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Making Strides
Runners ditch shoes to relieve joint pain

All types of runners turn out at the annual Turkey Trot 10-kilometer run in Davis, Calif.

But even spectators who've become accustomed to the sight of costumed runners and people pushing multiple strollers were startled at the sight of Noah Elhardt motoring along at a sub-40 minute pace, followed a few minutes later by Efrem Rensi.

"Hey, look at the guy with no shoes!"

"It's a barefoot runner!"

"All right, man. Keep it goin'."

But this was no freak show, and certainly not an attention-getting ploy.

Elhardt, 22, and Rensi, 35, are serious recreational athletes and part of a running subculture - too small, perhaps, to be labeled a movement - that eschews shoes.

They run the way they say man was meant to trod and, in fact, did trod for centuries - unshod and unfettered.

This, of course, goes against societal norms, not to mention the medical advice of the vast majority of podiatrists and biomechanical experts.

Runners of all calibers spend billions per year on high-tech running shoes meant to correct faulty foot strikes and to cushion the pounding of the pavement. Many an orthopedic physician's second home in the wine country has been paid for by recreational runners' injuries from insufficient footwear.

But for runners such as Elhardt and Rensi, the answer is exceedingly low-tech. Make that no-tech, actually.

For Rensi, a graduate student in mathematics at the University of California, Davis, the decision to run barefoot was an act of desperation after years of knee pain.

"I went to a doctor, finally, and he told me I was overpronating," Rensi says. "He said I needed a motion-controlled (running) shoe. After a year of buying the most (sturdy) shoes out there, I still had problems. So I did some Web research about barefoot running."

It's been three years since Rensi doffed the running shoes, and he's run a series of 10Ks and half-marathons without pain caused by overpronating, or having too much inward rolling motion of the foot during a stride. Sure, he says he occasionally steps on something that gets lodged in the soles of his feet, but he says he carries tiny tweezers with him everywhere.

The transition to barefoot running was eased, he says, because running actually had been the only time he consistently wore shoes. And that conditioned his soles to endure stray pebbles or glass shards.

See, for Rensi and Elhardt, going barefoot is a 24-7 activity. They call it a lifestyle choice, not an overtly political statement.

"You can't just take off your shoes and run a marathon," says Elhardt, a UC Davis undergraduate. "I was a barefooter first, then I started running. I've done some orienteering barefoot and play ultimate Frisbee. So my feet are used to it."

In 2001, Australian researcher Michael Warburton reported in the publication Gateway Physiotherapy: "Running barefoot is associated with a substantially lower prevalence of acute injuries of the ankle and chronic injuries of the lower leg in developing countries." But, he added, "Well-designed (research) of the effects of barefoot and shod running on injury are lacking."

And, in a 1987 article published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Steven E. Robbins and Adel M. Hanna concluded: "The solution to the problem of running-related injuries could be as simple as promoting barefoot activity."

Jack Cady, a physical therapist from Missouri who analyzes runners' strides, says barefoot running promotes a more efficient form.

"One component of efficient running form is a soft, midfoot landing with initial ground contact being below your center of gravity," Cady says. "In contrast, inefficient runners tend to land out ... on the heel with the toes pointing up in the air. This produces a violent impact that has potential to inflict injury. The braking action created by this heel strike also slows a runner down.

"Modern cushioned shoes are enablers of poor form. Without the soft cushioned heels, a runner either develops proper form or they will end up injured."

Not so, says Dr. Mary Beth Crane, a Dallas podiatrist, veteran marathoner and spokeswoman for the American College of Foot and Ankle surgeons.

"If you have perfect (running) biomechanics - and I've yet to meet many people who do - then absolutely you can run barefoot and be fine," Crane says in a phone interview. "But the reality is that most people do not have perfect biomechanics. It takes a lot of strengthening and cross-training to get the strength in the areas that you'd need to run more biomechanically sound barefoot.

"More likely than not, you'll wind up with puncture wounds, stress fractures, shin splints and tendinitis due to the fact your biomechanics are more faulty because you don't have cushioning of shoes."

Crane says a regimen that involves some barefoot running on a synthetic track can be beneficial for high school and college-age runners.

"But once you're fully developed and running on concrete surfaces, there's more risk associated with barefoot running than benefits," she says.

Crane and other physicians say most runners land on their heels first and roll the foot because it's less jarring. She points to a higher incidence of muscular injuries for runners landing on the balls of the feet.

"Are there anomalies? Absolutely," she says. "But I'd bet they've been running barefoot a long, long time and have a relatively normal foot type.

"Listen, the whole barefoot craze has come from looking at the African runners. But those guys grew up in pastures running on packed dirt. They didn't have the availability of cushioning systems, and their feet were used to walking barefoot all the time. If we went back to that type of culture and never wear shoes from the minute you're born and develop a gait that's right, then it might work."

Currently, barefoot running hardly qualifies as a "craze." Though a hardy community of barefooters has congregated on the Internet, where one Web site boasts 1,000 members, the practice still is considered alternative and marginal.

That soon will change, if "Barefoot Ted" McDonald, a serious marathoner from Sun Valley, near Los Angeles, has his way. McDonald's blog charts his odyssey of being a shoe-saddled runner who couldn't go an hour without intense pain to a shoeless runner who has completed the Boston Marathon in under 3 hours, 20 minutes, and completes 100-mile endurance races with no pain.

McDonald, in a phone interview from Southern California, recalls his first barefoot run five years ago as a "religious" experience.

"It was so mind-boggling to me," McDonald says. "It was like, 'Oh my God, I was running ball-heel-ball with no pain.' Within a year of running barefoot, I finished a marathon. Within another year, I had qualified for Boston barefoot. It's been a rapid and wild transformation."

So, if running barefoot can be so beneficial, why don't more people do it?

"Because the sports shoe companies make us believe that if we don't wear these specialty shoes, we'll get hurt," McDonald says. "It's one of the highest profit-making businesses in the country.

"But if people will only try it and ease into it, they'll find there's something elemental or spiritual in (barefoot running)."

If it seems at times that barefoot runners are zealots for their cause, it's because they firmly believe in a shoeless society. Most of the barefoot runners contacted for this story go shoeless full time.

Elhardt has been totally barefoot for almost four years, but he remembers hardly ever wearing shoes while growing up in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

"Sometime around November, my parents would always say, 'It's getting colder, you might want to wear shoes,'" Elhardt says.

In his late 40s now, McDonald says he's come to terms with the naysayers. But he still sees barefooters as an oppressed minority.

"Being barefoot in American culture has connoted poverty and rural culture," McDonald says. "Then, of course, there's the counterculture. Three strikes. There's no product to sell. Four strikes. People don't understand."

Crane, the Dallas podiatrist- marathoner, puts it another way.

"They're crazy," she says. "But you know how runners are. Always doing something crazy."