The naked truth about trainers

Hi-tech running shoes may actually be causing the very injuries they're designed to prevent. The solution? Get back to nature and go barefoot, says Rob Sharp

As Abebe Bikila, the legendary barefoot Ethiopian runner, was wheezing his way through Rome's torch-lit Piazza di Porta Capena to claim victory by 25 seconds in the Summer Olympic marathon in 1960, it is unlikely he would have been hop-scotching his way around beer-bottle glass, discarded condoms, or dog faeces. But barefoot running in London's Holland Park is a very different beast to going for gold; and hot-footing it around everyday detritus is just one of many tests for the modern-day, metropolitan, barefoot runner.

I throw my air-cushioned trainers into my wheelie bin, and stepping out as God intended, I wind my way through one of west London's regal green spaces. With little (no) style, I tip-toe around the serene limits of the park's Kyoto Garden, flex my arches outside the locally famed ecology centre ("events, activities, education"), and build to an impressive climax: a crushed, cursing heap somewhere close to Kensington High Street. The experience is difficult at first, not least because of my fitness levels, combined with the excruciating shock of feeling Tarmac against my once-carefully insulated pinkies. But, once my feet adapt to the paths' smooth surfaces I can, at least, make swift unencumbered progress (though how those flecks of gravel become so immutably wedged between my toes is anyone's guess). This was in stark contrast to the first time I had ventured outside. The swearing was so cacophonous that local mothers had to cover their children's ears.

The desire to run barefoot is on the up; thanks in part to one-time journalist, barefoot runner and author Christopher McDougall. His book, Born to Run, has been making waves in the running world since its publication in May, principally because of the writer's claims that trainers have been doing our feet more harm than good since Nike invented the modern running shoe in 1972. The writer says the sports company's elevated heels, supported arches and squishy soles have caused more injuries for runners than those they have prevented.

"When the book came out, I assumed that the collective ire of the podiatrist [chiropodist] community would unite against me," says McDougall, talking by telephone from a running convention in Salt Lake City. "But I am hearing from more and more podiatrists every week who want to talk about the benefits of barefoot running. Four different specialists have rung me up in the past week. It's interesting, because I've put out a challenge to the training-shoe industry to show me one study that their products aren't causing damage, and they haven't yet. I was so worried when I wrote Born to Run that I would be launching an epidemic of foot injuries. But I keep on getting emails from people saying they have got back the use of their legs for the first time in years; the excitement it has generated has been overwhelming."

McDougall has the support of several prominent sports scientists. "Since the first real studies were done in the late 1970s, Achilles complaints have actually increased by about 10 per cent, while plantar fasciitis [a painful inflammatory condition] has remained the same," says Stephen Pribut, a running-injury specialist and past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. "The technological advancements over the past 30 years have been amazing," adds Irene Davis, the director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware. "We've seen tremendous innovations in motion control and cushioning. And yet the remedies don't seem to defeat the ailments."

In a 2008 research paper for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Craig Richards, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia, revealed that there are no evidence-based studies that demonstrate that running shoes make you less prone to injury. Runners wearing top-of-the-line shoes are 123 per cent more likely to get injured than runners in cheap shoes, according to a 1989 study led by Bernard Marti, a preventative medicine specialist at Switzerland's University of Bern. His research team put 4,358 runners under the microscope during the Bern Grand Prix, a 9.6-mile road race. All the participants filled out an extensive questionnaire that detailed their training habits and footwear for the previous year; 45 per cent had been hurt during that time.

So how have running-shoe manufacturers responded? In part, by trying to out-barefoot-run the barefoot runners. Recently, there has been a rise in shoes designed to give us the feeling of sprinting barefoot. The specialist shoemaker Terra Plana makes trainers with ultra-thin soles; Vibram shoes operate like gloves for your feet, while the Nike Free's minimalistic design aims to cut down on a normal trainer's encumbrance to your stride. McDougall remains unimpressed, though. "The Nike Free is absolutely not like running barefoot," he says. "It is disturbing that they have a product which says it does one thing but actually does another. They always refer to it when asked to comment on the barefoot research."

Nike has not responded to a request for comment on this article.

Intriguingly, most trainer experts are quick to back McDougall's ideas, lending support to his theories. One such person is Shankara Smith, one of the senior managers at the Run and Become specialist footwear shop in London. "What he says is indisputably true, but he does look at a lot of people who are barefoot running, say, as part of a tribe in Africa. He also talks about people going out running on concrete. This is going to be difficult if you are an office worker in London who heads straight out on to the pavements," she says. "A lot of people can't get away with doing that; the only people who could, potentially, are those who are strong, fit and conditioned and don't have any weaknesses. Most of us need to build up to it. Most people need a bit of cushioning. In my opinion shoes have to become soft; they have to be very soft but let your foot move; this leads to a stronger foot and gives you better posture."

Smith is referring to McDougall's love of the Tarahumara tribe, a people who live in basic conditions in Mexico. "They run with just strips of old tyre or leather thongs strapped to the bottom of their feet; they are virtually barefoot," he writes in his book. "Then they go ultra-running: and they can cover something like 300 miles non-stop, for the fun of it. One of them recently came first in a prestigious 100-mile race wearing nothing but a toga and sandals. He was 57 years old. I can't help looking at all these ideas of natural movement and thinking they are the best way forward. We do all these artificial things – but when would we have done these things when man was evolving? I mean look at the movements people do in the gym; they are totally unnatural."

The running community has embraced McDougall's ideas whole-heartedly, although they are somewhat sceptical about their similarities to a remote tribe. "I was totally convinced by McDougall's book," says Tony Mangan, an Irish international ultra runner (ultra running involves undertaking marathons that are longer than the standard 26 miles). He holds a number of world records, including that for the farthest spent running on a treadmill over a 48-hour period. "But I believe it is a huge advantage to be born into a society that only runs barefoot, in which its people run a huge number of miles before adolescence."

He thinks, ultimately, that it is down to the individual, more than the general theories of either McDougall or the trainer industry. "If you are a runner who is already running well I would advise you, 'Don't fix it if it ain't broken.' As well as his belief in running barefoot, McDougall says that one thing to do is wear worn-out running shoes. I took an old pair out of my bin a month ago, and I now have a knee injury. In a nutshell, I believe there is something in it, but I am still quite confused; I am inclined to believe that maybe it is a bit like many other things in running – something individualistic."

Or take a leaf out of Bikila's book, who once said: "It took a million Italians to invade Ethiopia but only one Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome."

Sole survivors: How to run barefoot

* Run on asphalt or concrete, not grass, advises Christopher McDougall, barefoot runner and author of 'Born To Run'. Many people will tell you to start on something soft, but I find the hard, smooth surfaces to be the best. You get a much cleaner lift-off, and no surprises beneath the blades of grass.

* When in doubt, relax. If something starts to hurt, focus on straightening your back and relaxing your legs.

* Be quick. As soon as your foot touches the ground, lift it right up again. Imagine you're on hot coals. It's all about the ball of your foot, but allow your heel to come down lightly as well. You're not always up on your tippy toes – you land on the ball, touch lightly with the heel and the foot pops back up again.

* As the legendary barefoot runner Caballo Blanco says: 'Focus first on easy. Because if that's all you get, that ain't so bad.'

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