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Friday, August 19, 2011
Can these sneakers "fix" your gait?

By Amanda MacMillan

There's no shortage of high-tech gear at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. To shave minutes off their time, elite athletes use swimskins, aero helmets and titanium bikes. And last year, there was something new on the scene: funky, fluorescent sneakers.

These shoes, a line called Newton, were the second most-popular sneakers, behind Asics, among triathletes who crossed the finish line in Kona. Introduced to the market in 2007, they're growing in popularity, particularly among endurance athletes.

"There's no doubt that it's easier for me to run fast in Newtons, especially for long distances," said Heather Fuhr, the Ironman world champion in 1997 and an ultra-marathoner. Fellow victors Paula Newby-Fraser and Craig Alexander are also devotees of the brand. (Alexander sported them when he won his two world championships, in 2008 and 2009.) So what's the big draw of this brightly colored brand?

The athlete appeal

Dreamed up by Danny Abshire, a runner and former designer of custom orthotics, these shoes are meant to "teach" runners how to find their most natural and efficient gait. That means landing on the front or middle of the foot instead of striking the heel. This shift in landing can boost performance and prevent injury, Abshire said.

Unlike other running sneakers, which elevate the heel on foam or air pockets, their shoes are designed so that the entire foot is level. "It's impossible to run with a natural foot position if the shape of your shoe doesn't follow the shape of your foot," said Ian Anderson, Newton's director of research and education.

The bare difference

It's the same school of thought as barefoot or chi running, but Newtons shouldn't be grouped with other minimal shoes, explained Anderson. For one, their sneakers have cushioning throughout, so there's less of that jarring impact and risk of injury.

Recent research, including a report in the journal Orthopedics, reveals that some runners adopting the barefoot trend may be susceptible to hurting themselves. "Switching to a minimal-style shoe without a transition period can lead to plantar fasciitis, shin splints and hip and back pain," said Nancy Major, M.D., the chief of musculoskeletal radiology at the University of Pennsylvania. "There needs to be a break-in period."

The other factor that sets Newtons apart: The sole contains four small hollow chambers beneath the ball of the foot. These "actuator lugs" are meant to help you land lightly with your forefoot under your body and lever you forward so you lift your knee -- rather than use extra muscle power -- to propel yourself forward, Anderson said.

For Fuhr, the biggest advantages of these sneakers are increased speed and recovery time. "They facilitate efficient running, which allows all of your energy to be transferred over to going fast," she said. "Running in them is also much easier on my muscles: I can do more miles and feel less beat up afterward."