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Barefoot running fans say shoes may be harming instead of helping you

Author sheds shoes to run ultramarathon.

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Suddenly, I'm rethinking those expensive running shoes I buy every six months. Because if Christopher McDougall is right, those very shoes might be causing me harm.

For years, McDougall, a runner and writer, suffered from sore knees, plantar fasciitis and gimpy tendons. He saw all the best sports physicians and podiatrists. Nothing helped.

In Mexico on assignment one day, he saw a photograph of a man in a fiber skirt running down a rocky path with nothing but flimsy sandals on his feet. And enjoying it.

Thus began a quest that led McDougall to Mexico to meet the Tarahumara Indians, a Copper Canyon-area tribe that for centuries has run long distances — 50, 100 or even 150 miles! — without the benefit of modern running shoes.

McDougall details his theories on barefoot running, and his experience training for a 50-mile ultramarathon in the Copper Canyon, in a much-buzzed-about book titled "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen."

He'll speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.

When I spoke to McDougall by phone from Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, he'd just returned from a 5-mile run on asphalt streets, sans shoes. All I could think was: What about the cold, the glass and the gravel?

"It's much gentler out there than most people think," McDougall says.

In fact, since he gave up his highly cushioned running shoes three years ago, McDougall says his foot and leg ailments have disappeared. Now, through his book, he's spreading the word that barefoot is best. But if you must wear something, he says, a thin-soled shoe is preferable.

"My No. 1 preference is totally barefoot," McDougall says. "It keeps me totally honest in terms of foot biomechanics."

When conditions dictate, he wears the Vibram Five Fingers, which looks more like a neoprene glove for the foot than an actual shoe. "It lets your toes go any direction they want to go."

And that's the point.

Without shoes, all those tiny muscles in the foot constantly engage to balance the body. Modern running shoes provide too much support, and allow those muscles to weaken, he says.

McDougall points out that injuries have increased since the advent of modern running shoes 40 years ago. Prior to that, runners didn't land on their heels when they ran because it was too painful. Now we do because we can. That leads to excessive foot rolling and over-pronation, which can lead to injuries, he says.

"Every running magazine tells you the same thing over and over — first go to a specialty running store and be fitted for the kind of shoes you need. They'll analyze your gait. That phrase right there is baloney," he says.

McDougall says he's a pitchman for a technique, not a product. That technique is running barefoot — or as if you were barefoot. "The problem comes when that protection takes over and alters what the foot wants to do," he says.

Learning proper technique, he says, is simple. Take your shoes off. You'll automatically land on the balls of your feet, and keep your feet directly under your hips. "You'll find instantly the way you run in bare feet is very different from the way you run in cushioned shoes," he says.

Even Paul Carrozza , owner of the RunTex running stores in Austin, says there's some truth to what McDougall says.

When you run barefoot, the human body's natural imbalances work themselves out. "Let's say you have a foot that's more turned in or more straight, a short leg, a long leg — your body is so well designed all those things just adjust. It's free to act naturally," he says.

Ideally, a running shoe protects the foot and adds cushioning without changing the biomechanical pattern. "When you interfere with that natural pattern with the wrong shoes, injuries can happen," he says.

Some modern running shoes — such as the Nike Free, the Nike Lunar and racing flats — are designed to allow the foot to operate more naturally. Others provide more support.

At the end of the day, fleet-footed, elite runners need minimal shoes, says Carrozza, who does some barefoot running himself.

"That's why we have performance and racing flats," he says. "But when you have a person who's not light or efficient and needs a lot of support, I don't think barefoot running is the right thing for longtime use on roads or trails. It's sort of not realistic."

In fact, if you want to start an argument, walk into a room full of runners and ask, "Barefoot or running shoes?"

Like Carrozza, John Conley, race director for the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon, sees a benefit to both.

Conley trained barefoot at times while running cross-country in high school in Hawaii, only taping his forefoot to prevent bruises, which he still got.

"My first pair of real running shoes were so light and without any cushioning, you could roll them up and put them in your pocket," Conley says. "No toe box and no heel counter. Just the last (the form around which the shoe is molded) glued to the upper. Simple," he says.

He still squeezes in a few shoeless runs in the grass and on the beach when he returns to Hawaii. And in Austin, he's been running barefoot on the track at Austin High School now that fall has arrived and it doesn't feel like a skillet.

"I don't know if I run better or not when I'm barefoot, but it's a neat sensation and reminds me of the days before shoes were 'required,' " he says.

As for me?

You might recall that I gritted my teeth through a litany of injuries, from a torn calf muscle to an inflamed iliotibial band, while training for the Austin Marathon last year. Should I shed my shoes?

I might try it for short distances on a track, but I'm not sure I'm ready to crisscross this city in the name of improved cardiovascular health with nothing but blisters on my feet.

If you go

Chris McDougall, author of 'Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,' will speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Admission is free.

Caballo Blanco, a runner featured in McDougall's book, will speak about his experience running with the Tarahumara Indians at 7 p.m. Wednesday at RunTex, 422 Riverside Drive.