Arms pumping, eyes scanning the ground ahead, Dean Laiti runs east on a sidewalk in St. Louis Park, his feet making a sound like scuffing sandpaper. "Right over these tracks," he shouts, making a quick turn to leap a railroad grade.
It's a Tuesday evening in early June, and Laiti, 48, a finance worker from Fridley, is teaching me to run the way nature intended. That would mean barefoot -- striding with soles directly hitting asphalt as we aim toward the downtown Minneapolis skyline.
"Watch out for that gravel," he says, pointing beside the path. He runs with feet that seem to grace the ground, callused pads contacting pavement in an almost soundless stride.
I tag behind, feet slapping, wincing as my toes tread on a medium I've heretofore reserved for rubber soles.
"You doing OK?" Laiti shouts, looking back.
Running barefoot was for many millennia the only way to get around, and the human foot-- a biomechanical masterpiece of muscles, tendons and 26 bones -- evolved to absorb weight and spring bodies in stride. When shoes did come into play, they were most often minimal, the likes of hide sandals and moccasins, made to insulate in the cold or protect skin from sharp objects beneath.
Until the mid-20th century, modern running shoes had little padding underfoot. Then Nike came along.
"The phenomenon of cushioning in running shoes is a recent invention," said Dr. Paul Langer, a podiatrist and marathon runner in Minneapolis. "We're now seeing that all the innovations pushed for years by Nike, Adidas, et al., may not be better than a naturally functioning foot."
Langer, who works at Minnesota Orthopaedic Specialists and is a clinical faculty member at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said misinformation in the 1980s started the myth that cushioning in shoes is always better. "It became more about marketing and less about biomechanics," he said.
The result was shoes with gel pockets, air pumps, exaggerated arch support and even computer chips. But the innovation backfired with many runners, Langer said, adding weight to the foot and promoting an unnatural gait where the heel -- not the forefoot -- was made to absorb most of the impact.
Langer saw injuries ranging from shin splints to tweaked knees, often originating at least partly from bad form and pavement pounding in shoes that disabled the natural flex of the foot.
A five-toed renaissance
In the past few years, spurred by a 2001 research article titled "Barefoot Running" in SportScience, a peer-reviewed journal, the running world has seen a small revolution. Companies have started selling shoes that give control back to the foot. Nike's Free line, for example, tries to mimic the manner of a bare sole striking earth, eliminating arch support and reducing heel padding to provide a pliable sole that lets the foot flex. On the extreme end, Vibram released its FiveFingers "foot glove" in 2006 with articulated toes and a thin sole (see box).
With or without shoes, landing on your forefoot instead of your heels is better on the body, experts say. "About 80 percent of runners land on their heels while wearing shoes," Langer said. "But almost 100 percent of runners will land on their forefoot when going barefoot."
For Ted McDonald of Seattle, the forefoot strike was a turning point in his running life. "It was close to a religious experience," he said, describing his first barefoot jog.
Before abandoning his running shoes, McDonald, 43, had struggled with back pain. But the barefoot style suited him so well that he went on to run several marathons sans shoes and created a blog on the topic (www.barefootted.com).
Going on a test run
My guided run last week started out fine enough, with Laiti running and me following on a bike to get a glimpse of his technique. Then, after abandoning my shoes, I put tender pink soles to the paved path and followed as he floated away, shoulders back, confident in the support of feet chalky and callused from years on the run.
In local running circles, Laiti is known simply as "the barefoot guy," according to Heidi Keller Miler of the Minnesota Distance Running Association. "He runs workouts, races, marathons -- everything barefoot."
Indeed, it was nearly 30 years ago when Laiti left his shoes behind for a run. "I do it because I can," said the 115-pound runner. "It psyches people out."
This autumn will mark Laiti's 27th Twin Cities Marathon, nearly all done without shoes. He has trained several nights a week for decades, barefoot on pavement, grass and trails, from April to October most years. Obstacles, including searing hot pavement in the summer, goose poop around Lake Calhoun and glass on race courses, have not slowed him. "I only complain when they re-tar a trail," he said.
My leap into the barefooting game with Laiti, a 1.5-mile run on pavement and gravel near Cedar Lake, was perhaps an ambitious first go. We cranked quickly up to pace, running past a power-walking couple who squinted at our naked toes, my feet flapping on the path.
"Feeling anything?" Laiti asked.
I was. With each step, grit pricked my toes and gravel dug into my forefeet. The asphalt parts of the trail were more forgiving, smooth-feeling, actually, although bumps, cracks and any aberrations caused tension.
But I was able to maintain an easy, efficient gait, with short, quick steps weighted on the balls of my feet, not much ankle movement and no reliance on my heels. As Laiti and I started to talk, I temporarily forgot about the situation underfoot. At three-quarters of a mile, I noticed the blood. A torn-loose flap of skin, dangled from a pinky toe, signaling my defeat. Pads behind the rest of my toes were also turning red.
The next day, Langer said most podiatrists would not recommend what I had done due to skin injuries, stress factors and heel spurs. "I tell people to start gradually if they want to go barefoot and run on grass, never asphalt or cement," he said.
Sitting in my office, bandaged feet propped up on a chair, I vowed next time to take the doctor's advice.
Stephen Regenold is a Twin Cities writer and author of the syndicated column www.thegearjunkie.com.