By Jessica Bliss, The Tennessean
As Kelly Mahoney approached the final stretch in April's Country Music Marathon, the finish line announcer couldn't help but exclaim.
"Without shoes?" he said over the loudspeaker. "My, oh my."
The bare-chested - and barefooted - Mahoney raised his arms in pride.
Mahoney shed his shoes in July 2009 at the advice of his podiatrist, who told him to either get orthotics or strengthen his ailing feet by walking barefoot. Walking turned into running, and this spring the 40-year-old Cookeville resident ran the marathon.
Mahoney is part of a small but growing contingent of athletes who are running without the comfort of cushy soles. Some run barefoot, and some run with new footwear products designed to mimic barefoot running. Doctors and researchers debate the physical benefits, but the runners swear that pounding the pavement without padding is better for their bodies.
"It feels good to not have shoes on," Mahoney said. "You don't have stinky feet. You don't spend money on shoes. You are not constantly worried about the right shoes to get. You are only focused on improving your form, and that's the way I think it should be."
A change in form
A recent study by Harvard biologist and runner Daniel Lieberman examined running with shoes and without.
Published in the January 2010 issue of Nature, the study results suggest that when most runners take a stride they land on their heel - often with extreme force. The cushioning in a running shoe mitigates the feeling of that impact. When a person sheds that protection the heel strike becomes painful, which often causes a change in running form. Barefoot runners typically land on either the ball or somewhere in the middle of their foot, the study found. The heel comes down afterward with less impact.
The benefits of this altered form are debatable, according to Dr. Andrew Gregory, an assistant professor of orthopedics and rehab at Vanderbilt's Sports Medicine Center.
Shoes, Gregory said, were developed for two reasons. The first: to protect the bottom of the foot from cuts and scrapes. The other: cushioning. Some said the padding decreased the risk of stress fractures. What it may also have done was increase the propensity to strike the ground heel first, and Lieberman's study suggests this is more likely to cause injury. If barefoot running encourages runners to alter that form and dissipate force across the foot it could alleviate ill effects, Gregory said.
"It makes sense it would decrease injury, but we don't know that," Gregory said. "We guess that, but we can't prove it."
Combating aches and pains
Will Kimbrough claims that shedding shoes relieved his injuries.
A runner for almost 40 years, the Nashvillian was plagued by Achilles tendonitis, a painful and sometimes debilitating inflammation of the heel cord.
Before going barefoot, he was running in a $130 pair of Asics recommended by a local running shop. Though meant to help the condition, he said his Achilles tendonites worsened, his knees hurt and his lower back was stiff and sore.
Then, last May, he bought Christopher McDougall's new book, Born to Run, which examines the natural running techniques of Mexico's Tarahumara Indians and has inspired much of the latest surge in barefoot running.
It wasn't long before Kimbrough, 46, took off his shoes to walk his dog through the neighborhood. When the dog took off after a small critter, the barefooted Kimbrough ran a couple of hundred yards after it.
"The next thing I knew, I am running every day barefooted," Kimbrough said.
After a couple of months, Kimbrough said his back, knees, hips, ankles and achilles tendon felt healthier than they had since he was a kid running in thin-soled Onitsuka Tigers in the 1970s.
"It's not magic, but it can be magical if it's for you," he said.
But those looking for a cure for running ailments shouldn't sprint to shed their shoes, Gregory said. The adjustment needs to be made gradually. "Maybe you run on a field barefoot for a mile then put shoes back on and slowly increase. You have to build up calluses. . . . If you develop pain then you have to rethink your strategy."
The FiveFinger approach
Graham Stoner embraces the sensation of running barefoot without actually being barefoot.
The 29-year-old purchased a pair of Vibram FiveFingers from the Brentwood REI a few months ago and uses them when he does trail or field runs in the park once or twice a week.
The wacky looking footwear has a separate slot for each toe. It is designed to help strengthen the muscles in the feet and improve balance and agility.
REI sales associate Hunter Lane - a self-proclaimed minimalist runner - said the store can't keep the shoe on the shelves.
"It's just insane," he said. "Every time we get in a new shipment, we sell out in two days. They are just crazy popular."
Cumberland Transit on West End Avenue also sells the Vibram shoes. Sales have quadrupled since the store started carrying them in 2007, saleswoman Lori Ridgeway said. Physical trainers, Ft. Campbell soldiers, even some of the Titans players have purchased them, she said.
Stoner runs six to seven miles per outing in them. They force him to focus on a more natural stride, he said. He, too, has had less injury with the new equipment, but he is not ready to take them to the asphalt or concrete, because he doesn't feel like the human body was meant to run on such hard surfaces. For similar reasons, he doesn't ever envision running completely barefoot.
"Our feet aren't conditioned to take the abuse of straight up barefoot running," Stoner said. "Vibram shoes are the best of both worlds. They protect your feet but give you the same kind of feeling of running barefoot."
There are other, more traditional looking, barefoot simulation shoes, including the Nike Free and Vivo Barefoot.
But purists like Kimbrough feel freer in bare feet. When it's really cold, he dons a pair of moccasins and socks.
Neither he nor Mahoney worry about protecting their soles, which have become thicker and stronger since they shed their shoes. Mahoney said he has dug glass and metal shavings from a construction site out of his foot, but after running barefoot regularly five days a week for almost a year he said two incidents isn't reason to succumb to shoes.
"Running shoes make it comfortable to have bad running form," Mahoney said. "The point of running barefoot is to have good running form."