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Barefoot Running Hits Boston

City Sports hosts big names in barefoot running during Boston Marathon weekend.

Written By: Mario Fraioli

One look at the feet of the crowd gathered inside City Sports on Boylston Street Saturday morning and it quickly became apparent this was not a footwear fashion contest.

The gathering of about 100 strong shed their shoes in unison for the Vibram FiveFingers All-Star Barefoot Running Clinic, featuring Vibram spokesperson Corrado Giambalvo, Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman, as well as author of the wildly popular book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall. Co-sponsored by Vibram and City Sports, the event was aimed at educating the masses about minimalist running, a movement which has gone viral as a result of McDougal’s best-selling book.

“This is a project in self-experimentation,” Giambalvo said. “The greatest aspect of this movement is re-educating your feet and re-experiencing the joy of running.”

Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist, has studied the role of running amongst different cultures of people throughout history and says that research suggests humans were designed to run. Running shoes, he said, take away from the organic nature of the activity.

“We weren’t born to run, we evolved to run,” Lieberman explained. “Our bodies are designed by evolution to run. You don’t need shoes to run.”

“The attendance here this morning is testament to how little is actually known about (barefoot running),” McDougall added. “I’m happy that Vibram and City Sports are doing this to give people the opportunity to learn how to use the product properly. Throughout history, running has been an activity that has been associated with vitality and freedom. Only recently has it been associated with pain and fear.”

In his opening speech, McDougall went on to tell the story of how after suffering through years of incessant injuries many different doctors and physical therapists told him that he simply shouldn’t run. He tried everything, from stretching and rehabilitative exercises to corrective orthotics. Nothing worked until he shed his shoes and started running barefoot.

“It took a while,” McDougall said of the transition to running sans shoes. “You can’t just take off your shoes, go out the door and run five miles. There is a technique to it. The best way to relearn this thing is to shut down the brain and listen to the feet.”

After the initial introduction by McDougall, Giambalvo and Lieberman, attendees broke into smaller groups to learn the basics of running barefoot before heading outside to put their newly learned techniques into practice. The trio emphasized re-learning how to run by encouraging a forefoot strike, taking shorter strides and employing a faster turnover.

“You need to start slowly because if you don’t you will injure yourself,” Lieberman advised. “It’s a relearning process, but when you emerge on the other end you’ll wonder why you ever wanted to heel strike in the first place.”

Giambalvo, a veteran marathoner and running coach in his native Italy, used a metronomic beeping device with his group to teach proper cadence as a warmup exercise before heading outside to practice running barefoot on the sidewalk alongside Boston Common. He encouraged runners to be light on their feet and to use quick strides. Running in such a way, he said, lessens the likelihood of injury and increases the enjoyment of the activity.

“This is the way we learn to be quick and light on our feet,” Giambalvo explained to the group. “When you have a high turnover rate, contact time with the ground decreases. You learn to use your quads more so your heels aren’t taking any of the impact.”

Lauren Adams, Northeast Marketing Manager for City Sports, was excited with the response to Saturday’s event and felt fortunate to have McDougal, Lieberman and Giambalvo on hand to educate a curious crowd and bring people together on Marathon weekend.

“It was important for us to do the event this weekend not only to educate, but to bring people together,” said Lauren Adams, Northeast Marketing Manager for City Sports. “Vibram is a great partner of ours, so it was nice to put on such a great event for so many interested customers. The response was fantastic and by publicizing it through social media everyone was really geared up. We’re really excited about it.”

Giambalvo, who will run Monday’s marathon in a pair of Vibram’s, said that educational events like the one hosted by City Sports are a good way for runners to face their fears with others who share a similar type of uncertainty when it comes to trying something different.

“I think an event like this is important because you get acquainted with other people that are doing something which you are unsure about,” Giambalvo said. “Luckily there’s a lot of stuff on the web which is contradictory, sometimes outright critical, and I think that’s good. This is a hands-on kind of experience. You need to try it. You need to confront yourself with what it is that you’re doing.”