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Less is More: Stepping into the barefoot - or almost barefoot - running fad

Taking a look at minimalist running shoes that are making big headway in the running world.

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I admit it; I've always been a slow runner. A few years ago in the Dual in the Desert duathalon, I was beaten by every man, woman and child who showed up that day except for two women that were chatting as they walked the final leg of the course. And they were gaining on me.

I've made some improvements since that day, thankfully. I often run the river trails and Shevlin Park, enjoying the solitude and the challenge of running on trails. Recently I saw a man running at Shevlin with shoes that looked like chimpanzee feet. They were big, brown and had five toes. As he passed (OK, I'm still pretty slow) I asked about the shoes.

He was kind enough to stop and show me his pair of Vibram 5 Fingers shoes, part of the new vanguard of minimalist running shoes that are making big headway in the running world. He breathlessly explained that they were much lighter than normal shoes and that they helped him feel the ground while providing enough protection to keep him from injury. I was intrigued.

For someone who loves walking barefoot as much as I do when it's warm, these seemed like a perfect transition solution. I called around and found them at Foot Zone so I went there to try them on. Initially, it was kind of a feat to get them on (insert groan), but once I did, I found them to be very comfortable and I was hooked. As we finalized the sale, my salesperson added, "Be careful not to wear these more than about 30 minutes a day until your body gets used to them, or you'll feel it." This made sense, given the fact that my knees and hips ache at the beginning of nearly every summer when I ditch my shoes and my gait naturally changes to a more mid-foot strike.

But what about running in them? It seems there are some very passionate and disparate opinions about barefoot, or minimalist, running. Of course it's nice to have minimal weight on your feet as you run, but is it safe? Some medical experts dismiss clinical studies that show barefoot running to be potentially dangerous while pointing to studies that "prove conclusively" that shoes offer only minimal protection for the feet anyway. There is, however, some consensus between these camps on two points: that minimalist running generally promotes a healthier, more anatomic gait and that it is not for everyone. Some feet simply need the support and protection of footwear.

Supporting these conclusions is Dr. Timothy Bollom, a sports medicine surgeon at The Center here in Bend.

"I have no problem with minimalist running at all. In fact, I think it promotes a healthier foot strike - closer to mid-foot than on the heel," said Bollom, "My only issue is teaching 40-year olds to change their stride after years of running. If they're going to do it after years of a heavy heel strike, they either have to do it very slowly or not at all. Otherwise they risk injury,"

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