Barefoot running causes spate of injuries as enthusiasts are 'too quick' to ditch the trainers
11:12 GMT, 22 May 2012
The recent craze for barefoot running has led to a spike in leg and foot injuries among enthusiastic amateurs, U.S doctors have warned.
Many converts have been inspired by Christopher McDougall's best-seller 'Born To Run,' which focuses on an Indian tribe in Mexico whose members run long distances without pain in little more than sandals.
However, anecdotal evidence suggests doctors have seen a surge in injuries as a result. These range from pulled calf muscles to Achilles tendinitis with some patients laid up for several months.
Warning: Foot specialists say injuries can result from switching from trainers to barefoot too quickly as different muscles are used
One jogger to be swept by the barefoot running craze was ultramarathoner Ryan Carter who ditched his sneakers for footwear that mimics the experience of striding unshod.
The first time he tried it two years ago, he ran a third of a mile on grass. Within three weeks of switching over, he was clocking six miles on the road.
Then during a training run with a friend near downtown Minneapolis, Carter suddenly stopped, unable to take another step. His right foot seared in pain.
'It was as though someone had taken a hammer and hit me with it,' he recalled.
He hobbled home and rested his foot. When the throbbing became unbearable days later, he went to the doctor. The diagnosis: a stress fracture.
Some runners swear that trainers can cause more injuries as they are encourage you to strike with the heel first
Foot specialists said many injuries resulted from switching from trainers to barefoot too quickly.
Shod runners tend to have a longer stride and land on their heel compared with barefoot runners, who are more likely to have a shorter stride and land on the midfoot or forefoot.
Injuries can occur when people put too much pressure on their calf and foot muscles, or don't shorten their stride and end up landing on their heel with no padding.
Podiatrist Paul Langer used to see one or two barefoot running injuries a month at his Twin Cities Orthopedics practice in Minneapolis. Now he treats between three and four a week.
'Most just jumped in a little too enthusiastically,' said Langer, an experienced runner and triathlete who trains in his barefoot running shoes part of the week.
Bob Baravarian, chief of podiatry at the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, California, said he's seen “a fair number” of heel injuries and stress fractures among first-timers who are not used to the different forces of a forefoot strike.
'All of a sudden, the strain going through your foot is multiplied manifold' and problems occur when people don't ease into it, he said.
Running injuries are quite common. Between 30 to 70 percent of runners suffer from repetitive stress injuries every year and experts can't agree on how to prevent them.
Some runners with chronic problems have seized on barefoot running as an antidote, claiming it's more natural.
Pre-human ancestors have walked and run in bare feet for millions of years often on rough surfaces, yet researchers surprisingly know very little about the science of barefoot running. The modern running shoe with its cushioned heel and stiff sole was not invented until the 1970s. And in parts of Africa and other places today, running barefoot is still a lifestyle.
While some runners completely lose the shoes, others opt for minimal coverage. The oxymoron “barefoot running shoes” is like a glove for the feet designed to protect from glass and other hazards on the ground.
'Barefoot' shoes are to stop joggers from cutting themselves
Experts say people can successfully lose the laces. The key is to break in slowly. Start by walking around barefoot. Run no more than a quarter mile to a mile every other day in the first week. Gradually increase the distance. Stop if bones or joints hurt. It can take months to make the change.
'Don't go helter skelter at the beginning,' said Dr Jeffrey Ross, from Baylor College of Medicine.
However, there's one group foot experts say should avoid barefoot running: People with decreased sensation in their feet, a problem common among diabetics, since they won't be able to know when they get injured.
Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman runs a lab devoted to studying the effects of running form on injury rates. He thinks form matters more than footwear or lack of – don't over-stride, have good posture and land gently.
In a 2010 study examining different running gaits, Lieberman and colleagues found that striking the ground heel first sends a shock up through the body while barefoot runners tend to have a more springy step.
Even so, more research is needed into whether barefoot running helps avoid injury.
'The long and the short of it is that we know very little about how to help all runners – barefoot and shod – prevent getting injured. Barefoot running is no panacea. Shoes aren't either,' said Lieberman.