Arms pumping, eyes scanning the ground ahead, Dean Laiti runs east on a sidewalk in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, his feet swishing like sandpaper on cement below. "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, a 48-year-old finance worker, has volunteered to teach me to run the way nature intended.
That would mean barefoot—without shoes and striding, skin and toes to nothing but asphalt as we bound east toward the skyline of downtown Minneapolis beyond.
"Watch out for that gravel," Laiti says, pointing to a bed of rocks beside the path. He runs feet gracing the ground, calloused pads contacting pavement in an almost soundless stride.
I tag behind, feet slapping, wincing as my toes tread on a medium I've 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.
Historically, 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.
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 shoes and promoting an unnatural gait where the heel—not the forefoot—was made to absorb impact on each stride.
Langer saw injuries ranging from shin splints to tweaked knees, often the maladies originating at least in part from bad form and pavement pounding in shoes that disabled the natural flex of the foot.
Beginning in the last five years—due to new research and consumer demand—companies started selling shoes that give control back to the foot.
Nike's Free shoe line, as one example, attempts 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, an Italian company, released its FiveFingers "foot glove" in 2006 with articulated toes and a thin sole.
With or without shoes on, the technique of landing on your midfoot or forefoot instead of your heels is better on the body say running experts like Langer. "About 80 percent of runners land on their heels while wearing shoes," he said. "But almost 100 percent of runners will land on their forefoot when going barefoot."