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Shoes simulate barefoot running

Friday, October 15, 2010 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

JOPLIN — As Kelly Blotter passes by on the trail through Landreth Park, one of the most noticeable differences is the sound that's made. Or the lack of it, actually.

The Vibram FiveFingers running shoes that grip his feet like a thin pair of gloves don't make the heavy clomp that often accompanies a runner wearing a more traditional pair of shoes.

That's mainly because there are only a fewmillimeters of rubber between the soles of his feet and the pavement underneath them.

"They've made a major change in my running altogether," Blotter said of the two pairs of Vibram shoes he owns. "My gait is different, my stride is different and the muscles involved are different.

"The most important thing for me is the heel strike. With conventional running shoes I had a terribly massive heel strike. Now my heel strike has all but gone away."

Blotter said that the shoes allow a runner's feet to adapt more naturally to the shape of the terrain. They also help the body adapt to running on the ball of the foot rather than requiring a heavy heel strike.

Erik Bartlett, owner of the Run Around — a Joplin store that specializes in running shoes and gear — said that he's seen a growing interest in the barefoot running trend in recent years, though it's not a new concept.

"People have been running barefoot forever," he said.

He said the Run Around will begin carrying Vibram footwear in February 2011 — a long wait that's due to the increased demand for the shoes.

Much of the renewed interest, he said, has been sparked by the 2009 book "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen." Written by Christopher McDougall, the book focuses on members of an Indian tribe in Mexico who run long distances with only thin sandals or no shoes at all, and without any of the injuries common to runners.

Blotter — who has been running for 14 years — said it was that book that got him interested in the idea of running in minimalistic shoes.

"There are villages 50 or 60 miles apart, and the whole family will just run out the door to go and visit (another village)," he said.

According to Vibram's website, one of the main goals of the footwear is to "encourage forefoot striking, meaning your forefoot will contact the ground first, then engage muscles in your feet and lower legs as your heel touches down. This style of running and walking is safer, may lead to fewer injuries, and is biomechanically more sound from an energy and force distribution standpoint."

The word "may" in that last sentence is the operative word, however. Mick Ward, rehabilitation services and sports medicine director for Freeman Health System, said that the footwear is still somewhat of a novelty and has "more marketing than science" behind it at this point.

"There is only a small percentage of folks using them, but there's a growing interest," Ward said. "There hasn't been any detailed study of them or literature-supported or peer-review research."

However, Ward said that many of the claims made by the shoes' manufacturers are similar to the actual benefits of running barefoot.

"Running barefoot on a flat, grassy surface is really great for training," he said. "So the theory is the same. If you land midfoot, with slightly more flexion in your knee, it distributes the force across the arch of your foot."

He said that research has shown that excessive heel strikes can send the impact force up through the kinetic chain — from the ankle, to the knee, to the hip. Putting more force through the joints can even slow a runner down.

From working with runners and area coaches, Ward said that the cushioning and high-tech assembly of modern running shoes have possibly caused feet to become less trained and less durable than they used to be. Doing some barefoot jogging or post-run striding can help strengthen the foot and improve how we run, he said.

In that sense, he said that the Vibram shoes or similar products appear to have the theory working for them.

However, Ward does caution that they might not be right for new runners, or those who don't have the necessary arch support or foot strength.

Bartlett said that the Vibram shoes — or similar models by Nike or Saucony — might help strengthen a runner's feet and ankles, and cause less stress on the knees.

"There's a certain way to use them, and they're not for everyone," he said. "I wouldn't want to put someone heavier in them. If you're coming down on a hard surface it can cause problems. You're also not supposed to be in them for a long period of time, and you need a transition period if you're not used to wearing them."

Blotter, who averages about 28 miles per week, said that the shoes might eventually help him make the transition to running completely barefoot.

Still, he's not quite ready to head out on a run with nothing over his feet.

"I've run completely barefoot on treadmills, but I haven't ventured out into man-made hazards without shoes," he said. "I'm flirting with the idea, but I just haven't done it yet."

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