WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Maybe you’ll see Michae Legault of Pleasant Hill, Calif., in shoes on special occasions.
But you certainly won’t see him running in shoes.
The former track and cross-country coach has been a barefoot runner for seven years. He runs the Iron Horse Trail barefoot, runs around Concord Community Park barefoot; he even works barefoot.
Legault says running shoes, especially those with a wedge at the heel, are useless, even dangerous. He prefers running feet unshod and, like many across the country, he believes going barefoot is the best way to run.
Legault found this out after years of looking for a flat-foot running shoe and getting a black toenail during a marathon. Two miles before the finish line, he took off his shoes and completed the run.
“I thought ‘This rocks’ and stopped looking for my flat shoe,” the 50-year-old contractor says.
Barefoot running, though unusual and odd to most runners, is gaining momentum. It has gotten more popular in the last 10 years and was recently brought into the mainstream by Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best-selling book, “Born to Run.” While those who run barefoot and some researchers say the practice improves stride and prevents injury, some doctors say it’s not good for the feet and may even spark more injury.
At least one man ran the Oakland Running Festival, a 26.2-mile marathon, barefoot last March. That was Efrem Rensi, a University of California-Davis student. Rensi took off his running shoes seven years ago.
Before he started going barefoot, Rensi was a casual runner with difficulty. He had pain in his Achilles tendon and searched for shoes that would correct the problem.
“I bought a motion-controlled shoe and walked around, but things really didn’t get any better,” Rensi says.
He turned to the Web and found a website by Barefoot Ken Bob expounding the benefits of running without shoes.
“He looked like this weird hippie, and at the time, I was really self-conscious about the way I looked, but somehow I started to do it,” he says. “I thought it was pretty crazy so I thought I’d give it a shot.”
His Achilles tendon problems now come and go; they aren’t chronic anymore. And he managed to complete the marathon around the hard streets of Oakland in three hours and 33 minutes with just a small injury to one of his toes.
Some swear by it
Dig into the barefoot running community just a little bit, and you’ll see dozens of testimonials on how barefoot running is better for you, can help solve or prevent running injury (statistics say nearly 30 percent of runners are injured every year) and is simply more fun than running with shoes.
That’s certainly what “Barefoot” Ted McDonald says. The Seattle resident was featured in McDougall’s “Born to Run,” which uncovers the secrets and joys of running with a tribe in Mexico, as the sole barefoot runner in an ultra-marathon in that country’s Copper Canyon. McDonald tried running in traditional running shoes, even searching out the best shoes for his particular problem: excruciating lower back pain. After buying some of the most padded, springy shoes he could find, his pain continued until he took the shoes off and started walking barefoot.
McDonald, who is now working on sandals for runners, says he’s not terribly dogmatic about being barefoot. He also runs in minimalist footwear like the popular Vibram FiveFingers shoes that mold to the feet and have a spot for each toe. The fad, he says, is not barefoot running. The fad is running with popular, highly cushioned running shoes.
“The shoes are what people should be questioning rather than the other way around,” he says. “I don’t care how people move their body, but I am thoroughly convinced that this is the best solution for a lot of people.”
There is some science to back what McDonald and other barefoot runners are saying. Doctors studying at Harvard University have suggested, with warnings, that barefoot running or running with minimal footwear like the Vibram FiveFingers shoes, can be safe, perhaps even safer, than running with cushioned shoes. That’s because the foot strikes the pavement differently without the cushion — it puts less pressure on the heel. More pressure on the heel could lead to repetitive stress injury.
Running barefoot, on the other hand, promotes midfoot and forefoot striking, the study says. Those strikes appear to produce less of an impact force on the body than heel striking.
Some podiatrists worry
But some doctors, especially podiatrists, are not convinced. Dr. Lesley Wolff, director of the San Francisco Bay Area Podiatry Group, has been running, in shoes, for 35 years. He has also coached marathon runners, has a background in biomechanics and is a foot and ankle surgeon.
He says that barefoot runners are taking a huge risk.
“The repetitive pounding on the ground without protection, I think, is ridiculous,” he says. Not only are runners at risk for injury by accidentally stepping on objects like nails and glass, but people usually run on hard, man-made terrain that necessitates cushioning provided by running shoes.
Long term, the doctor says, barefoot running is doomed with problems because the older a person gets, the fat pad on the bottom of a runner’s foot thins. Finally, Wolff says, there is no proof that barefoot runners are injured with less frequency than people who run with shoes.
“What are the statistics of injury?” he asks. “No one is keeping track of that. Maybe there’s an elite few people who can be conditioned to it that can get away with it with the right training, but long term, I think it’s doomed for problems.”
Yet figuring out the benefits of running barefoot has been a godsend for runner and author Michael Sandler, whose “Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth” (RunBare Publishing, $24.95) teaches people how to gradually kick off their shoes and run au naturel.
Sandler got into barefoot running after suffering an accident in which he broke a lot of bones. He was told he could never run again. It wasn’t until he started running barefoot, because he had nothing else to lose, he says, that he realized he could still participate despite his injuries.
He says after conditioning and running barefoot for a while, you won’t tear up your feet on glass or rocks because the feet harden over time.
“My skin has gotten stronger over the years, but it doesn’t look like caveman feet,” Sandler says.
In fact, in the years Sandler has been running barefoot, he’s only been cut by glass once, and that’s after his feet were softened by salt spread on his path to melt snow.
Sandler suggests people start running barefoot slow and steady. Walk barefoot first. Next, run on grass and cement bike baths to strengthen the skin. Then, after a while, you can run anywhere you want.
“It feels incredible,” he says. “When you are connected to the ground, you see it in a different way. You are no longer watching the scenery pass by, you are part of it.”B
For More Information
—Running Barefoot: Training Tips, Harvard University; www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu.
—The Running Barefoot: Beginning with Barefoot Ken Bob; www.therunningbarefoot.com
(c) 2010, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).
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