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  • SH10C139RUNNINGBAREFOOT March 24, 2010 -- Members of Florida Free Runners meet four times a week for running drills and techniques, which they do while barefoot. (SHNS photo by Carrie Pratt / St. Petersburg Times)
Sunday, April 11, 2010

Barefoot runners discovering their stride naturally

Barefoot guru Hank Campbell insists he isn’t opposed to running shoes.

“They have their place,” said Campbell, one of the top road runners in the Tampa Bay area in Florida. “But I think everybody could benefit from a little barefoot training in their training schedule.”

Campbell, 30, a St. Petersburg-based endurance-sports coach, has the record to prove it. He was the top local runner at this year’s Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K, and just a week later in early March, he won the Belleair Classic 5K and 10K on the same day.

“I’ve been running barefoot for years,” he said. “Any serious runner who tries it will see an improvement.”

Running barefoot is nothing new. The athletes of antiquity ran sans shoes. And in the modern era, several shoeless superstars have made their mark on the sport.

Perhaps the most famous was legendary Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila, who in 1960 won the Olympic gold medal in Rome. Bikila set a world record of 2 hours, 15 minutes, 16 seconds without the help of fancy running shoes.

Two decades later, another African, this one from the southern half of the continent, thrust barefoot running back in the public view. In 1984, a teenager named Zola Budd made history when she broke the 5,000-meter world record by more than 6 seconds – barefoot.

Interest in barefoot running faded, but then was rekindled last year with the release of Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run.” McDougall spent time and ran with Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, a tribe whose members can run amazing distances at Olympic-caliber speeds, all without shoes.

“Put on shoes and they change the way we are supposed to run,” Campbell said. “But all you have to do is watch the way most kids run, then you will see how it’s supposed to be done.”

Campbell has a few dozen committed disciples, most of whom are accomplished road racers or triathletes, who regularly attend his weekly training sessions.

“He has changed my whole running technique,” said Jessica Koelsch, 40, an adventure racer from St. Petersburg. “It seems like with less work, I am a better runner.”

Koelsch, who said she’s relatively new to the sport, has seen dramatic results. In February, she won the Gasparilla Michelob Ultra, posting the best combined times in the 15K, 5K and marathon races.

“Running barefoot is all about form and technique,” Campbell said. “When you run in shoes, your feet are not really in touch with the surface. Without shoes, you really focus on how you should run.”

Much has been written about barefoot running in the last year. Experts ranging from Harvard researchers to the editors at Runner’s World have joined in the debate.

But the bottom line is this: When you run without shoes, the ball of your foot is the first thing to hit the ground. Throw on a pair of running shoes, and many runners land heel first, which barefoot proponents contend may lead to injuries.

Many podiatrists preach caution when it comes to barefoot running. The modern world has many hazards – nails, screws, broken glass – that can seriously damage bare feet.

But some orthopedic surgeons see a benefit to a regular barefoot regimen.

“There is literature out there that suggests that, in some cases, running shoes may actually reduce performance,” said Dr. Charles Finn, medical director of the Advanced Spine Center at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

“There are actually fewer injuries … less stress on the knees, hips and spine” in barefoot runners.

But Finn cautioned that a barefoot-training regimen isn’t something to adopt overnight.

“It definitely is something that you should build up to gradually,” he said.

Many runners start by simply buying a lighter pair of running shoes than the thickly padded models most runners wear. But runners who are heavier and need added support and cushioning, or those who need added stability (motion control), should think twice about changing shoes without professional guidance.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.