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Barefoot running is something humans have done pretty much as long as we've been walking upright, but it's also one of the hottest and fastest-growing fitness trends out there. First, there were the barefoot running superpowers of Mexico's Tarahumara Indians and elite Kenyan runners. Then, in 2009, a bestselling book: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Now, those funny-looking barefoot-inspired shoes-you know, the ones with the toes-are popping up everywhere. Is barefoot-style running a fitness trend worth trying-or just an excuse to gear up with some groovy new shoes?

Barefoot Running Benefits

Many runners who switch to barefoot-style running-landing on the fore- or midfoot rather than the heel-find that their aches and pains go away. That's because barefoot running, which forces you to take shorter strides and land on the ball of your foot (instead of your heel), lets your physiology work more efficiently, better cushioning the impact of your foot striking the ground, says Jay Dicharry, an exercise physiologist with the University of Virginia Center for Endurance Sport. This means much less pounding on the ankle, knee and hip joints, which makes you feel better and run easier, Dicharry says. It also allows your feet the freedom to move as they were meant to, which translates into greater foot flexibility and strength, as well as improved balance and stability.

In contrast, modern running shoes confine the feet and "put a big squishy marshmallow under your heel," which conditions us to land on our heels, causing a host of problems, Dicharry says. Rigid soles also reduce the ability of feet to flex. While there's a growing body of research affirming the benefits of barefoot and barefoot-style running, the jury's still out as to whether it's an overall healthier approach to your running workout. If you do want to try it, start slow and follow these guidelines.

Barefoot Running Basics

Before you shed your shoes or invest in fancy, five-toed ones, start to experiment with a forefoot strike on your regular runs using your usual footwear. It will feel strange and awkward at first and you'll probably notice a little extra effort or soreness in your calves. While you're experimenting, spend as much non-running time as possible barefoot to build foot strength and flexibility. Once you're comfortable with the new running technique, try a pair of the barefoot-inspired runners, like the new Nike Free Run+ or the New Balance 100 or 101 (available in October). Take it slow in the new shoes-no more than 10 minutes on your first outing. Increase your time in 5-minute increments until you're comfortably running your usual route-it might take 6 to 8 weeks. Once you've got the new foot strike dialed in, consider moving on to the five-toed poster child of barefoot shoes, the Vibram FiveFingers (try the Sprint, it goes on easier).

"Some people can throw their shoes in the garbage can and run comfortably barefoot for the rest of their lives," Dicharry says. "Some can run barefoot once and get a stress fracture in their foot." Most of us fall somewhere in between and can benefit from the technique, he says. But you do need the proper shoes and must build up slowly: increasing foot strength and flexibility, stretching out tight Achilles tendons and adjusting to this new way of running.

Barefoot Running Shoes

Shoe companies are really going to town with lines of light, über-flexible shoes that behave more like bare feet. The cool thing is that if you're a hardcore runner, you probably don't have to change brands to find one of these. Expect to see an explosion of new models on store shelves come spring, with companies like Saucony, Keen and Merrell entering the fray. Once you're used to flexing your feet more, you'll start wearing your running shoes everywhere-they're that comfortable. And eventually you may be ready to go barefoot in the park: Kick off your shoes and run a while!