Hot new trend: More runners going barefoot

Naples resident Mitchell Norgart runs barefoot along a section of beach near Gulfshore Boulevard North on Friday, Aug. 20, 2010, in Naples. Norgart, the president of the Gulf Coast Runners and a co-owner of Naples On The Run, sometimes kicks off his running shoes to run barefoot on the beach because he says it strengthens his legs and helps prevent injury. David Albers/Staff

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Naples resident Mitchell Norgart runs barefoot along a section of beach near Gulfshore Boulevard North on Friday, Aug. 20, 2010, in Naples. Norgart, the president of the Gulf Coast Runners and a co-owner of Naples On The Run, sometimes kicks off his running shoes to run barefoot on the beach because he says it strengthens his legs and helps prevent injury. David Albers/Staff

Nothing separates the sole of Mitch Norgart’s feet and the soil of the earth.

As the co-owner of Naples on the Run and president of Gulf Coast Runners, he’s an experienced runner who loves the sport. But, he does it in a unique way — without shoes.

“Running is the best way for me to start my day,” Norgart said. “I go whether it’s raining or not. Actually I like when it’s raining and I have to go out against the elements. It makes me feel so good after.”

This 52-year-old says he’s always been an avid runner and continues to jog five days a week. He currently devotes one of those mornings to a barefoot run with his wife, Erica.

Norgart thinks barefoot running helps strengthen the Achilles tendons and calves if done in moderation. Going shoeless requires runners to land more on the balls of their feet instead of the sole with each stride.

Because running barefoot produces less impact on the feet, proponents of the sport claim it helps eliminate sore knees and inflamed arches.

Norgart started experimenting with barefoot running about 10 or 11 years ago when he was conducting running camps at local high schools. He would conclude the event with exercises involving barefoot running.

He says the sport is slowly gaining recognition in Southwest Florida. In fact, 10 other members of Gulf Coast Runners are regular barefoot runners.

“Most people are still wearing conventional running shoes,” he said. “But I think barefoot running is definitely gaining popularity.”

Author Chris McDougall agrees. The rural Pennsylvania runner first went shoeless in 2005 as an attempt to find a low-impact exercise. He has since written a book on the sport called “Born to Run.”

While jogging, McDougall would suffer from frequent leg pains, so he searched for a new way to run.

“I was injured all the time,” he said.“I’ve been told for years by doctors that running is bad for you or that I needed to switch the shoes I was wearing.”

He decided to explore this theory.

“There are people in the world who wear virtually nothing on their feet,” McDougall said. “And, those people are running injury-free into their 70s and 80s.”

The author said running shoes force feet into a position that causes runners to land on the heel, which can result in injuries. Legs, not shoes, McDougall said, are the best shock-absorbers.

Running barefoot has been working for humans for 200 years, McDougall said. It’s not about the foot wear — it’s about the form.

“Why are we the only animal on the planet earth that needs to put on fancy shoes to run?” McDougall asked.

Norgart doesn’t believe running barefoot will ever replace running with shoes. Both Norgart and McDougall, however, think the sport has become popular because people are realizing the benefits.

“It really strengthens the foot if done in moderation,” Norgart said. “People really need to educate themselves better on how to do it properly, where to do it and what is a proper distance. You’re more prone to injury if you don’t do your research.”

He also encourages interested participants to start slowly. It’s important, Norgart said, to go short distances on soft surfaces so runners can condition their feet for hard surfaces like pavement.

Fort Myers orthopedic specialist Jeremy Schwartz is no stranger to running injuries. He deals with approximately 20 injuries per week. He says those injuries are rarely associated with barefoot running. He thinks the reasoning for that is because the sport only recently gained popularity.

The vast majority of runners are still using shoes.

“We don’t know all the answers yet since it’s so fairly new,” he said.

Schwartz said barefoot running could be more challenging for runners who land on their heel after their stride. He recommends speaking to a running specialist and having that person look at your technique to make sure running barefoot will work for you. He also says if you’re not experiencing ailments he would caution runners from changing their routine.

“If you’ve struggled with injuries, your speed, your endurance or are not satisifed with your current running style, then contact a specialist to see if barefoot running can work for you.”

A strong supporter of the sport, McDougall doesn’t see much downside to running without shoes.

“I believe there is an unnecessary controversy about this,” he said. “It’s very misguided. It’s not about the shoe industry being evil people or the risk of stepping on glass or not protecting your feet from surfaces. It’s about the fundamentals of running. It’s about a better or worse way to run.”

He also says there is no evidence or studies that demonstrate shoes prevent injuries.

“Why is it always about your shoes?” he asks. “I wonder what they told Geronimo? ‘Hey, your moccasins don’t work.’”

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