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Barefoot and 'minimalist' styles attract area runners

David Uhlir runs with different shoes depending on conditions. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
David Uhlir of Grand Forks wears a pair of Vibram "FiveFingers" running shoes on a recent training run through Lincoln Park. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- For David Uhlir of Grand Forks, when it comes to running, less is more. And he is not alone.

Uhlir is one of a growing group of area runners who are excited about more "natural" approaches to running -- barefoot or minimalist running -- because of the physical benefits they offer.

"We wear shoes all our lives. Our calves and lower legs are not really strengthened," he said. Running barefoot or with minimal-sole shoes allows "your whole lower leg to work through the range of motion ...

"There's a lot of merit in barefoot and minimal-sole running."

When he began running seriously in 2010, Uhlir, 44, was advised to wear custom orthotics in his shoes because he has "very flat feet to no arch," he said. But, with these, he still had discomfort -- lower back and knee pain, shin splints and lower leg soreness.

Switching to "neutral stability" shoes, which are less constructed than the heavier "motion-control" shoes, and later to barefoot running, his pain symptoms were alleviated.

Barefoot and minimalist running encourage the runner to land on the forefoot rather than the heel, he said.

"The forefoot acts as a landing pad and it takes the force of the impact off (of) the knees and other joints in the lower leg," Uhlir said. He began to incorporate more barefoot and minimal-sole running into his training.

Fewer injuries

Proponents believe these types of running cause fewer injuries, while another school of thought holds that the opposite is true, according to Jackie Voigt, physical therapist with Altru Health System in Grand Forks.

Barefoot running "more closely mimics our natural pattern of running," Voigt said. "It decreases injury rates because it's more natural.

"I would say (barefoot running decreases injuries) as long as you have prepared the body for it. You're changing your gait pattern and cadence."

"It's something you have to work into," said Amanda Leavy, a physical therapist who works at Altru's branch location within Choice Fitness Center in Grand Forks. "If your body can handle that, we can develop a plan."

But Leavy cautions that "if you have a chronic injury, or an injury from the past, you put yourself at higher risk for reinjury" from barefoot running.

For each person, the point where the foot lands on pavement -- heel, midpoint or front -- is an important consideration.

"If you're a heel-striker, barefoot running is harder and takes more work," she said, because "you have to change your biomechanics," or how the foot functions.

Minimal-sole shoe

The minimal-sole shoe "is kind of step in between" natural and conventional running shoes, Voigt said. "With the minimal shoe, there's a very small rise from the front of the foot to the back. You'd want to be more of a front-foot (striker) or flat-foot runner to go into minimal-shoe running."

A new runner should stay away from minimal-sole shoes, she said. "If you're a heel-striker, a minimal sole wouldn't be the best shoe for you."

She and Leavy conduct "gait analysis" on runners looking for advice on what running shoe would be best for them.

"The rule of thumb is, you should be able to walk in that kind of shoe for 30 minutes pain-free to be able to run for one minute," Voigt said. "You have to practice a shorter stride length."

'No pain'

Like Uhlir, Mary Adkins of Grand Forks has become an advocate of minimal-sole running.

After more than 20 years as a runner, she credits minimal-sole shoes for ending the pain she had experienced due to the stresses of running.

"I have always struggled with right-side knee injuries... and chronic IT (illiotibal band) pain," she said. She has had two knee surgeries in the past.

Inspired by Christopher MacDougall's book "Born to Run," she researched barefoot running and running physiology.

Since switching to minimal-sole running shoes last year, "I have had no knee or IT pain. I have run two half-marathons and two 5K races ... I am a convert!

"It takes a little time and patience to adjust your stride with minimal or barefoot running, but once you have adjusted, it is well worth it."

But this style of running might not be for everyone.

"What people have to realize is that, when they're attempting to do it, to completely change their style of running, they are changing the mechanics, too -- the way the joints move, the way the foot hits the ground, how that force is distributed up into the knees and back," Dr. James Gladstone, co-chair of sports medicine at Mount Sinai's department of orthopedics in New York, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune for an article last year.

"For some people, it can be great. For others, it can cause many problems."

Mixing methods

Uhlir doesn't use barefoot or minimal running methods exclusively, he said.

"I use (them) more as a training tool. ... At the peak of my training, I do about 15 to 20 miles a week in barefoot. In the middle of my run, I'll take off my shoes in the greenway or the football field."

Wearing minimal-sole shoes takes some getting used to, he said. "It took me around a year and a half before I felt comfortable.

"A good way is to wear them to the gym or around the house or at work."

Running with minimal-sole shoes "is more popular now than ever," he said.

The Star Tribune reported that sales of the FiveFingers minimalist shoe grew from about $450,000 in 2006 to an estimated $50 million in 2011, and that sales of minimalist shoes more than doubled in March 2012 from a year earlier, totaling $4 million.

Start slow

Uhlir advises anyone who wants to try barefoot or minimal running "to make the transition slowly to prevent injury," he said. "You could do more damage than good."

One's overall fitness is a factor too, he said. "I'd never tell someone who doesn't have good cardiovascular health to get into minimal running."

While runners seem to divide themselves into "camps" based on adherence to a particular shoe (or lack of), Uhlir said he has a foot in both worlds.

"I take a little bit from both types."

What one wears for running "depends on the type of running you do and the terrain you're on," he said.

It also "depends on how good your biomechanics are and how strong your calves are," he said.

"There's a fine line. Someone who's training hard (for marathons) is not going to be able to (run barefoot or with minimal shoes) 40 to 50 miles a week. The leg isn't made to take that much of a beating."

He participates in a lot of endurance runs, he said. For those, he chooses a neutral or a more rigidly constructed shoe that offers increased stability.

Since adopting barefoot and minimal running, the pain he experienced when he began running has largely subsided.

"I think as I've progressed with running, and as you get more experienced, you get more efficient, you find your own running pattern -- that plays into it as well."