Look around you the next time you’re out for a run. Whether on the Back Cove trail, Mackworth Island or the streets of the Portland area, many athletes have begun barefoot running.

Most of them are not actually running barefoot. Instead a number of shoe companies have developed minimalist shoes with very little padding, support and stability.

The advantages of barefoot running have to do with our normal biomechanics. Modern shoes, with their highly padded heels and forward cant, encourage us to take large strides and strike the ground without heels. Sounds fine? Not so, say many biomechanics experts.

Instead, thousands of years of evolution have conditioned us to have a very different stride. Barefoot running equipment is designed to help us regain those stride characteristics.

Try a pair of minimalist shoes and you’ll find almost immediately that your stride shortens. The forefoot makes contact with the ground first and the heel strikes last. This allows the structures of the foot, ankle and calf to absorb a great deal of the impact from the stride. Barefoot runners run lighter and more efficiently.

Christopher McDougall, author of the book “Born to Run,” uses historical and anecdotal evidence to suggest this running stride can keep runners pain free, and in many cases he feels it can cure running injuries.

McDougall’s book, more than any single other factor, is responsible for the popularity of the minimalist movement.

But what does the science say? Are runners with minimalist equipment more or less likely to be injured than their peers in traditional shoes?

In my office, I typically see several athletes each week who have developed injuries after adopting the new shoes. Sometimes it’s a problem of stride; they may be wearing the minimalist shoes but their strides don’t change. This can lead to problems with high ground impact and stress fractures.

Other athletes err by increasing their mileage too rapidly in the minimalist shoes. Now they’re stressing parts of their feet that have never been worked before. Foot stabilizers in the calf and ankle, and especially the metatarsal heads, bear the brunt of the demand. Overuse injuries in these areas are not unusual.

Finally, athletes who typically need a great deal of foot support may not do well with minimalist equipment. If you’re running in a stability shoe and your feet hurt any time you put on flip flops, minimalist running might not be for you.

For most runners, barefoot equipment is a good addition to running workouts. Start slowly and you won’t go wrong. Runners may need at least a month of intermittent use with barefoot equipment to work up to running 3 to 5 miles at a time. Elite runners typically add barefoot running sessions intermittently, just like they would with a track session or a tempo workout.

Barefoot running can be a great way to improve balance, stride efficiency and foot strength.

It also can add spice to your running routine. Go slow and mix those sessions in with conventional workouts and you’ll ensure that you are a barefoot success story.

Dr. James Glazer is a sports medicine physician for Coastal Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Freeport. He serves as a consultant for the U.S. ski team.


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