Barefoot runners defend ditching the shoes

February 2, 2011 7:29:33 PM PST
A popular new exercise trend is sparking questions about its safety, but a growing legion of runners believe that training barefoot is actually healthier in the long run.

Diane and Andy Philips are getting ready to go for a run. But instead of lacing up traditional running shoes, they're slipping the equivalent of gloves for their feet.

"You couldn't have paid me to run before these shoes," says barefoot runner Andy.

The five-toed shoes are actually the softer side of a fast-growing trend -- barefoot running. It's fueled by the belief that running barefoot produces a more natural stride, that's actually more effective than padded shoes for preventing injuries.

"I just hurt, everything hurt. Feet hurt, body hurt, neck hurt, I never had an enjoyable experience in a running shoe, no matter what running shoe I had," says Andy.

Kevin Stone, M.D., runs an orthopedic clinic in San Francisco and is an expert in knee repair. He says padded running shoes, developed over the last 40 years, encourage runners to land on their heal and then roll forward. Although the initial impact is padded, he believes the force of the heal striking the pavement actually transmits more stress to the body than a barefoot landing.

"That force then goes through your knee, your hip, and your back in a in a very bad way. As opposed to you landing on the ball of the foot, or in the midfoot. If they land in the midfoot, or in the forefoot, the muscles and tendons absorb the force, and work like a shock absorber," says Stone.

Recent studies, including one completed at Harvard University, generally support the safety and superior mechanics of barefoot running, but they also point out some of the risks.

In the Harvard study, researchers found that barefoot runners who do land on their heals instead of the midfoot, create a collision force nearly three times their bodyweight. Far more damaging than if they wore shoes. Diane says her first runs using the barefoot style footgloves were a learning experience.

"The next day, I couldn't walk. I had my calves were very tight, super tight," says Diane.

Still, Diane and husband Andy are now confirmed converts to barefoot running and have logged hundreds of miles injury free.

"After these shoes, you can pay me to not run," says Andy.

Critics point out that pure barefoot runners run the risk of stepping on sharp objects and cutting their feet and barefoot runners admit that is a risk.