Jury still out on benefits, risks of barefoot running

  If you travel deep into the Copper Canyons of Mexico, you will stumble across one of running’s best-kept secrets. Members of the reclusive Tarahumara tribe are considered to be the fastest long-distance runners in the world. They glide across the sharp rocks of the Sierra Madre, running for days with little history of injuries. And they do it all without wearing any running shoes. Many readers of the book Born to Run, which tells the story of these secluded ultra-marathoners, have tried to apply the technique to their own lives, but as the barefoot movement continues to grow, so does one slight problem. There is little scientific proof that this style of running is a cure for nagging injuries, and experts say this barefoot lifestyle could be doing more harm than good. “There’s a lot of hype out there but not a lot of substance right now,” says Michael Ryan, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked with Jack Taunton, one of Canada’s leading sports medicine specialists, on the study of footwear and injury prevention. “If progression is gradual enough it could help with their injuries, but there isn’t nearly enough information for the layman runner to know how to wear no shoes at all.” Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run focuses on a Harvard study that examined the relationship between evolution and running. But as the phenomenon has taken off, anthropology professor Daniel Lieberman, one of the researchers who helped ignite the craze, has asked runners to take a step back. A statement has since appeared on his website to clarify: Their recent update to the original study that appeared in Nature this January was not meant to be interpreted as an endorsement for running without shoes. The study found that barefoot runners had the least discomfort when it came to running on hard surfaces because they tend not to land on their heels. But it’s emphasized that there is no evidence yet that proves the jarring force created by landing on your heel causes injury. More research is needed before the benefits of the technique can be considered fact. Still, that hasn’t stopped some runners from jumping in bare feet first. Marc Alcide has been running barefoot for the past year after reading Born to Run. While he says he struggled with the pain at first, he has no doubt that the method has helped his running. “I’ve heard horror stories of people getting fractures in their heels,” he says. “For me, I knew pain was going to happen and I accepted it. But I knew you had to be careful.” Ryan says it is difficult for doctors to record numbers on barefoot running injuries because most runners decide to give up on the technique as soon as they experience pain. However, many in the field have noticed an increase of injuries in the feet, ankles and calves — parts normally supported by conventional running shoes. “There are significant changes to how your body weight is applied to your legs and this can be a difficult transition,” he admits. But Ryan is not trying to write off the runners who choose to go shoeless. He says an abrupt start to any running program can be dangerous, and barefoot running just happens to be the newest sensation. “I think there’s a healthy amount of skepticism around runners,” he says. “They want to see proof before they change what is conventional.” [email protected]

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