Running barefoot, bizarre or beneficial?

The shoeless stride is gaining momentum, especially now that shoe companies are targeting "barefooters" with minimalist shoe designs. But orthopedic doctors weigh in on the pros and cons.

Barefoot running guru Ken Bob Saxton, a marathon runner, has been expounding the virtues of going shoeless for years, and offers a website with advice to the burgeoning community. Running barefoot, supporters claim, maintains the health of the foot's 26 bones, 33 joints, 20 muscles, tendons, and ligaments and keeps lower legs healthy and exercised. They say it's safe, as long as you watch your step.

Robert Gotlin, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, said it's about biomechanics. When wearing shoes, the runner typically lands on the heel of the foot; barefoot runners land on the front of the foot. This "changes the impact of force on the foot and the lower extremities," he said in a news release on October 25. "As such, when you land on your forefoot, the force upon the body is reduced significantly."

Barefoot runners enjoy other benefits as well, he said, such as strengthening the plantar fascia muscles - which run along the sole of the foot. Also barefoot running reduces the chance of shin splits. The tradeoff is that landing on the front of the foot can cause problems with the Achilles tendon. And of course the obvious risk is that you could accidentally step on, well, just about anything.

The $17 billion running shoe industry stands a lot to lose from the trend, but many companies are introducing minimalist options that protect the foot while simulating the biomechanics of running barefoot. FiveFingers by Vibram claims to stimulate muscles to make feet stronger, and other companies, such as Feelmax and Terra Plana, are following suit with their own designs. Even conventional athletic shoe manufacturer Nike, with its "Free" shoe, caters to this development, marketing its minimal thin-sole as a trainer.

The jury is still out on whether or not minimalistic shoes help or hinder. "We've seen a fair amount of injuries from barefoot running already, or from just running in the Vibrams," said Nathan Koch, director of Rehabilitation at Endurance Rehab in Phoenix, Arizona, on Competitor.com.

To check out Ken Bob Saxton's website: http://barefootkenbob.com

To see a selection of minimalist running shoe designs: http://barefootrunningshoes.org/

To read more on the debate: http://running.competitor.com/2010/05/features/the-barefoot-running-injury-epidemic_10118

To watch a video on barefoot running: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jrnj-7YKZE

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