Nice to be barefoot these heat-choked days, but should you head out for your daily run minus your runners?
Some folks think so. There's a whole movement devoted to minimalist jogging, using the natural-equals-better argument and reminding us all that most of humankind's history was shoeless.
Those willing to compromise go for the least-possible-shoe option and promote footwear like Vibram's Five Fingers thingies, which retail for around $100 and are basically my worst aesthetic nightmare.
But there is another side to all this. Detractors think there's no scientific footprint when it comes to the argument for shoeless sprinting, particularly on concrete. Here's how the debate shapes up.
What the experts say
"Barefoot running is good for some, but not for everybody. There's no scientific evidence showing that barefoot or minimalist running is best, and for some it could lead to more injury than if they had the proper shoe. If you're on grass, barefoot is great. People who seem to have the easiest time running barefoot are those who grew up walking barefoot. Also, someone who is lighter is going to have less impact on the ground. If you look at who is sponsoring barefoot running talks, it's Vibram. There's money to be made."
KEVIN KIRBY, podiatrist, Sacramento, California
"Barefoot running is the wrong issue. The question is whether you run with a barefoot style - very lightly and gently. When you don't have all that cushioning under your heel, you're forced to run differently. Normally, people collide into the ground; their heel strikes with a force equivalent to a hammer hitting you on the heel with two to three times your body weight. When you run in a barefoot style, there's more of a midfoot strike or a forefoot strike. If you take off your shoes and run down the street, you will automatically change the way you run. Running in a less impactful way might help some avoid certain injuries, but no one has done that study."
DAN LIEBERMAN, professor of human evolutionary biology, Harvard, Cambridge, Massachusetts
"If you jump off a chair barefoot, you instinctively activate all of your nerves, tendons and muscles to make a gentle, light landing. If you're in shoes, you don't care so much, because the cushioning will absorb that initial impact. It's not an argument about footwear, it's an argument about form. There are no studies showing cause and effect between shoes and preventing injuries. Many people turn to barefoot running after suffering running ailments like runner's knee, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, and the ailments seem to disappear."
CHRIS McDOUGALL, author, Born To Run, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
"Barefoot running is sensational as long as it's on a manicured golf course or something like it. In the environment most of us run in, I would be very cautious. The real debate is whether shoes have been overbuilt. There's a new study showing that conventional runners, shoes that were expected to limit injuries, did not. If you give barefoot a try, be gradual about it, adapt slowly and don't overdo it. We don't have data on what happens after running barefoot for a year or two or three. Injuries often happen after a few years, so those running great barefoot now might not be in two years."
AMBY BURFOOT, editor at large, Runner's World Magazine, Emmaus, Pennsylvania
"We have seen a rise in barefoot running injuries in our physical therapy clinic. Typical diagnoses are plantar fasciitis, posterior tibial tendinitis and Achilles tendinitis. Barefoot running will change gait mechanics, and that in turn changes the biomechanical demands of the leg, foot and ankle tissues. It takes months, if not years, for these adaptations to take place, with focused, individualized
stretches and stabilization exercises, and that assumes the runner has a neutral foot structure, which is not common. Anyone interested in running barefoot or in a minimalist shoe should get a structural and dynamic assessment by a physical therapist."
DARWIN FOGT, president Evolution Physical Therapy, Playa Vista, California