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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tempted to join the barefoot running craze?
Begin with baby steps, experts say. Turning those tender feet into all-terrain vehicles takes time.
"The question isn't whether you can become barefoot walker or runner. The question is are you patient enough to start slowly," said Michael Sandler, a Colorado-based running and walking expert.
"Your body will become stronger than when you were relying on those crutches we call shoes," he said, "but it's a gradual process."
Sandler, who has coached athletes for nearly 20 years, discovered barefoot running after a skating accident in 2006 left him with a titanium hip and femur and the prediction that he would never run again. Going shoeless, he says, saved his athletic life.
His book, "Barefoot Running," written with his partner Jessica Lee, is a step-by-step guide for easing the burgeoning barefoot and the minimally shod into a more grounded running experience.
"Like growing a tree from the roots up," he said. "Start with barefoot walking, only 100 yards (on the first day) and you're done," he said. "On the second day, rest and recover, then do 200 yards and rest again ..."
The book also contains an array of foot-strengthening exercises, such as standing on and crunching the toes and rolling small balls underfoot.
"The foot isn't the weak thing we've been told it is," he explained. "The arch, if you think of it as a bridge between heel and toe, is stronger under pressure. But if you want a strong foot, you need strong toes."
The longer we keep children out of their shoes, Sandler contends, the stronger their feet will be. And seniors who go barefoot can balance better.
"The scariest thing for seniors is falling," he said. "If you can't feel that crack in the sidewalk, you fall."
Not a purist, Sandler recommends minimal shoes, including ballet flats, tai chi shoes and moccasins, for those needing, or wanting, the extra comfort or protection.
The danger, he said, is that "minimalist shoes can make you feel invulnerable before your feet have had the chance to adapt."
And adapt they must.
For safety's sake and to lessen wear and tear, barefoot runners must leave behind the heavy heel-strike pattern of the heavily-cushioned jogger and adopt a forefoot landing, according to Dr. Cedric Bryant of the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
But old footfall habits die hard.
Bryant said a recent ACE-commissioned study using a sock-style shoe designed to simulate barefoot running, found that half the 16 women, all healthy recreational joggers, fitted with the shoes failed to adjust to the lighter stride.
"Despite giving subjects a two-week accommodation, half of them couldn't relearn to adopt the forefoot landing pattern," Bryant said. "Heel striking has been so ingrained that it's automatic."
The exercises in Sandler's book might help, Bryant said.
"It wouldn't be prudent for someone to suddenly switch," he explained.
And shoeless may not fit everyone.
"I'd have a hard time suggesting it to people fitted with orthotics that are doing a good job," he said. "Don't fix it if it's not broken."
Sandler likes to say running barefoot is running aware foot.
"Go barefoot if it's fun," he urges the novice, adding it is wiser to be the tortoise, than the hare.