run barefoot for a long time on this earth.''
With the appropriate caveats - don't run five shoeless kilometres on your first try, for one - ''I wouldn't object to a patient of mine who said, 'I want to take up barefoot running,' '' Guyton said.
But he warns there is no evidence that high-tech running shoes are to blame for jogging injuries or that barefoot running is a cure-all. He says much of the research out there is not of high quality. ''A lot of claims,'' he said. ''No solid data.''
Not everyone in the ''barefoot running'' movement is actually running shoeless. They are simply shunning the ''advancements'' in shoe technology and looking back to a time when running shoes had flat soles, no arch support, no motion control.
Shoe companies have seen an opportunity. Nike's answer is what it calls the Free, a throwback shoe with little support.
Then there are the Vibram Five Fingers - thin, ultralight shoes designed for boaters. They fit the foot like a glove, with each toe getting its own individual compartment. The main protection offered is against road debris. Some say you can feel the grass between your toes as you run. And these ''barefoot shoes'' cost as much as fancy running shoes.
There's a statistic about running that screams from the pages of Born to Run.
McDougall writes: ''Every year, anywhere from 65 to 80 per cent of all runners suffer an injury. That's nearly every runner, every single year. No matter who you are, no matter how much you run, your odds of getting hurt are the same. It doesn't matter if you're male or female, fast or slow, pudgy or ripped as a racehorse, your feet are still in the danger zone.''
Pete Mulligan, a salesman at Falls Road Running Store in Baltimore, says the store is fielding more questions about barefoot running and one customer asked if there was likely to be a barefoot category in the Baltimore Marathon. There won't be, he told them. ''Only if an ambulance is waiting at the end to take the shoeless to the hospital to treat the staph infection they're likely to pick up on the route,'' he quipped.
''They say, 'But our ancestors ran without shoes on,' '' Mulligan said. ''They also didn't have cars or cell phones. That doesn't mean you should run a half-marathon barefoot.''