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Thursday, May 19, 2011
Save your soles

By Colleen Oakley

It flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but a growing number of people believe that running shoes -- those shock-absorbing, arch-supporting, sole-protecting, ever-more-high-tech sneaks -- are bad for us.

A 2010 study from Harvard University found that runners who wear them tend to land on the heels of their feet first, causing them to hit the ground harder than people who are barefoot and strike the ground with the middle or front of their foot.

Heel-striking is painful when you're barefoot, so you naturally avoid it, says Madhusudhan Venkadesan, Ph.D., a researcher in applied mathematics and human evolutionary biology at Harvard and the study's co-author. But cushy running shoes make it comfortable, setting you up for possible repetitive stress injuries, such as stress fractures and shin splints.

Are you regularly sidelined by injuries? Barefoot running (for the braver set) and Chi running (for those not ready to give up their kicks) practice a mid-sole or forefoot strike -- and may get you back on the road for good.

Barefoot running

While humans have been running barefoot since the beginning of time, Ken Bob Saxton is generally credited with starting the modern-day movement when he kicked off his shoes in 1987, after suffering severe blisters in the Long Beach Marathon. He started the website barefootkenbob.com in 1997, and has inspired and coached thousands of shoeless runners ever since. "There's a reason we were blessed with sensitive soles -- they let us know when we're doing something injurious, not only to the foot but to legs, hips and more," said Saxton, co-author of "Barefoot Running Step by Step". "Bare soles -- so much more than any coach you can hire -- will warn you with each and every step when you should be making changes in the way you run." Need a champion inspiration? Saxton said that Angee Henry, an 800-meter 10-time All-American, is a barefoot practitioner.

Get started: If you're not ready to go whole hog, try Vibrams Five Fingers, which are minimalist shoes made with thin rubber soles. If not, just kick off your sneaks and hit the sidewalk or treadmill.

Try going barefoot three minutes before and three minutes after a 30-minute run in shoes, suggests Roy Wallack, Saxton's co-author. You may just be tempted to go longer, though. "People are shocked the first time, because it feels so good," Wallack said. But resist that urge. "You need to give your legs time to adjust to their natural biomechanics," Wallack said. "Or your calves and Achilles tendons will not be happy with you."

Do the three-minute intervals three times the first week; then up them to eight minutes the second week, cutting the shoed time to 20 minutes. "Keep increasing how long you're running barefoot each week, and by the end of the month, you should be able to do a 30-minute run barefoot," Wallack said.

Chi running

Developed by Danny Dreyer, an ultra-marathoner and running coach, with the help of his wife, Katherine, in 1999, Chi running is all about optimizing the flow of Chi -- or life energy -- throughout your body. Like T'ai Chi, it emphasizes good posture, relaxing the muscles and mindful practice. "Many runners just go out and run without even thinking about their bodies or form," said Liz Frost, a certified Chi running instructor, who runs clinics and trains individuals. "Chi running helps you be in the moment and pay attention to your body." The technique engages the core rather than relying solely on leg strength and may help you improve your speed as well as prevent injury -- as it did for Catherina McKiernan, a Chi running instructor in Ireland who competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games.

Get started: The best way to learn the proper form and mental techniques is to sign up for a clinic or private session with a certified Chi running instructor (find one near you). In your first class there will actually be very little running. "The first and most important lesson is posture, where we show you basically how to hold your body so that your skeleton is supporting your weight as it should," Frost said. "Follow-up lessons involve short running drills to help you begin to understand what the technique feels like." Much like personal training, an instructor will observe you and give you precise feedback on your form. As far as the gear you'll need, Chi runners are also big advocates of minimal footwear like the Nike Free Run+ 2 or Vibrams, but if you've been running in regular sneakers, you may want to make a gradual transition to prevent sore muscles.