Many people ramp up their barefoot running programs too quickly, which doesn’t allow the muscles in the legs and feet time to catch up.

After hearing a lot about barefoot runningNew York Times Phys Ed columnist Gretchen Reynolds decided to try it out for herself.  An amateur runner for several decades, Reynolds says she thought the transition would be easy. But almost immediately, she got injured.

“I hurt my illiotibial band on the outside of the knee, and I also hurt my Achilles tendon, which I had never done before,” she tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

“A lot of people are trying barefoot running without preparation and without the knowledge of what happens when you take off your running shoes, and I was one [of them]. And what often happens is exactly what happened to me, which is that you almost immediately hurt your Achilles tendon.”

That’s because many people ramp up their barefoot running programs too quickly, which doesn’t allow the muscles in the legs and feet time to catch up, she says. 

“Every muscle in your leg, every tendon, every ligament is used to how you land with shoes on,” says Reynolds. “If you’ve been doing that for 40 years, which many of us have … then your body is very used to that movement to how you hit the ground with shoes on. … You take off your shoes, and even if in theory it’s healthier, you’re not used to it.”

Reynolds, who still runs regularly, is the author of The First 20 Minutes, which details the latest scientific research on running, stretching and hydration techniques. Her advice to potential barefoot runners? Ramp up slowly — and very carefully.

“The single biggest risk factor for a running injury is a prior running injury,” she says. “So if you’ve hurt yourself in the past, you probably need to change how you run. You may need to warm up a little more. Some people like to switch to trails. There’s not actually much science showing that the surface matters, but it definitely matters how many miles you do.”

Among Reynolds’ other findings:

  • Running Will Not Ruin Your Healthy Knees: 

There’s a strong myth that running can ruin your knees, says Reynolds, but that’s not actually true if your knees start out injury-free. “The science actually shows that if you have a healthy knee to start with, running tends to increase the amount of cartilage that you produce,” she says. “Running prompts the cartilage cells, which are the shock absorbers in your knees, to divide and produce more cartilage. So in theory, running is actually healthy for your knees.”

  • Weighing The Pros And Cons Of Heavy Running Shoes: 

If you’ve been investing in heavy running shoes with all sorts of features, you might want to rethink things, says Reynolds. “Science now suggests that [wearing those shoes] probably hurts,” she says. “There are some very good studies that say that people who wear heavy motion-control shoes tend to get injured more often than people who wear any other type of shoe. It doesn’t matter if they do pronate or they don’t pronate. They get injured more if they wear a heavy running shoe.”

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