Some runners taking to sport in
bare feet

Blisters made marathoner shed shoes

By Dennis Fiely
The Columbus Dispatch

June 27, 2005

Some advocates of shoeless running say it increases acceleration and stride length.

Most people kick off their shoes to relax. Jerry Griffin removes his to run.

He logs up to 20 miles a week barefoot on tracks and grass in Granville, his hometown.

Jerry Griffin

"I just find it extremely satisfying," said the 65-year-old corporate financial consultant. "I feel more connected to the ground."

A fitness runner for 45 years, Griffin is a recent convert to shoeless training, a small but growing trend in the running community.

Advocates have included world-class African runners and U.S. track coaches. They claim running au natural improves performance and helps prevent injury by restoring a natural gait.

"All this incredible shoe technology is crap," said Griffin. "Your foot placement will be correct if you are running barefooted."

The first time Griffin tried it last fall, he clipped nearly a minute from his average 1-mile times.

"I was stunned," he said. "My friends thought I was a madman, but I ran faster than ever."

Lighter feet increased his acceleration and stride length—the only two ways to run faster.

More important, Griffin ran pain-free for the first time in four years.

He blamed heavily padded shoes for sore knees and a stress fracture he suffered last summer in a 5-kilometer race.

Running barefoot, he said, forced him to land softly on the balls of his feet instead of hard on his heels.

"I was a classic heel-striker, and you can't run on your heels that way," Griffin said.

The flexible Nike Free aims to simulate shoeless running.

Another convert is Stephanie Agosto, who began four months ago joggin shoeless 15 minutes a day, three times a week, to rehabilitate tendinitis in her knee.

When I run barefooted, I feel no pain," said the 44-year-old Denison University wellness coordinator. "It's the best way to strengthen my weak ankles, which were causing my tendinitis."

Shoeless training has been practiced by elite athletes for decades, but it surged into the mainstream late last month when Nike began heavy promotion of its Nike Free, a feather-weight shoe intended to simulate barefoot running.

Triathlete Jerry Hennelly covered at least one shoeless mile a week on the Gahanna Lincoln High School track before he snapped up a pair of Nike Frees in March.

"My feet feel muscular," said the 38-year-old Gahanna police officer. "It's really kind of cool."

He also appreciates its protection from debris, a primary purpose of the shoe.

"It allows my to run barefoot whenever I want without turning my feet to hamburger from twigs and glass," Hennelly said.

Most barefoot runners compile training mileage on school tracks or grass. They are reluctant to subject their feet to cuts and bruises on roads and sidewalks.

Structural damage continues to concern medical professionals.

"If you are running without protection, you are putting yourself at risk," said orthopedic surgeon Gret Berlet, a Columbus foot and ankle specialist. "This is a dangerous idea for average athletes."

While it may help strengthen the 20 foot muscles, "My concern is stress to the bones and ligaments," Berlet said.

Tendinitis and stress fractures are the most common injuries he sees among runners whose feet are improperly cushioned and supported.

"The technology in today's shoes is all good," Berlet said. "They have shock-absorbing sholes, inserts so the feet don't roll and rockers to push off of. The real story is the gain made during the past 100 years in shoe construction."

Early in her career, Kitty Consolo, a two-time winnor of the Cleveland Marathon, tried a shoeless 3-mile run on asphalt and grass.

"It was a disaster for me," said Consolo, an anatomy and physiology instructor at Ohio University-Zanesville. "I couldn't walk the next day."

She suffered an inflammation of the heel known as plantar fascitis that troubled her for a year.

Now, she said, "I won't walk barefoot or even wear slippers."

Consumers and even some retailers are struggling to accept the less-is-more concept behind the Nike Free.

"We are being very cautious with it," said Kevin O'Grady, an owner of Front Runner specialty-shoe store on Lane Avenue. "It is just not practical for most people."

Nike packages the shoe with a training protocol that implores wearers to slowly build tolerance to its athletic slipper.

"Wearing this is like running," said Trent Neely, a manager of Second Sole in Gahanna. "You don't do 5 miles your first time out."

Hennelly, the Gahanna police officer, went too far too fast and, as a result, strained an arch.

"I backed off, recovered and went into the training regimen that Nike recommends," he said. "It's the only shoe I've seen that comes with an instruction manual."

Hennelly also follows Nike's advice to use the Nike Free in conjunction with a more supportive shoe.

He runs an average of 22 miles a week but limits his time in the Nike Free to short recovery runs and sprints.

"For my longer runs, I wear a fully supportive shoe," Hennelly emphasized.

For purists such as Griffin, the Nike Free doesn't make sense.

"It's an oxymoron," he said. "Why wear a shoe to run barefooted?"

One member at his YMCA, where he circles the track shoeless for up to 7 miles, has an answer for him, he said.

"She always complains that my feet are dirty.

Barefoot Rick's