Dare to Bare: The Truth about Barefoot Running

We investigate whether the key to better running is really what you wear – or don’t wear – on your feet



by Sam Murphy

chris mcdougall sam murphy
Sam with Born to Run author Chris McDougall

So, is this the great shock’n’sole swindle?

Purists are scathing about the brands paying lip service to minimalism. “It’s about giving people what they want rather than what they need,” says Saxby.

But Nick Pearson, managing director of Sweatshop, the largest running shoe retailer in the UK, believes there is a genuine place for these more moderate products. “They won’t change your gait, but they may help you get stronger and reduce your risk of injury,” he says.

And perhaps just as importantly, from a marketing point of view, they might make you feel as if you’re part of what’s new and exciting in running.

Manufacturers jump on the band wagon

The idea of ‘semi barefoot’ footwear to help runners transition from traditional cushioned shoes is catching on among manufacturers.

One British brand, Inov-8, has a fittingly innovative solution: its minimalist range is rated using ‘arrows’ – the fewer arrows on the shoe, the more minimalist it is, allowing you to transition your way through the range over time, until you’re in the featherweight, 150g Bare-X Lite.

“It seems logical that you gradually reduce the level of cushioning in your shoes, but it’s based on the wrong premise,” says Saxby. That premise being that it’s the shoes that are at the heart of the matter and not how you run.

Form vs shoes

“No shoe can protect you from the forces of running, so if you aren’t going to change your form to handle those forces more efficiently, then stick with traditional padded trainers.”

I see Saxby’s point, but in my experience I think ‘transitional’ shoes have their place in reacquainting runners with what’s beneath their feet and facilitating a more natural running style.

Sweatshop offers a wide range of minimalist shoes across its stores. Two London branches stock the Vivobarefoot brand which, with no cushioning and a sole just 4mm thick, could be described as truly barefoot (the company has even sent staff from the stores on a barefoot coaching course to ensure they dispense the right advice).

But if Sweatshop has bought into barefoot, then how can it justify the remaining 99 per cent of its stock being old-school trainers?  

“The industry has been guilty of making too many outrageous claims about what a shoe can do for you that cannot be substantiated,” says Pearson. “It’s often presented as a black and white scenario: buy the right shoe and you won’t get injured; get the wrong shoe and you will.”

But, he points out, that’s just as much of a problem with barefoot and minimalist shoes as it has been historically with traditional shoes.

McDougall agrees. “My concern is that the barefoot trend is being led by products,” he says. “The minimalist shoe

industry is now worth $1.7 billion. You’ve got many of the major shoe companies making minimal shoes but not telling people how to run in them. The shoes don’t change anything – it’s your form
that needs to change.”

Time to adapt

And therein lies the difficulty for companies such as Sweatshop. “Moving away from conventional footwear requires a period of adaptation,” explains Pearson. “And while a customer might have read Born to Run and have been inspired and excited by it, in reality they may not have the time or commitment required to change their gait or gain the conditioning needed to adapt successfully.”

And if they don’t? “As a retailer, our role is to inform, educate and protect the consumer – they need to understand the choice they are making,” says Pearson. “There’s a quantum difference between something like a Vivobarefoot, with no cushioning or heel raise whatsoever, and a Saucony Kinvara, which is really more just tilting its hat to minimalism.”

According to Spencer White, head of Saucony’s Human Performance and Innovation Laboratory, the Kinvara is designed to allow you to heel strike if you need to. “When you’re in the process of changing your gait, you will still heel strike occasionally, say, when you’re getting tired,” he says.

In fact, Saucony’s Step into Minimalism brochure recommends using minimal shoes for just short bouts to begin with, supplemented by runs in your ‘normal’ shoes.

Mininalism-lite shoes

This ‘minimalism-lite’ category of shoes, which tend to be lightweight, less cushioned and less structured, might sound like the perfect compromise for someone who wants to dip their toes into natural running. (The Kinvara has become Saucony’s third most popular shoe.)

But some experts see them as a red herring. “It’s much easier to change your form in a non-cushioned shoe,” says Jay Dicharry, director of the Speed Performance Clinic at the University of Virginia and a leading researcher and lecturer on running biomechanics, injuries and footwear.

Saxby couldn’t agree more. As we fall into step on a second lap of Governors Island, both of us unshod, he makes an observation. “A lot of these people have got rid of their shoes, or put on a pair of FiveFingers or whatever, but they’re still running with crap technique,” he says, with characteristic bluntness.

“When I see injuries in people running barefoot or in minimal shoes it’s because they haven’t changed their form. Learn the technique, and build the conditioning to back it up.”

On the next page: How to change your form and the getting-started barefoot basics.


Previous page
Dare to Bare: The Truth about Barefoot Running
Next page

 
TwitterStumbleUponFacebookDiggRedditGoogle

Discuss this article

Are Nike Free minimalist? Well, compare them to something like the "Invisible Shoes", which are really sandals made out of a thin piece of rubber.

In short, just because some company says "minimal" or "barefoot" that doesn't mean they are.

And even though Vivo says their shoes are only 4mm thick at the soles (same as the Invisible Shoe), they have MUCH less "barefoot feel" because the sole is stiffer.

So, even in the minimal world, language is still not quite clear or standardized, and this could cause some problems.


Posted: 05/03/2012 at 21:45

Hi Lou

Yes I think I make that point in the article - some companies just stick the word 'natural' or 'minimal' on their products to make them more marketable when they're anything but.

Have to disagree about VBs though - they are super-flexible - and if you take out the insole (which is advised on the box) then groundfeel is excellent. A bit too good methinks when I'm running up the stony path sometimes!


Posted: 06/03/2012 at 19:47

Minimalist running has been very good to me, going from an injured 125 miles a year to an uninjured 650 miles a year.

 Barefoot hasn't been quite so kind however, as my form is not quite there yet, and there is no where to hide.  Minimalist shoes, whether trail gloves or huaraches can hide form defects and let you run faster.  I've had several foot shredding runs in barefeet.  I'm still learning though


Posted: 06/03/2012 at 21:11

Yes, it is about running form. And the best (only?) way to learn good running form is to let the nerve endings in your feet do what they were designed to do - feel the ground. It just doesn't work the same when you have a layer of rubber bandaging your feet. When else have you worn a rubber/latex sheath?

Minimalist shoes are causing an epidemic of stress fractures, which are used to blame "barefoot" running! Save your regular $100 shoe payments, plus medical bills. Use what you were given. The adjustment will take a few months, but you'll be so much happier. I speak from experience of overcoming chronic shin splints, ITBS and plantar fasciitis.

Run Barefoot Run Healthy <-Now at an Amazon near you.


Posted: 07/03/2012 at 19:08

Ashish Mukharji wrote (see)

 When else have you worn a rubber/latex sheath?


Ooooh matron
Posted: 07/03/2012 at 22:26

I bought a pair of Brooks Pure at the end of January and broke them in gradually. 1 run per week, then 2 and so on. It is a lot of fun studying your own style, like learning to walk again, trying it slow, then fast, noticing your different footfalls etc.

The end result after 2 months? My RE pace has gone from 5.0 mpk to 4.5 mpk, my Yasso pace has gone from 3.6 mpk to 3.42 mpk and I have no plantar or achilles problems after a 40 km run - what's really amazing is that none of this feels any harder then before.

The real tests are about to come when I run the Stramilano Half Marathon on 25 March then the Milan Marathon on 15th April.

I am quietly confident. 


Posted: 08/03/2012 at 14:49

Ashish Mukharji wrote (see)

Yes, it is about running form. And the best (only?) way to learn good running form is to let the nerve endings in your feet do what they were designed to do - feel the ground. It just doesn't work the same when you have a layer of rubber bandaging your feet. When else have you worn a rubber/latex sheath?

Minimalist shoes are causing an epidemic of stress fractures, which are used to blame "barefoot" running! Save your regular $100 shoe payments, plus medical bills. Use what you were given. The adjustment will take a few months, but you'll be so much happier. I speak from experience of overcoming chronic shin splints, ITBS and plantar fasciitis.

Run Barefoot Run Healthy <-Now at an Amazon near you.

Do you have any evidence for the 'epidemic of stress fractures', or a comparison in terms of the number of injuries through minimalist running compared to other runners (either those running barefoot or those running in more 'traditional' style shoes)?

Or is it just anecdotal evidence?


Posted: 08/03/2012 at 15:56

Ashish Mukharji wrote (see)

Yes, it is about running form. And the best (only?) way to learn good running form is to let the nerve endings in your feet do what they were designed to do - feel the ground. It just doesn't work the same when you have a layer of rubber bandaging your feet. When else have you worn a rubber/latex sheath?

Minimalist shoes are causing an epidemic of stress fractures, which are used to blame "barefoot" running! Save your regular $100 shoe payments, plus medical bills. Use what you were given. The adjustment will take a few months, but you'll be so much happier. I speak from experience of overcoming chronic shin splints, ITBS and plantar fasciitis.

Run Barefoot Run Healthy <-Now at an Amazon near you.

Do you have any evidence for the 'epidemic of stress fractures', or a comparison in terms of the number of injuries through 'minimalist' running compared to other runners (either those running barefoot or those running in more 'traditional' style shoes)?

Or is it just anecdotal evidence?


Posted: 08/03/2012 at 15:59

Essentially one can label shoes as minimalist/"barefoot" or "traditional", by the type of injuries runners tend to incure while running in them.

"Traditional" running shoes comfortably allow runners to land with excess impact, especially heel-striking (as well as other forces, including skidding, scuffing, etc.). Therefore, we tend to see more chronic knee and back pain caused by repeated excess impact over many miles.

Minimalist (or "Barefoot") shoes make heel-striking less comfortable, and if anyone has read Dr. Lieberman's website, or McDougall's book "Born to Run" people running in these "shoes" tend to use more of a fore-foot landing/strike.

The problem is they often adapt only a fore-foot landing, and change little else (relaxing, bending the knees, letting the heels touch down), then they put excess stress on the calves, achilles, and the foot itself (which now has none of the support it may have become used to - lazy - over the past years/decades of running in highly supportive shoes), leading to stress fractures in the feet (usually proceeded by sore calves and Achilles).


Posted: 01/04/2012 at 19:40

Welcome to the forum, Ken. I really hope you stick around. 


Posted: 25/04/2012 at 15:51

I've been running in vibram five fingers for over a year now, my feet and legs are so much stronger. The concern I have is what shoe should i run a marathon in? For over six years ive been using new balance trainers which are good for some one who is 6ft 2in and 89kg, but i now find them really cumbersome and heavy on my feet...surely i shouldnt run a marathon in my vibram five fingers??
Posted: 28/04/2012 at 05:31

I have just tried running barefoot following 15 years or so of barely running because I have been in so much pain with shin splints and achilles tendon injuries.

 I am pain free when I run barefoot. The physics makes perfect sense to me. I wish that more people looked at the science.

 I will be very happy indeed if I can go back to running, having once been a promising fell-runner ticking off elite distances as if they were a stroll in the park. I am astounded at how good the foot is at dealing with the forces of impact barefoot. It works how it was designed to work. If you think this is a question of form then you are being over-tolerant of people who support incorrect science. Barefoot is how we were made, barefoot is how we should go. No contest. Problems increase when we increase distance and footfalls. No puzzling contradictions there.


Posted: 06/06/2012 at 16:38

running barefoot wont make anyone tougher tougher, just made oneself more attentive to ones own body and the surroundings. As the old Tarahumara saying goes :

“If you run with the earth and you run on the earth, you can run forever”

Check out the details in the blog written by Kowsik : http://freeradical.me/2012/11/09/does-running-barefoot-make-you-a-tough-guy/


Posted: 30/11/2012 at 06:11

We'd love you to add a comment! Please login or take half a minute to register as a free member

Smart Coach
Free, fully-personalized training plans, designed to suit your racing goals and your lifestyle.