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Should You Shed Your Shoes?

If you’re ready to try barefoot running, here's what you should keep in mind.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Kimball Johnson, MD

Running is often touted as the perfect exercise, partly because it's so simple: Lace up your shoes and go. Now, a small but vocal contingent of runners says it can be even simpler and perhaps healthier -- just lose the shoes for an even better workout.

Barefoot running divisions are cropping up at organized runs across the U.S., and Christopher McDougall's barefoot running book, Born to Run, landed on the New York Times best seller list.

Curious? Here's the lowdown on barefoot running and what you should keep in mind if you try it.

Why the sudden interest in barefoot running?

It's not so sudden, advocates say, just more in the spotlight.

Barefoot running has been around since antiquity, proponents such as McDougall say. He visited the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico and found that they wear flimsy sandals but manage to run hundreds of miles without being plagued by injuries.

That triggered McDougall's conversion to running barefoot or wearing "minimal" running shoes designed to resemble a glove for the foot. McDougall says he typically logs 50-plus miles a week running barefoot.

Other long-time runners recall past fads of barefoot running. Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian and veteran runner who directs a marathon training program says, "I've been running for 51 years, and every 10 years, barefoot running makes a comeback."

What's different about barefoot running?

It's not just about what's on -- or not on -- your feet. It's a matter of how your foot strikes the ground.

Supporters say that barefoot running has the ability to change the way the foot strikes the ground, with the impact farther forward on the foot rather than on the heel..

In contrast, "It's really hard not to do a heel strike in conventional running shoes," McDougall says.

Shifting the impact forward cuts the collision force, according to a study published in Nature in January 2010.

That study showed that barefoot runners who strike on their forefoot -- in other words, land on the balls of their feet -- generate smaller collision forces than runners wearing running shoes who generally strike on the heel. The forces on the heel are up to three times the runner's body weight.

When running barefoot, "you are much better at sensing where your body is in relation to the ground. It forces you to be gentle," McDougall says. ''All this is about being more gentle and landing more lightly. It's hard to imagine how being more gentle could be bad."

Is a forefoot foot strike really better?

Not all experts agree. "I've always been a proponent of landing on the heels for long-distance running," says Jeffrey A. Ross, associate clinical professor of medicine at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston.

It's common for sprinters to land on the ball of the foot, Ross says. But forefoot strikers who go long distances risk pulling too much on the Achilles tendon. That could spell trouble, Ross, who is also a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine, says.

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