Gloves for your feet?

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Paul Oppenheim

There has been a lot written recently about barefoot running and so-called "minimal footwear." The Competive Foot is carrying those light, strange-looking things called FiveFingers, which are essentially gloves for your feet, with a compartment for each toe. Some people love them. Other shoe companies have introduced lighter, more basic shoes with less cushioning and support. Tim Eggert, owner of the Competitive Foot, says New Balance is also introducing some minimal shoes this spring.

Much of this was kicked off by the wide attention generated by John McDougall's 2009 book Born to Run (a very entertaining story), which tells of the Tarahumara Indians, of northern Mexico, who run long distances in simple home-made sandals, with only a piece of old rubber tire tread under their feet. And they rarely get injured.

Over the past 35 years, with the rising popularity of running in the U.S. and the rest of the world, shoe manufacturers have developed highly cushioned and supportive footwear. But some think this has over-protected our feet, resulting in poor running form, and many runners still get injured despite the protection. This is blamed partly on heel-striking, made possible by all that shoe cushioning.

If you try running barefoot on a hard surface, I guarantee that you won't land on your heels, at least not for long. You'll be up on your forefoot, utilizing the natural shock absorbing qualities of your feet and ankles. And supposedly this is how we were intended to run. But after years of cushioned running you can't just change overnight.

About a year ago the doc I've been seeing for my gimpy knee suggested I try a bit of barefoot running a couple times a week. Just a few minutes indoors, he said. No need to go nuts and run barefoot over rough pavement or in cold weather. So I tried it in his office, then at the health club with laps around the gym, and sometimes around my big condo lobby. I discovered I was already tending to be a mid-foot striker instead of a heel striker, probably a result of my unconscious reaction to reduce knee impact. I can't say that there's any miracle, but my feet and ankles are stronger since I've developed more of a mid-foot stride and have been running barefoot. And I'm still running.

Perhaps 10 years ago Scott Arient, a long-time member of the Oak Park Runners Club, and an accomplished runner, began wearing racing flats for virtually all his running. Most of us use heavier training shoes for daily runs, saving the lighter, minimally cushioned racing flats for race day. But Arient felt that the lighter shoes allowed his feet to have closer contact with the ground, and provided more flexibility and strengthening for his feet and ankles. Looks like he was ahead of his time.

I've always preferred more basic running shoes with fewer gizmos, and I'm keeping my eye on those new, more minimal shoes. But I'm not yet ready for a pair of FiveFingers. The concept is interesting, but they still look kind of goofy to me.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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