Running shoeless

Barefoot method has won converts locally and around the globe who had been plagued by injuries

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 

A doctor weighs in

Jaime Andres Nicacio, a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Southwest Washington Medical Center, said education and caution are key to running without traditional shoes.

It is crucial that barefoot and minimalist runners modify their form to strike with their forefoot instead of their heels, Nicacio said.

Otherwise, they might increase their risk of heel stress fractures, Achilles tendonitis, calf strains, knee injuries and forefoot injuries related to overuse. Shod runners, who make initial ground contact with their heels, also might be at risk for these injuries.

Done correctly, however, barefoot or minimalist running results in less impact than running in traditional shoes, Nicacio said.

A forefoot strike reduces the sheer force on the foot and ankle, though the calf muscles must work much harder.

Even with a modified form and a forefoot strike, barefoot and minimalist runners are still at risk for some problems, particularly calf overuse injuries, Nicacio said.

People going barefoot or in shoes with minimal cushioning also have to worry about puncture wounds from stepping on sharp objects, he said. In the warmer months, hot pavement can present a problem, too.

Nicacio said people should educate themselves on proper running form before they try barefoot or minimalist running, and take it slowly when they start. He recommends running no more than a quarter or a half mile to start, then adding 10 to 20 percent every one to two weeks.

—Mary Ann Albright

On the Web:

therunningbarefoot.com

barefootrunners.org

barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu

yahoo.com/RunningBarefoot

ardydub.blogspot.com

Ryan D. Whitaker carries two sets of business cards. One has contact information for his downtown Vancouver law office. The other introduces him not as an attorney but as a proud barefoot runner.

Whitaker had the second batch of cards made because so many people stop him on runs and ask where his shoes are. Rather than keep having the same conversation over and over, Whitaker, 57, made cards to hand out to those interested in learning more about the growing trend.

Like many barefoot runners, he turned to the practice after injuries threatened to halt his lifelong passion.

Whitaker developed plantar fasciitis, an irritation and inflammation of the foot arch connective tissue, and running became too painful. He tried new running shoes, but they didn’t help. He considered orthotics, but that seemed like an artificial solution.

“I thought, running is natural. There should be a natural way to run without pain,” Whitaker said.

He did some research online, came across the website http://www.therunningbarefoot.com, and decided to give barefoot running a try.

That was back in August 2004, and Whitaker has been running barefoot ever since. Back then he felt like an anomaly around Vancouver. Now, spurred in part by the best-selling 2009 book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” barefoot and minimalist runners are a growing minority in Clark County and beyond.

While barefoot runners go without shoes, minimalist runners wear as little shoe as possible to approximate the barefoot experience while still providing some protection for their feet.

Whitaker begins his runs downtown, striking out on various routes that often take him through Esther Short Park and along the Columbia River Waterfront. He runs year-round and enjoys puddles, though he avoids pounding the pavement during downpours.

Whitaker will run on gravel and rocky surfaces, but he tries to keep off grass.

“I don’t know what’s in there,” he said.

Whitaker has stepped on glass, and has sustained a few cuts, though never serious enough to require stitches. For the most part, puncture wounds haven’t been a problem.

“I’m always paying attention,” he said. “I become very aware.”

He chronicles his experiences on his blog, The Sentient Runner (http://www.ardydub.blogspot.com).

When Whitaker first began running barefoot, he attracted a lot of attention.

“I was very self-conscious at first because I felt so weird and out of place,” he said.

Reactions vary widely from positive cheers of “you’re the man” to more negative comments.

“I’d get people call me crazy or ask if I was drunk or yell, ‘Where are your shoes?’” Whitaker said.

As the barefoot running movement has grown in recent years, he’s getting more positive comments from onlookers than negative, Whitaker said.

A growing trend

The Barefoot Runners Society, founded in November 2009, began with 680 members. It now has more than 2,400 members and 79 chapters worldwide, including chapters in Oregon and Washington (http://barefootrunners.org). The group celebrated its inaugural International Barefoot Running Day on May 1 this year and drew participants from around the world.

To be sure, barefoot and minimalist running aren’t new concepts. Historically, people didn’t always have the option of shoes, let alone high-tech models.

In some parts of the world, people still go barefoot or wear simple, homemade sandals or moccasins. “Born to Run” author Christopher McDougall set out to learn how the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico could run hundreds of miles in makeshift sandals. In telling their story, he helped popularize barefoot and minimalist running (http://www.chrismcdougall.com).

McDougall’s own journey to barefoot running was similar to Whitaker’s. He’d been a casual runner for years, and battled persistent knee and foot pain. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, the journalist from rural Pennsylvania visited a sports medicine doctor in 2001 and was told that people “the size of Shrek” shouldn’t run.

McDougall stopped running for several years, but in 2004, while on a magazine assignment in Mexico, he saw a photo that intrigued him. It was an image of a 55-year-old Tarahumara Indian runner who won a 100-mile race wearing only simple sandals.

“I wanted to see what he was doing that I wasn’t,” McDougall said.

He made several trips to Mexico over the next few years, and found that what set the Tarahumaras apart was their running form. They take lighter, shorter strides and land on their forefoot, not their heel, as most shoe-wearing runners do. They place their feet below their hips, not out in front of them.

McDougall adopted their style and noticed an immediate difference.

“In nine months, I went from running not at all to running a 50-mile race,” he said.

It’s form, not footwear, that’s the key. Running barefoot or in minimalist shoes is a way to achieve ideal form, McDougall said.

He now runs between 50 and 60 miles a week and is no longer plagued by injuries. He’s usually barefoot, but will run in sandals or minimalist shoes on rocky terrain.

Body of research

Several often-cited studies support McDougall’s observations of the Tarahumaras. One, featured in the January 2010 issue of Nature, found that “fore-foot- and midfoot-strike gaits were probably more common when humans ran barefoot or in minimal shoes, and may protect the feet and lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners.”

Another study, which appeared in the December 2009 issue of PM&R, concluded that “increased joint torques at the hip, knee and ankle were observed with running shoes compared to running barefoot.”

Despite the growing support for barefoot and minimalist running, the movement has its detractors, including websites such as http://www.runningbarefootisbad.com.

The American Podiatric Medical Association warns on its website that barefoot runners risk injuring their feet and increasing stress on their lower extremities, and calls for more research into the practice.

Columbia River High School senior Rebecca Leong, 18, who recently was named one of two winners in the national Young Epidemiology Scholars Competition, received a $50,000 college scholarship for her research on the effects of footwear on running-related injuries.

Leong studied 45 runners for 12 weeks — 19 ran barefoot or in minimalist shoes, 10 ran in traditional shoes and 16 were in transition from shod to barefoot or minimalist running.

“What I found was that the transitioning group on average had the most injuries, the barefoot group was second-most, and the shod runners had the least injuries,” Leong said.

Starting slowly

Barefoot runners say the key is starting slow. Transitioning to barefoot or minimalist running is like starting over, they say, and, like beginning any new exercise regimen, should be done carefully and gradually.

Whitaker started by walking barefoot a block or two at a time, then gradually increased his pace and distance. Nearly seven years later, he runs between six and 10 miles a day, two or three days a week. His longest barefoot run was about 20 miles.

Chris Beyer learned the hard way the importance of patience when transitioning to barefoot or minimalist running.

A 37-year-old Vancouver resident and longtime runner, he was suffering from knee problems when a colleague at EarthLink Business loaned him “Born to Run.”

The book resonated with him, he said, so he tried running three miles in glovelike Vibram FiveFingers, minimalist shoes designed to simulate the barefoot experience while shielding the foot.

“I could barely walk for a couple of weeks,” Beyer said. “I really did a number on my calf muscles. They weren’t used to running with no heel.”

It’s been nine months since that first overly ambitious run, and Beyer now goes without traditional shoes when he runs four to eight miles a day, four days per week. He is training for the Portland Marathon, which he plans to run barefoot.

Beyer has gotten his EarthLink Business co-worker, Steven Duffy, to embrace the trend. Duffy, a 43-year-old Battle Ground resident, also battled knee problems and couldn’t train for all of 2010.

“Since the first day I tried barefoot running, my knee felt fantastic,” he said. “It’s been the only thing I found that helped.”

Minimalist moves

The Vibrams Beyer and Duffy wear when they’re not running barefoot compete in a growing field of minimalist shoes.

“They’re very trendy,” said Alan O’Hara, who owns When the Shoe Fits in Salmon Creek and Fisher’s Landing with his wife, Amy. “There’s definitely a growing demand for them. People are wanting to try them out and see what it’s all about.”

Vibram FiveFingers were named one of the top inventions of 2007 by Time magazine. Last spring Vibram introduced the Bikila model, specifically designed for running. The shoe is named after Ethiopian marathon champion Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympic Marathon in Rome running barefoot.

The O’Haras are marathon runners. He prefers traditional running shoes, while she goes minimalist some of the time.

“It’s a great feeling of freedom,” said Amy O'Hara, 43. “I feel like a prancing deer, like an 8-year-old girl running after the ice cream truck.”

She runs between 30 and 40 miles a week, but only wears minimalist shoes once a week, for no more than three miles. The rest of the time, she wears traditional running shoes. Switching back and forth helps strengthen different muscles and is good cross-training, she said.

Irene Torres, 36, a Vancouver resident and labor and delivery nurse, has already run two half-marathons in her minimalist shoes. “It’s great,” she said.

Robert Bacon, a 34-year-old master gardener and Hazel Dell resident, also has worn Vibram FiveFingers in races. Bacon found learning to run in minimalist shoes to be reinvigorating and intellectually stimulating.

He’s a little slower in the Vibrams compared to traditional running shoes, particularly when going downhill, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

“When I switch back to my regular shoes, I’m faster than I was before,” he said. “You’re building different muscles, so you’re improving your overall fitness.”