Get Better. Faster.
June 23, 2005
Kick Off Your Shoes and Run Awhile

UNTIL he met a reclusive tribe of near-mythical athletes at the bottom of a Mexican
canyon, Micah True could never figure out why his running injuries got worse as his running
shoes got better. Then, the Tarahumara Indians taught him a lesson that even Nike is now
starting to embrace: the best shoe may be no shoe at all.

Mr. True, 53, from Nederland, Colo., wasn't the only one baffled by the injury mystery. For
years kinesiology professors, physical therapists and athletic-shoe designers have been
puzzling over the same paradox: if running shoe protection and cushioning have improved,
why haven't injuries among joggers decreased?

"The technological advancements over the past 30 years have been amazing," said Dr. Irene
Davis, the director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware. "We've seen
tremendous innovations in motion control and cushioning. And yet the remedies don't seem
to defeat the ailments."

Since the running boom of the 70's, giants like Nike, Adidas and New Balance have rivaled
Silicon Valley for speed of R. & D. rollout, releasing improved products nearly every six
months. One shoe, the Adidas 1, even has microprocessors that analyze foot impact and
adjust cushioning with each stride. New Balance has a motion-control shoe so finely
engineered it costs $199.99.

Still, 65 percent to 80 percent of all runners - joggers and elite marathoners alike - are
injured in an average year, according to Dr. Davis. Aching Achilles tendons, sore knees,
inflamed arches and hobbling plantar fascia pain are as common today as they were when
boot camp grunts were jogging in canvas Converse "Chuckies."

"Since the first real studies were done in the late 70's, Achilles complaints have actually
increased by about 10 percent, while plantar fasciitis has remained the same," said Dr.
Stephen Pribut, the president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine.

And so Mr. True began to wonder, does it even matter what footwear runners use? Or
could protective shoes be contributing to the problems they're meant to prevent?

Mr. True had been hampered by repeated injuries while competing in ultramarathons in the
early 90's. While fighting for first place in the Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon, a grueling
100-mile course over steep, rocky trails, he suffered a stress fracture in his tibia. It was
there that Mr. True met the Tarahumara runners, who had traveled from Mexico to win four
of the top five places while wearing homemade huaraches fashioned from strips of old tires.

Hoping to discover their secret, Mr. True followed the Tarahumara back to their
canyon-bottom home. There they taught him to run lightly on the front of his foot instead of
heavily on his heel. He experimented with running on his own homemade huaraches before
trying the Bite running sandal, with its deft mix of ancient sparseness and modern cushioning.
Eleven years have passed since Mr. True changed his technique and footwear, and even
though he now regularly runs 40 miles over hazardous terrain, he has not had an injury since.

"If my gringo feet could handle it, going barefoot would be even better," he said.

During the past decade two barefoot-style training methods for runners have been
developed based on the same principle: that legs, not shoes, are the best shock absorbers.
That is, you land on your forefoot, instead of your heel, and paw back.

Dr. Nicholas Romanov, a sports physiologist in Naples, Fla., created what he calls the Pose
Method, and Danny Dreyer, a running coach in San Francisco, started a program known as
ChiRunning, both of which have already won legions of disciples among joggers, trainers
and triathletes. Essentially these programs teach runners something they thought they knew:
how to run.

"The problem is, the fancy running shoes have allowed us to develop lazy feet," Dr.
Romanov said. Pose runners, consequently, prefer the thin-soled Puma H. Street, which is
actually a casual shoe.

Surprisingly, even Nike now sees the sense of running "shoeless." Just one year after
releasing its most structured shoe ever - the Air Max 2004, with airbags and a
motion-control footbridge - the company has switched tack by offering the Nike Free 5.0, a
shoe it claims will "re-evolutionize" running by enabling people to run as if they were
barefoot. With its gauzy heel, stockinglike upper, and thin sole, the Free 5.0 looks more like
a slipper than a sneaker.

"We found pockets of people all over the globe who are still running barefoot, and what you
find is that during propulsion and landing they have far more range of motion in the foot and
engage more of the toe," said Jeff Pisciotta, the senior researcher at the Nike Sports
Research Lab in Beaverton, Ore., who headed the Nike Free project. "Their feet flex,
spread, splay and grip the surface, meaning you have less pronation" - twisting of the foot -
"and more distribution of pressure."

Their feet, in other words, get a workout with every step.

Nike tested the theory by having a group of students at the German Sports University in
Cologne run warm-ups for six months in the Frees. These students showed a significant
increase in foot strength and flexibility compared with those who ran in their regular shoes,
Mr. Pisciotta said. Presumably, he said, "a stronger, healthier foot means less chance of

The idea for the Free was born after two Nike researchers, visiting the Stanford track team,
found that their sponsored runners ran sprints barefoot. Vin Lananna, their coach, had
encouraged them to take off their shoes. "I felt that as shoes became more elaborate and
intricate, the feet were getting weaker," said Mr. Lananna, who is now director of athletics
at Oberlin College in Ohio. Mr. Lananna had always outfitted his team in Nike's cheapest
and least structured shoe. The one time he experimented with Nike's best, his team was
plagued by plantar fasciitis and Achilles problems. He now likes his runners to use the Frees.

Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder in the women's marathon, also has converted to the
bare-is-best philosophy. Even though the Free 4.0 will not reach the market for six months,
Ms. Radcliffe, of London, has secured a few prototypes and is wearing them for a third of
her 130 weekly miles.

"The deconditioned musculature of the foot is the greatest issue leading to injury," said Dr.
Gerard Hartmann, an exercise physiologist in Limerick, Ireland, who works with Ms.
Radcliffe and who was consulted by Nike on the Free's design. "Only 2 to 3 percent of the
population has real biomechanical problems, so we're basically creating new problems by
treating ones that don't exist," he said.

But the key to successful barefoot-style running, Dr. Hartmann stressed, is learning how.
Nike, he said, has had an obligation to re-educate runners, since its technology may have
contributed to sloppy mechanics.

"We have discussed expanding the instructional role," said Mr. Pisciotta from Nike. "But
biomechanics are so personal." All runners must find people who can tell them "what can
help and what can hurt."

Dr. Davis agreed that "just slapping special shoes on your feet won't help." She
demonstrated by using me as a guinea pig for a series of diagnostic tests. At 43, I have five
marathons to my credit and do about 40 average weekly miles. I know how to run - or I
thought I did.

First I ran in bare feet, then in the Nike Free 5.0 and finally in Nike's most popular
cushioned shoe, the Pegasus. The amount of impact, Dr. Davis found, was significantly
higher during the Free and barefoot sessions. But slow-motion video replay revealed that I
was landing on my heel then slapping down my forefoot. My right foot was twisting
outward, while my left knee was dipping to the right. These irregularities were nearly
invisible, but severe enough to aggravate my twingey Achilles.

By learning to land on my midfoot, I could correct these problems, Dr. Davis said. But I
should be careful, she warned, because tinkering with a new gait can suddenly load the heel
and Achilles with unaccustomed stress and cause a whole new set of injuries.

The Nike Free "should be the first shoe sold with an instructional DVD," Dr. Hartmann said.
"You have to respect that this shoe can revolutionize the way people run, and no revolution
comes without its casualties."
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