BY COSHANDRA DILLARD
In recent years, some runners have gravitated toward barefoot running or running with minimalist shoes. Early research studies suggested that barefoot running or using toe shoes — those funny-looking lightweight shoes that resemble gloves for the feet — can reduce injuries or even improve performance while running.
In 2012, Americans spent an estimated $59 million on minimalist shoes, but the trend may be cooling down. In the first quarter of 2013, the sales of such shoes declined by 10 percent, according to industry data published in SportsOneSource.
Runners have sworn by minimalist shoes, saying they are comfortable and that the lightweight shoe promotes a correct foot strike pattern. Experts are finding out that it comes down to a runner's build, so there is no definite answer as to which running technique or shoe is better. It's all about personal preference.
WHAT MATTERS IN THE LONG RUN?
Running mechanics are complex and also have been thoroughly studied. Much thought has been given to the importance of whether a person's foot lands on the heel or the forefoot while running.
In a recent study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers showed that the forefoot pattern is no more economical than using the rear-foot pattern.
But the evidence does not mean that barefoot or minimalist shoe running is wrong or puts people at greater risk for injury.
Bob Hepler, cross country and track coach at The University of Texas at Tyler, said he promotes barefoot running on athletic fields with short grass and even surfaces. He also encourages it at the end of practice sometimes. However, he doesn't support barefoot running on pavement or asphalt.
"It's a nice change of pace, and it could strengthen your feet and improve your running mechanics," Hepler said.
Amid the varying opinions about barefoot running experts say it's important for a runner to recognize his or her own running technique and adjust only if necessary.
Hepler points out that when changing the foot strike pattern, runners should do so slowly.
"That should be a process," he said. "You don't want to change overnight. If you do that, over time, you reduce what is called breaking force."
Breaking force has to do with impact to joints. When landing on the heel, Hepler said, there is more of an impact to joints than landing on the forefoot.
Forefoot running is a technique the 51-year-old has utilized over the years.
"That's one reason I'm still not having any problems with my joints," he said. "The down side of that, is when you're landing on your forefoot, there's a lot more of strain on your Achilles and your calves. So if you (transition to forefoot running) too quickly you're going to face a higher likelihood of getting injured, just in a different way."
Hepler helps his freshman runners transition by implementing five-minute blocks where they alternate between a one-minute forefoot pattern then running like they normally do, making it safer.
For those seeking to change their foot strike pattern or find out if they have good running form, Hepler said it's best to consult with an expert.
"I think you want to have a more experienced runner take a look at your mechanics and give you some pointers that way," he said.
Study in the Journal of Applied Physiology on running foot strike patterns: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23681915