Runners and athletes are always searching for the perfect shoe to improve performance and reduce injury. But some say shoes are the problem, and the best solution may be training without them.
Some experts now believe that most athletic shoes, with their inflexible soles, structured sides and super-cushioned inserts keep feet so restricted that they may actually be making your feet lazy, weak and more prone to injury. As a result, barefoot training is gaining more attention among coaches, personal trainers and runners.
While exercising without shoes may sound painful, the idea is that your feet need a workout, too. Proponents believe running barefoot changes a runner's form and body mechanics to prevent some common athletic injuries.
Although a few coaches and marathon runners have preached the value of barefoot training, the method has received more attention lately because shoe giant Nike is promoting its Nike Free shoe, which it claims mimics the sensation of running barefoot. Popular training methods aimed at improving running form, including the Pose Method (www.posetech.com) and ChiRunning (www.chirunning.com), also are prompting runners to consider minimalist foot gear or none at all as a way to allow their natural body mechanics to take over.
It isn't just runners who are going barefoot. One new fitness trend, a dance-inspired workout called Balletone (www.balletone.com), places heavy emphasis on foot strengthening and flexibility, something that is essential to dancers. Boulder, Colo., fitness educator Shannon Griffiths-Fable says her chiropractor encouraged her to try barefoot training, and she has also seen a difference in clients who take part in Balletone classes. "I've noticed just how fatigued people's feet get," she says. "They haven't used their feet and they don't know how to support themselves while exercising."
But barefoot training remains controversial. Many podiatrists cringe at the notion of unshod feet pounding the pavement, where the risks include cuts, bruises and unsanitary conditions. "If we want to mimic barefoot running, shoes should come with broken glass and twigs," says Stephen M. Pribut, a Washington, D.C., podiatrist and president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. "The emphasis should be on getting the right shoe for your foot."
While doctors also worry barefoot running can lead to injuries, proponents say barefoot training helps correct form and reduces foot, shin and muscle injuries.
Someone considering barefoot training should be careful. Doctors strongly discourage it for patients with diabetes, because a foot wound can lead to serious complications. Athletes with foot pain or injuries should consult with a sports-medicine expert, trainer or physical therapist before shedding their shoes. Even proponents of barefoot training say you should start slowly. Runners can start on grass, a clean sidewalk or a rubberized track. Be careful not to overdo it and give feet and muscles time to adapt. If you aren't willing to give up shoes while running on streets and trails, you might consider switching to a more flexible shoe or one with less padding if you like the way barefoot training feels. Yoga, pilates or group fitness classes that allow you to exercise while barefoot are also options.
Advocates of barefoot training swear by it, claiming that ditching their shoes has improved the running experience and solved injury problems. Four months ago, 29-year-old Salt Lake City runner Brett Williams was on the verge of buying the Nike Airmax 360, a $160 shoe. In researching the shoe, he stumbled across www.runningbarefoot.org, which has become the Web-based bible for barefoot runners. "I decided I'd had enough and went barefoot," says Mr. Williams, who on Saturday ran the Salt Lake City marathon, his first marathon, while barefoot. Mr. Williams says he enjoys running more now, and suffered only a minor scrape during the race that was less painful than the blisters that often develop on the feet of shod runners. "Your connection with the ground beneath your feet is absolutely lost with shoes on," says Mr. Williams. "I am utterly convinced your feet don't need support or cushioning. If they do it's because you're not running correctly."
There isn't a lot of scientific study on barefoot training. Research has shown that wearing shoes to exercise takes more energy, and that barefoot runners use about 4 percent less oxygen than shod runners. Other studies suggest barefoot athletes naturally compensate for the lack of cushioning and land more softly than runners in shoes, putting less shock and strain on the rest of the body. Barefoot runners also tend to land in the middle of their foot, which can improve running form and reduce injury.
One series of studies from Canadian researchers concluded that heavily cushioned shoes were more likely to cause injury than simpler shoes. They also concluded that more expensive athletic shoes accounted for twice as many injuries as cheaper shoes. The data aren't conclusive. It may be that buyers of expensive shoes are more injury prone or more active, and therefore more likely to sustain injuries. A summary of the data on barefoot training can be found at www.sportsci.org/jour/0103/mw.htm.
Dr. Pribut says he would like patients to seek out more appropriate athletic shoes, and gives advice on how to do this at www.drpribut.com/sports/spshoe.html. He notes that some athletes who go barefoot or give up structured shoes risk injuring themselves further.
Although barefoot runners say their feet become conditioned to running on pavement, some are choosing minimalist footwear to protect the feet without impeding the barefoot experience. A quirky foot-glove called the Vibram FiveFingers (www.vibramfivefingers.com) developed to keep sailors from slipping on their boats is one option. A toe-less nylon band used by dancers (www.dancepaws.com) also helps protect feet of barefoot trainers without the structure of a shoe.