Barefoot running pits technique against tradition

Karen Early of Lake in the Hills runs Monday on a treadmill to have her form critiqued at The Running Depot in Crystal Lake. Early recently dealt with plantar fasciitis and is looking for ways to stay healthy and gain speed.
Karen Early of Lake in the Hills runs Monday on a treadmill to have her form critiqued at The Running Depot in Crystal Lake. Early recently dealt with plantar fasciitis and is looking for ways to stay healthy and gain speed.

CRYSTAL LAKE – As the barefoot running craze matures, the focus has been as much on the mechanics of running as it has been on footwear.

Although minimalist running shoes have gained a toehold in the marketplace and shoeless joggers aren’t as likely to draw stares, many runners have kept to traditional athletic shoes. And experts remain divided on the wisdom of running without them.

Many converts were inspired by Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best-seller “Born To Run,” which is widely credited with sparking the barefoot running trend. The book focuses on an Indian tribe in Mexico whose members run long distances without pain in little more than sandals.

“Born To Run” and other books have led to debate in the running community about everything from proper technique to shoe styles, said Cari Setzler of Fast Finish Coaching.

Setzler is a certified natural running instructor who teaches a six-week class on the subject at the Running Depot in downtown Crystal Lake.

She also coordinates the Centegra Health Bridge Fitness Center RoadRunners Running Club.

While the ranks of people running barefoot or in “barefoot running shoes” have grown in recent years, they still are the minority of runners.

Almost by accident, Peige Wise discovered Vibram FiveFingers, a popular minimalist shoe that wraps the foot like a glove.

Wise, a retired patent attorney and member of the RoadRunners Running Club in Crystal Lake, found a pair while searching for good beach shoes on vacation in Hawaii.

She had never felt comfortable in traditional running shoes, so Vibram FiveFingers seemed like a good fit.

Wise, who runs about 15 miles a week, took a course on natural running from a local trainer and has largely been able to avoid the knee problems that had bothered her for years.

“I’m pain free now,” she said. “That’s what convinced me.”

Like Wise, others swear they are less prone to injuries after kicking off their athletic shoes, although there’s no evidence that barefoot runners suffer fewer problems.

“While anecdotal evidence and testimonials proliferate on the Internet and in the media about the possible health benefits of barefoot running, research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects,” the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine wrote in a position statement. “Currently, there is a lack of well-designed studies regarding the benefits and/or risks of barefoot running.”

Going barefoot isn’t for everyone, said Dr. Carly Day, who practices sports medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center based in Ohio.

“I see a fair amount of runners, and people often ask me if I recommend it or not,” she said.

The barefoot question doesn’t have an easy answer. Instead, Day said she takes it on a case-by-case basis following the medical ethic of “First, do no harm.”

“For those without pain, it would be tough to push them to switch,” she said. “Don’t change something that is working.”

For those with pain, Day looks at what could be causing it. And again, there might not be a simple fix.

Running injuries are common. Between 30 and 70 percent of runners suffer from repetitive stress injuries every year, and experts don’t agree on how to prevent them.

Runners with shoes tend to have a longer stride and land on their heels compared to barefoot runners, who are more likely to have a shorter stride and land on the midfoot or forefoot.

Some runners may benefit from landing midfoot rather than on the heel, Day said.

Regardless of what works best for an individual runner, it’s important to make any change gradually, Day said.

As more avid runners and casual athletes experiment with barefoot running, doctors say they are treating injuries ranging from pulled calf muscles to Achilles tendinitis to metatarsal stress fractures, mainly in people who ramped up too fast. In serious cases, they are laid up for several months.

Runners who make the transition to barefoot running too quickly or without proper training are more likely to get injured, said Setzler, of Fast Finish Coaching.

She advises those interested in barefoot running or switching to a barefoot-style shoe to take a training course before jumping on the bandwagon.

“You need to work on changing the mechanics or it will actually hurt more than help,” Setzler said.

A midfoot strike has been shown in studies to reduce the impact of running on hip and knee joints, she said.

Setzler’s training courses teach runners to increase their stride frequency from about 82 steps per leg per minute to about 90 steps per leg per minute. The faster cadence encourages a midfoot strike.

“When you increase stride frequency, you are more likely to land under your center of gravity,” she said.

This increases efficiency, she said.

Setzler advocates a natural stride for most runners.

Karen Early, a longtime runner and mother of two from Lake in the Hills, recently signed up for Setzler’s course to get faster and avoid the heel pain that has hampered her in recent months.

Some runners with chronic problems have seized on barefoot running as an antidote, claiming that it’s more natural. Others have demonized sneakers as the cause of their injuries.

The barefoot movement shows how much has changed since the advent of the modern running shoe with its cushioned heel and stiff sole in the 1970s, Setzler said.

“The pendulum has swung the other way completely,” she said, “Which probably means the answer is somewhere in the middle.”

• The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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