Podiatrist Paul Langer used to see one or two barefoot running injuries a month at his Twin Cities Orthopedics practice in Minneapolis. Now he treats between three and four a week. Running injuries are quite common. Between 30 to 70 percent of runners suffer from repetitive stress injuries every year and experts can't agree on how to prevent them. Some runners with chronic problems have seized on barefoot running as an antidote, claiming it's more natural. Others have gone so far as to demonize sneakers for their injuries.
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Pre-human ancestors have walked and run in bare feet for millions of years often on rough surfaces, yet researchers surprisingly know very little about the science of barefoot running. The modern running shoe with its cushioned heel and stiff sole was not invented until the s.
And in parts of Africa and other places today, running barefoot is still a lifestyle.
The surging interest has researchers racing for answers. Does barefoot running result in fewer injuries? What kinds of runners will benefit most from switching over? What types of injuries do transitioning barefoot runners suffer and how to prevent them? While some runners completely lose the shoes, others opt for minimal coverage. The oxymoron "barefoot running shoes" is like a glove for the feet designed to protect from glass and other hazards on the ground. Superlight minimalist shoes are a cross between barefoot shoes and traditional sneakers — there's little to no arch support and they're lower profile.
Greg Farris decided to try barefoot running to ease the pain on the outside of his knee, a problem commonly known as runner's knee.
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He was initially shoeless — running minutes at a time and gently building up. After three months, he switched to barefoot running shoes after developing calluses. Halfway through a 5K run in January, he felt his right foot go numb, but he pushed on and finished the race. He saw a doctor and got a steroid shot, but the pain would not quit. He went to see another doctor, who took an X-ray and told him he had a stress fracture. The key is to break in slowly.
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Start by walking around barefoot. Run no more than a quarter mile to a mile every other day in the first week. Gradually increase the distance. Stop if bones or joints hurt.
It can take months to make the change. A year and a half ago, Ross saw a steady stream — between three and six barefoot runners a week — with various aches and pain. It has since leveled off to about one a month. Ross doesn't know why. It's possible that fewer people are trying it or those baring their feet are doing a better job adapting to the new running style. There's one group foot experts say should avoid barefoot running: People with decreased sensation in their feet, a problem common among diabetics, since they won't be able to know when they get injured.
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Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman runs a lab devoted to studying the effects of running form on injury rates. He thinks form matters more than footwear or lack of — don't overstride, have good posture and land gently. In a study examining different running gaits, Lieberman and colleagues found that striking the ground heel first sends a shock up through the body while barefoot runners tend to have a more springy step.
Even so, more research is needed into whether barefoot running helps avoid injury. Barefoot running is no panacea. Shoes aren't either," said Lieberman, who runs barefoot except during the New England winters. Mike O'Neill, a consultant podiatrist and spokesperson for the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists , believes that too many parents treat their children as fashion accessories and choose shoes on their attractiveness or coolness, rather than their ergonomics. Byrne agrees, but points out that it's not just parents but manufacturers who have a responsibility.
And they think 'Well, if it's on the shelf, it must be OK,'" she says. With the recent trend for barefoot running , and the associated questioning of the need for highly cushioned, supportive running shoes, some parents may now be thinking a little more about their children's footwear - or indeed, whether they should encourage them to go barefoot.
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But you have to consider the environment the child is in. Let's be honest. Do you want your child walking on the streets or in the park barefoot, where there might be dog poo, dirt and possible hazards like glass? This is precisely the niche that a newly launched range of kids' 'barefoot shoes', Vivo Barefoot , aims to fill. The shoes, with sizes ranging from 18 months the age from which most babies are walking to seven years, are wide, light and flexible with a 3mm puncture-resistant sole. The range was launched in South Africa last year under the name Froggies , and research conducted there found that replacing seven- to year-old children's 'normal' school shoes for Froggies over a two-month period resulted in increased foot strength, balance, mobility and ankle function - the same benefits normally attributed to walking in bare feet.
The South African Podiatry Association has given the shoes their stamp of approval. In an experimental scheme, the company has already handed out free shoes to six- to eight-year-olds at Denmead Preparatory school in Middlesex. The Vivo Barefoot shoes tick all the boxes in Byrne's list of 'good shoe' requirements: a completely flexible sole, a wide and deep toebox, an anatomically correct last the 'mould' that a shoe is built on , a closure at the back and an adjustable closure at the top, such as laces or Velcro.
So what about shoes for kids that haven't made it on to two feet yet?
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According to O'Neill, their primary function is to provide warmth. But Byrne believes they are a waste of money. And in the case of children who crawl backwards to begin with, shoes can put extra pressure on the structures of the foot and leg. Clarks, which produces Crawlers, makes the following declaration on its website : 'There's nothing better for young feet than walking barefoot, whenever it's safe. It helps muscles develop, allows the skin to breathe and feeling the ground beneath their feet will help them learn to walk. Parents and parenting Children features.
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