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Runners are baring their very soles

Barefoot runners, a small but growing number, say it reduces injuries and just feels better.

October 05, 2009|Roy M. Wallack

"Ouch!" "Oooh!" "Oww!" "Omigod, that hurts!" Those grunts of pain and anguish weren't coming from us -- a group of 10 people running barefoot on a concrete pathway at Central Park in Huntington Beach early one recent Saturday morning. They were being emitted by a grimacing group of shoe-wearing, dog-walking women who were staring at us as we passed.

But surprisingly, it didn't hurt to run in bare feet. In fact, it felt great. Every step of our 30-minute barefoot run was pure pleasure -- far more natural and comfortable than a run in shoes.

My forefeet led the way, lightly and smoothly mapping the terrain instead of thunking to the ground heels-first. My air-cooled toes automatically spread wide instead of being smushed together. And my body, without even trying, seemed to instinctively run "softly" -- knees slightly bent, legs crouched, absorbing shock like a spring. My right knee, tender on runs since undergoing meniscus surgery a couple of months before, didn't feel a thing.

On top of all that, I found myself wrapped in a childlike joy that was almost addictive.

"That's a pretty common reaction," says Ken Bob Saxton, 54, the affable, long-haired, thick-bearded organizer of this barefoot-running workshop and guru of a small but rapidly growing movement. "It's like your feet are suddenly free -- like they are getting out of prison. And they are: your shoes."

Barefoot Ken, as he is known (all accomplished barefooters routinely use "barefoot" before their names), hates shoes. He never wears them, even at his computer technician job at Cal State Long Beach. He says they desensitize the feet, encourage them to land heel first; and just generally cause blunt shock and imbalances that chafe skin and wreck knee and hip joints.

Because shoes insulate wearers from real biofeedback, he says, they limit the ability to listen to one's body, leading to overuse injuries. He dumped his shoes after the 1987 Long Beach Marathon, his first 26.2-mile race. It left his feet so blistered that he quit marathons for a decade.

"I got tired of wearing out shoes, and shoes wearing out my feet," he says. "I was desperate. Since I'd always enjoyed running barefoot on the beach, I finally tried it on the pavement."

That experiment changed his life, ultimately establishing barefooting as a potential cure for some running injuries, implicating modern cushioned shoes in those injuries, and becoming the impetus for what may be the most counter-intuitive product in the history of sport: the barefoot running shoe.

Of course, Saxton isn't the first person to run barefoot. Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympic marathon shoeless. South Africa's Zola Budd was a barefoot sensation in the 1980s. Coaches from high school through Olympic level have used barefoot drills for decades to strengthen athletes' feet. But Saxton took it to a new level.

Since 2002, he's averaged 10 shoeless marathons a year, running fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon twice and earn profiles in a spate of publications including Runner's World. More important, he started a website, Running Barefoot (runningbarefoot .org), that has become the leading information center on everything shoeless and a window of hope for injured runners desperate to keep it going.


Injury factor

Injuries decimate runners. Studies indicate that about half of all runners are injured every year. The London-based Sports Injury Bulletin puts it at 60% to 65%. The cause? "The heel strike," says Santa Monica physical therapist Robert Forster, who provides videotaped running-form analysis at his training facility, Phase IV. "During running, you land with an impact of five times your body weight. When you land on your heel, the shock goes right into your joints. To lessen the shock, you have to land 'softer' -- and that means on your forefoot or midfoot with a bent leg, not on your heel with a straighter leg."

A 2004 study by Dr. Timothy Noakes in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that the forefoot landing inherent in barefooting (in which heel-striking is painful and unnatural) transmitted up to 50% less shock through the knees than heel-to-toe landings.

Six of the 10 people who showed up at Saxton's barefoot running clinic were motivated by injury reduction.

Chris Yamasaki, 29, a real estate agent and one-year runner from Montebello who was suffering from shin splints, found out about Saxton's website from a Runner's World forum. "Now, I feel so good that I'm training to do a 10K barefoot," he said two weeks after the clinic.

John Fretwell, a 47-year-old Mission Viejo administrator who had been having trouble with his left knee since he started running 18 months ago, said the pain was almost gone after eight 5-mile barefoot runs.

Mike Rose, 57, a retired naval officer from San Diego who has been running since 1986, says: "I think barefooting will help me last a few more decades."

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