Janesville woman says barefoot shoes give running a whole new feel

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September 10, 2011
— Diane Oriza was hooked on her barefoot shoes as soon as she tried them on.

“I’ve been wearing them pretty much nonstop for two years, now, and I wear them every day,” she said.

She has five pairs of Vibram’s FiveFingers, lightweight rubbery shoes that fit like a glove with a “finger” for each toe. She says she rarely wears regular shoes, which now feel weird to her.

Oriza works at Data Dimensions, where dress is business professional. She has a pair of plain black FiveFingers she wears on the job, but she keeps a pair of heels on hand for business meetings.

“I just like feeling the ground,” she said. “I like knowing what I’m stepping on, and it’s more fun in the woods if you can feel where you’re stepping.”

But barefoot shoes are not for everyone, she said, because foot types and running styles vary.

Local podiatrists and running experts get plenty of questions about barefoot or “minimalist” type shoes, and they’ve seen injuries related to the trend.

Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book “Born to Run” sparked a new interest in running barefoot among runners. The book describes the life and running habits of Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, distance runners who find success in flimsy sandals.

McDougall talks about how the foot structure is meant to be without motion-controlled, cushioned shoes—that running barefoot is more natural, said Nicholas Streit, a podiatrist at Dean Riverview Clinic.

“I agree to some extent that the shoe industry has gone to very cushioned shoes that allow us to use poor running technique,” he said.

But local experts point out that the barefoot lifestyle of indigenous tribes in the book is different than life in modern America.

A person’s running technique has to be exceptional to run barefoot, Streit said, and it’s not always practical.

“I think the truth lies somewhere in between,” he said. “I think I take a little bit from both camps.”

The downtown Janesville running store, All Season Runner, does not carry the Vibram FiveFingers line because of concerns about the potential for causing injury, marketing director and running coach Kitty Cole said.

The store carries “minimalist” shoes that have less drop from the heel to the forefront than traditional running shoes, she said.

“I am very worried about people that are running barefoot or with no protection. It puts a lot of strain on … the big toe joint,” she said. “If that joint is damaged, you’re going to have a hard time walking, and you’ll probably never be able to run.”

Running technique

Shoe companies such as Vibram say barefoot footwear is designed to encourage forefoot striking—landing on the forefoot—because it may be safer and lead to fewer injuries.

Streit said he thinks the concept is interesting but not practical for most people.

“You can still run with good technique in a conventional shoe,” he said.

Cole and local podiatrists have seen people come in with stress fractures, Achilles tendinitis and other injuries tied to barefoot-type running.

“The advantage of a minimalist shoe is that it makes your foot strengthen itself, which is good, but more than that it tends to change the way that people run,” said Alan Reinicke, a podiatrist at Mercy Clinic East.

Runners in barefoot shoes adopt a quicker stride rather than “bounding along and landing on their heels,” he said.

“It is much smoother on the whole rest of your body,” he said.

He said he hasn’t seen any conclusive proof on the issue one way or the other.

“Any opinion you may have, you can find something to support it,” he said.

Reinicke agrees.

“There’s nothing conclusive … it is so dependent on the person,” he said. “I think that’s really the bottom line.”

Cole believes runners need the protection of a shoe, although it doesn’t need to be a “big, beefed-up shoe.”

“I encourage them to run barefoot in the protection of a shoe,” Cole said.

As a trainer, she’ll have runners do drills barefoot on soft grass to exercise the foot.

A lifestyle

Few people have the ability to correctly wear barefoot shoes, Streit said.

“You almost have to dedicate this to a lifestyle of being barefoot,” he said.

Running in barefoot shoes after wearing heels or athletic shoes all day is contrary to the Vibram philosophy, he said.

“If people go into it too quickly, they tend to get a lot of injuries,” Reinicke said. “If people that have bad mechanics or just aren’t made for running, they’ll get injuries much faster.”

Strengthening your foot muscles is a long, slow process, he said.

Vibram recommends running no more than 10 percent of a typical run wearing barefoot shoes for two to three weeks and gradually increasing distance 10 to 20 percent every couple of weeks.

For Oriza, it has become a lifestyle. She runs up to five miles barefoot on area trails. In winter, she wears socks with her FiveFingers to stay warm.

The footwear works well for her because she has high arches, she said.

“If you run sloppy so your shoes take your impact for you, I don’t think these will work for you,” she said. “I can see where they would be a problem for people.”

She advises potential buyers to try on several sizes and models because sizing is key, and it’s not the same from each model.

People asked her so many questions about her footwear that for a while she carried the product information that came with the shoes.

“For me, it’s just way more comfortable,” she said.

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