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How to: Barefoot Running

How to safely switch to an extremely natural stride

iStockphoto/ThinkStock

If you’ve been to a trail race or organic grocery store in the past year, you’ve seen the shoes. You know the ones. Toe shoes. They’re everywhere, segregating toes into an unfashionable mash-up of Aqua Socks and some kind of sexual protective glove for foot fetishists. If you’re not already wearing a pair, you’ve probably wondered: Why are these brightly colored foot condoms sweeping our nation’s feet?

Christopher McDougall’s bestseller, Born to Run, offers this explanation: Mankind was never meant to run in shoes. That’s why certain cultures—Kenyans and the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico—excel so naturally at injury-free running while Americans, with all our fancy footwear design, can’t seem to keep up. We’ve been running for centuries, but only lacing up Nikes since the 1970s. And now we face plantar fasciitis and back problems from adapting our stride to the heavy cushions in modern sneakers.

So convincing is McDougall’s evidence, you might be tempted to forego your usual footwear to see what minimalist running can do for you. But before you toss out your fancy kicks, consider these tips on making the switch:

1. Know that barefoot running isn’t for everyone. There’s a great deal of evidence for and against it, and it’s important that you consider your options before going full-on “sports Hobbit” and risking injury.

2. Should you decide to take the leap—or tiny, troll-ish strides, as the case may be—you’ll want to start with minimalist shoes to protect your feet. Vibrams are the most established but certainly not the only brand available. Merrell and New Balance make popular styles that won’t quarantine your toes, and Nike Frees serve as an intermediate step between minimal and normal footwear.

3. Now try walking around in the shoes for a few days. You’ll need to build up strength in your feet and immunity to being heckled by strangers. If you feel strain on your arches or calves, stretch.

4. Once you’re ready to run, be sure to put your forefoot (or midfoot) down before your heel. Picture a majestic gazelle, and focus on landing gently. It might take time to build up strength in your calves, so start by running a quarter mile every other day. After a week, try half-miles before working up to full miles. The worst thing you can do is overdo it too soon.

5. If you experience pain, stop. Don’t be afraid to revert to your old sneakers or even switch back and forth—what works for one person might not work for everyone.

Once you’ve adapted, enjoy the lightweight thrill of minimalist running. Soft-shoe around town. Be free. But always remember: No matter how comfortable your new Vibrams are, under no condition will society accept them on the red carpet

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