After injury, runners bare their soles

Lenny Bernstein / The Washington Post /

“I have really bad knees,” says Rebecca Ouding

“I have an old knee injury that gets aggravated,” says Bud Uyeda.

“I ran a marathon 20 years ago, and after that my arches collapsed,” says Dave Hafera.

Not what you typically hear from people enjoying a fun run on a sunny summer Sunday recently. But there they were in Maryland’s Meadowbrook Park at the Naked Foot 5K, happily joining 450 others despite injuries that usually spell the end of running careers.

Their secret? After years of frustration trying to cure these ailments, all have switched to running barefoot or in the minimalist shoes that mimic running shoeless.

“I would not be running if I were not running barefoot,” says Uyeda, who, to be totally honest, had to sit out this event because of a minor car accident Friday.

Nearly three years after it was reignited by the remarkable book “Born to Run,” barefoot running is less a fad than a realistic alternative to traditional running shoes for people who have struggled with lower-leg injuries. Minimalist shoes are not for everyone, probably not even for most of us, but the anecdotal evidence of their place in the world of running is hard to deny.

Minimalist shoes now account for 12 percent of running shoe sales (though it’s just 4 percent without Nike’s Free line), according to one report, and the practice is mainstream enough that Naked Foot runs are being held in 10 cities this summer.

“The goal is to get a lot of people out and having fun running again,” says Scott Jones, Naked Foot organizer who staged a 1K run for children before the main event. “Kids run barefoot when they’re 2 and 3 years old and they don’t think about it. They have fun. We want to reinvigorate that feeling in adults.”

I wrote about barefoot running in October 2009, when author Christopher McDougall introduced us to the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, who run 100-mile races in sandals made from old tires, and to the free-spirited ultramarathoner Micah True, who died on a run in New Mexico in March. McDougall’s best-seller is now being made into a movie.

As I said then, barefoot running is not for me. I have no major leg injuries, except occasional plantar fasciitis, and I like my comfy running shoes, though I do wear orthotics with a gel liner.

The theory behind barefoot running is that the soft raised heel of running shoes encourages you to land on the rear part of the foot, which wasn’t designed to take the kind of forces running generates, leading to injuries for some people. By ridding yourself of that crutch, you are forced onto your mid- or forefoot, which can take that pounding, and you begin to run as people have for thousands of years.

Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman has published landmark research that supports running barefoot, interest groups and exercise organizations have weighed in, and a mild controversy continues. More companies have produced a wider variety of minimalist running shoes, but earlier this year, Vibram was sued over claims it has made about its path-breaking FiveFingers shoe.