Runners finding benefits in taking their shoes off

Jes Constantine always had weak ankles.

Jes Constantine always had weak ankles.

When she played sports in high school and college she taped them for extra support. But a few years ago Constantine took off her shoes and started running and playing barefoot. Her feet, she said, have never felt better.

“More and more runners are starting to take their shoes off,” Constantine said.

Now a fitness instructor at Best Fitness in Albany and Schenectady, Constantine wants to teach others about the benefits of barefoot exercise. She and fellow fitness instructor Jaime Muscato will host two free workouts aimed at introducing adults to shoe-free workouts.

The first workout will be held today at Best Fitness Albany on Central Avenue, from 9 to 11 a.m. The second will be held on Oct. 11 from 9 to 11 a.m. at Best Fitness Schenectady on Watt Street.

“Our bodies evolved a long time before we invented running shoes,” said Constantine, who lives in Rexford. “So padded running shoes might feel comfortable to work out in, but they actually interfere with the natural movement of your muscles and can lead to serious injury.” She said barefoot training can lead to a reduction in knee, hip and back pain, enhanced posture and movement confidence, and that running barefoot builds ankle strength and strengthens the muscles in the feet and the tissues in the joints.

Barefoot running has become more popular in America in the past decade and the publication of the best-selling book “Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” in 2009 helped introduce the concept to a wider audience.

In “Born to Run,” journalist Christopher McDougall, who had suffered repeated injuries as a runner, tracks down members of the Tarahumara Indian tribe in the Mexican Copper Canyons and is amazed by the tribe’s ability to run really long distances without hurting themselves. He modeled his running after the Tarahumara, and his injuries ceased. In the book he suggests that modern running shoes are a major cause of running injuries.

Constantine and Muscato teach a cardiovascular barefoot training workout called willPower & grace, which was developed by Nike Elite instructor Stacey Lei Krauss.

They began teaching willPower & grace in January 2009, and believe they are the only people offering the barefoot, hour-long workout class in the Capital Region.

Constantine said more people are becoming interested in exercising barefoot.

“Our participation numbers are higher than they’ve ever been,” she said. “This is a class everyone can take. It has things to offer new people, seniors and athletes who are in training.”

Constantine said that people should transition to running barefoot gradually. “I would recommend starting with a 10- to 15-minute walk.”

Some barefoot runners wear thin footwear with flexible soles that mold to the feet, such as Vibram FiveFingers.

Researchers at the Skeletal Biology Lab at Harvard University have found that barefoot and minimally shod runners strike the pavement differently than runners with cushioned shoes, putting less pressure on the heel and more pressure on the balls of the feet.

On their website, the researchers write that barefoot runners often have a “softer, more gentle landing, which may reduce their risk of injury. While there are anecdotal reports of barefoot runners being injured less, there is very little scientific evidence to support this hypothesis at this time. Well-controlled studies are needed to determine whether barefoot running results in fewer injuries.”

Some doctors say that barefoot running isn’t good for the feet and can cause injury.

“Most of my patients aren’t world class runners,” podiatrist Stephen Pribut told the magazine Runner’s World in a 2004 article about the trend. “It wouldn’t make sense for them to risk getting twigs and glass in their feet. And I think some soft surfaces increase plantar fascia and Achilles problems. Of course, what doesn’t kill you might make you stronger.”

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