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Running in your birthday shoes

Running in your birthday shoes

There is a growing subculture of runners going shoeless and embracing the barefoot running lifestyle.

In 1960 Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila won Olympic gold without shoes in world record time. Most of us remember Zola Budd. In 1984 she set a world record in the 5,000 meters. High level runners can compete and be very successful without running shoes. Nevertheless, the vast majority of competitive runners perform while wearing shoes. So what are the arguments behind “to wear shoes or not to wear shoes?” Advocates claim that running barefoot improves foot biomechanics and reduces injuries. That sounds strange doesn’t it? We have been trained to think in terms of running shoes with “gel” and “air” that fix our feet. Now they are saying barefoot is better? All it takes is a couple of university studies to get people chatting.

Harvard University performed a study that brought forth some interesting points. According to their study, running barefoot causes less collision force to the feet than running in cushioned shoes. People who wear shoes when they run have a very different foot strike. Apparently running in shoes creates a heavy heel strike, whereas running shoeless causes landing on the middle or front of the foot. The shoeless situation causes less impact on the foot and leg. Therefore less injuries. Barefoot supporters take this research and “run” with it. These experts in the shoeless world also add that wearing shoes causes small foot muscles to weaken. “They” say the modern shoe has made our foot lazy. That supportive shoes, custom orthotics or even $20 arch supports have created poor foot mechanics. But to run like Avatars in bare feet? I am not ready for that.

But here is what I find interesting; this fad is moving into shoe stores. Some of the larger shoe companies have capitalized on this new trendy, marketing opportunity. They have swooped in on this barefoot running idea and decided to make a shoe for barefoot running! Nike first embraced this niche by making what they are calling a “minimalist” shoe. It is called “Nike Free.” Nike introduced this in 2005, as a way of conjugating the principles and advantages of running barefoot to strengthen the feet and legs with the protection and traction of a training shoe. The Nike Free was designed as your second best choice after barefoot running. They had the foresight to realize not everyone has the luxury or a barefoot training environment like beaches and grasses. Most of us live and run in the concrete jungle. Nike Free is the lightweight package and offers a bit of protection from the ground. It is not designed to replace your high mileage shoe, but as a shoe for shorter runs.
Other shoe companies are now making “minimalist” shoes as well. These shoes are the new trend in running circles. A variation of this “minimalist” running shoe has come from a company called Vibram, which has a different approach, but still with barefoot running in mind. They haven’t made a shoe to make you enjoy the benefits of “barefoot running.” They have made a glove for the foot. Vibram has created “The Vibram Five Fingers.” It is different from any other foot wear on the planet. It gives athletes the freedom of “sorta” going barefoot, but provides a thin sole to protect against stones and gravel. Five Fingers allows athletes to use foot and calf muscles that have been neglected. A more natural running form is the desired result. Less heel strike, less injuries. Time will tell.

We know modern man spends too much time in shoes and this weakens our muscles. But to go barefoot running? Even with a trendy “barefoot shoe?” This is not for everyone. As with anything new, transition is key. Even the staunch barefoot supporters suggest a combination of running with shoes and running sans shoes. Perhaps with time and patience our feet could be less reliant on shoes. We don’t have to barefoot run all the time. But do we have to be in shoes constantly? I don’t think the big shoe giants will go out of business nor will you have to sell your Asics stocks due to this new fad. But it is all something to think on.

Cheryl Witter is a physical therapist at Spine and Sports Physical Therapy and Massage Therapy in Vernon.

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