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Running Barefoot

Merits and Dangers

Published October 12, 1998, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

August 10, 1984. It was a pleasant evening in Los Angeles. The mid-day heat had cooled down to 75 degrees. The women's Olympic 3,000-meter final promised a clash between Zola Budd and her idol Mary Decker in their first competition. Earlier that year, 17-year-old Budd had broken Decker's world record in the 5,000 meters.

Budd's youth and barefoot running added to the mystery that surrounded the race. While the race remains vivid in many minds, few remember who won the gold medal. For the record, it was Maricica Puica of Romania. Yet the world remembers the collision between Decker and Budd that left Decker crying on the infield and Budd bleeding from the ankle.

Budd was not the first Olympian to run barefoot. In 1960, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the Rome Olympic Marathon barefoot.

Today, few runners compete barefoot. However, in Asia and the Americas, entire communities live on their native lands without foot protection. In Northern Mexico, the Tarahumara Indians are well known for the amazing long distance running ability without shoes. In South Africa, Budd's native country, children are raised to run and play rugby barefoot.

Proponents of barefoot running argue that it is the natural way to run. It is pleasurable, safe, healthy and has many beneficial effects. Medical studies suggest that many foot problems that afflict civilized shod people are non-existent in barefooted populations. For example, athlete's foot, bunions, hammer toes and black toes rarely occur in unshod people.

In a 1990 article in Sports Medicine, Stevens Robbins examined the effects of athletic footwear on chronic overloading in runners. He observed that the system of soft tissues and bones that make the foot constitute an extremely complex machine optimized for locomotion.

When the foot hits the ground, feedback from the sole activates a series of muscle contractions to dissipate the shock. By insulating the sole from the ground, footwear diminishes sensory feedback and interferes with the natural function of the foot.

By absorbing part of the shock, the cushioned shoes deceive the foot into complacency, causing an even harder impact on the feet, resulting eventually in injury. Thus, state-of-the-art highly cushioned shoes create chronic overloading by interfering with the foot's shock-absorption mechanism. Robbins concluded that the ideal solution to foot injury in shod populations was to run barefoot.

Running barefoot also changes the characteristics of the underlying skin. Rather than hardening and cracking, the sole develops into a half-inch thick layer of leather. The thickness and smooth consistency contribute to protecting from puncture as well as providing some shock absorbency.

At the younger ages, pediatricians observed that shod children had a higher incidence of flat foot syndrome than children who went barefoot. They concluded that shoe-wearing in early childhood was detrimental to the development of a normal arch, and recommended that children under six years old partake in barefoot activities.

While nature may have intended us to run barefoot, it failed to anticipate asphalt pavements, concrete sidewalks, icy roads, salt and broken glass. If you are tempted to run barefoot, consider these basic precautions to prevent injury.

First, find a clean soft running surface. A rubberized track, a golf course and a dirt trail are good starter choices. Avoid sandy beaches that over-stretch and injure the Achilles tendons.

Second, start very gradually. Like breaking in new shoes, give your feet a chance to adapt to the new sensory impulses from the soles. Run a quarter mile the first day, and increase slowly.

Third, respect the weather. Bare feet can burn on sweltering concrete, and can be miserable on icy roads. Run in comfort, not in pain.

Fourth, look out for hazards. Bare feet are slippery on a wet pavement. Avoid construction sites: rusted nails and broken glass can easily puncture a thick sole under your weight.

Last, but not least, keep your tetanus shot up to date.

In the greater scheme of things, Californians believe that our feet are not the only parts of our body that are created bare. Running nude is a different story for another day.

Kamal Jabbour runs in the comfort of extra-cushioned Grid Jazz with shock absorbing EVA mid-soles and carbon rubber out-soles. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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