The Barefoot-Running Debate: Is Less More? (Preview)

A new crop of ‘minimalist’ shoes has emerged, sparking debate over what we should wear on our feet – and how the running shoe of the future will look.


Posted: 3 March 2011
by Bob Parks

Researchers collect data on barefoot running at the Nike Lab

Cushioning evolution

Turn back the clock to the early 1970s, a time of big hair, bell-bottom jeans... and waif-like running shoes epitomised by the Waffle Trainer, created when legendary University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman used his wife's waffle press to add a cushy tread to the bottom of a racing flat. This made for a running shoe that was grippier on the road and paved the way for the birth of Nike.

In the ensuing years, though, shoe companies began to add more cushioning to their products. Many researchers believed then (and many still do) that runners needed cushioning, both in the forefoot and the heel, to absorb the shock from the road.

But because the cushioning lifts the heel off the ground, additional hardware such as medial posts and plastic shanks were added to the midsole to provide stability and counter the effects of overpronation (the twisting that occurs when your ankle rolls too far inward). The result: the introduction of so-called stability and motion-control shoes, whose features can be seen in such popular models as Asics' 370g Gel-Kayano and New Balance's 425g 1012.

"For the past 30 years, it has been bulk, bulk, bulk," says Ned Frederick, a biomechanics consultant for shoe companies. "People added more cushioning because we were competing for that soft ride everyone was after."

Minimalist models

But like hemlines, pocket handkerchiefs and pleated trousers, it seems running shoes - both in style and substance - are subject to consumers' changing demands. Many shoemakers have begun to engineer minimalist models with new low-to-the-ground designs and ultralight materials that still provide cushioning while increasing flexibility.

Some of these new shoes have heel heights of just 8mm, compared with, say, the 38mm of the Brooks Beast, a popular motion-control shoe. And more light, pliable and lower-heeled shoes are coming.

"Watch how minimal goes to a dozen brands in 2011," says Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NDP Group, a market research firm. "We're looking at point-of-sale data from the stores. In mid 2010, it was around two per cent of sales for all running shoes. By next year, it could be double digits." (Still, while any shake-up in the £3.2 billion running shoe market is news, the size of the 'minimalist shoe' market is fairly small, no more than 10 per cent of running shoes, according to Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource.)

What may be more resounding than revenue, though, is the role the shoes can play in helping to defuse the perception that running-shoe makers sell only overbuilt, overcushioned footwear. "If you're making money from a puffy running shoe, and all of a sudden people are saying the product may not be good for you, you have to address that," says Greg Dutter, editorial director of the trade magazine Footwear Plus.

The debate continues

And yet beyond the bandwagon marketing of the current minimal trend, companies continue to invest a great deal into researching what runners really do need. Often, their research revolves around cushioning. Now, with the rage in lightweight shoes upon us, the question becomes, how low do you go?

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Discuss this article

Have you tried running barefoot and if so, are you a convert? What tips do you have? What minimalist shoes can't you live without?

We'd love to know your views on the big barefoot debate!


Posted: 02/03/2011 at 11:03

I run in Newtons and Five Fingers, I'm not a convert and have always run in the way I run, and these shoes really seem to suit me.
I think barefoot and minimalist  shoes is a fashion trend at the moment and something which is presented as being better for you when not enough research has been done into the subject.
The most common sentence you hear from zeloted barefoot runners are comments such as "its natural" or  "its running as nature intended" which I think is OK if you live in a field..... I live in central London where we have unnatural man made surfaces like concrete and tarmac.

I expect more and more shoe manufacturers will jump on the bandwagon, simply because it makes money. I think someone needs to do real independent research into the subject.


Posted: 02/03/2011 at 20:41

Terra Plana Neos. Very flexible, protection from glass, dog poop etc. and wide enough in the toe box (most running shoes are too narrow for me). I wanted to change from heel striking and have found these help (along with thinking about landing with my feet under me, faster cadence, more upright etc.).
Posted: 03/03/2011 at 08:59

Well I am recent convert to so called barefoot running...Used to run in normal trainers and suffered hell and foot injuries so tried at first nike air rifts minimal cushioning and found my injuries all but dissipated after about a month so now have taken the plunge and purchased Fivefingers Bikeli and having run only twice in them I can safely say I will not be running in anything else. My runs are faster longer and injury free!!
Posted: 03/03/2011 at 16:21

garner45 wrote (see)
Well I am recent convert to so called barefoot running...Used to run in normal trainers and suffered hell and foot injuries so tried at first nike air rifts minimal cushioning and found my injuries all but dissipated after about a month so now have taken the plunge and purchased Fivefingers Bikeli and having run only twice in them I can safely say I will not be running in anything else. My runs are faster longer and injury free!!

 welcome to the forum mr vibram

I like my five fingers but i still do the bulk of my training in trainers.

if you look at race photos, its clear a lot of runners (those further back) would benefit from just learning some running basics!


Posted: 03/03/2011 at 17:08

One thread in response to the article above:

"Is Less More?" - Barefoot forum please?

I originally went barefoot for a while from about 5 years old (+/- a year) during a school holidays to perhaps about the age of 7 and I have some interesting snippets of memory about what was possible and how easy and fantasticly quick it was to pick it up at that age.

40 odd years later and from about November 2010 I started to try barefoot again (no shoes barefoot that is). It is a much slower transition now I'm older but it's been very interesting and fun. I'm not saying I will never use running shoes again, infact I'm always on the lookout for a backup & have already tried a number of them. I hope to find a suitable shoe at some point but for now, I'm more than happy to just go fully barefoot.

To the person above who was bothered about man-made surfaces, stuff like concrete and tarmac are easy if they're smooth. The stuff with embedded stones sticking out is a bit of a trial for me at the moment but I know I could cover flint trails as a kid and I know experienced barefoot runners can cope with the rough man-made stuff too.

I considered barefoot after spending most of the time on the bench following a number of years in conventional running shoes and injuries that seemed to combine with each other. I wanted to run and if I could have done it the default way of just grabbing some "top of the range" (or any) running shoes and getting on with it I would have done so. My last injury kept me away from running for 2 years, I was so green with envy at all of you enjoying it!

I go (fully) barefoot now because allows me to run. I'm happy with that.


Posted: 03/03/2011 at 20:26

I got stranded at a friends without my running shoes, he had a tredmill, so i thought i could try a few miles without trainers.....fel wierd, my ankles were very sore and my feet felt 'flat'. basically i am not an imediate convert. My dads a doctor, he recons theres muscles in your foot which we shoe wearers just dont use and it would take a long time to accostum to barefoot running, then you would stand on a piece of glass and all would be over...


Posted: 03/03/2011 at 20:37

Your dad is correct of course. It takes a little time to adjust to barefoot if you've been in conventional shoes for a long time. Don't expect to do a marathon from day 1. There are some very good articles at the top of the RW sister .com site in the barefoot forum at the top. Here.

It's all simple stuff; start barefoot around your house for a few weeks, add a minute or so on the spot "run" (I found I preferred an actual mini run for this) and so on.

The BRS mentioned in the article have wagon loads of great stuff about it too. The BRS here.

I'm a bit of an old git so it's taken me about 2 months to get up to 5K, depending on the surface. Other people get there much quicker. There's one bloke around here who did 2 (road based) marathons in a row (2 week gap I think) fully barefoot. Some people do 100+ miles in minimals. I'm happy just to be able to run any miles!

In essence, if you want to try barefoot or minimalist shoes then just take it slow to start with, so you don't suffer too much too soon TMTS.


Posted: 03/03/2011 at 21:14

I just had to reply to you, Squeak.

You think "barefoot... is a fashion trend?"  Seriously?  It's a fashion trend to run/live barefoot?  Hmmm.  I wonder what the creator thinks of that.  Our feet are fashion trends.  Are our arms, legs, necks, etc., fashion trends too?

..."not enough research has been done into the subject?"  How much research has been done to prove that shoes help people and don't harm them?  Nada, nilch, zip, nothing, ZERO!  Just thought you should know.  It's all hype by the shoe companies as it always has been.  A simple Internet search will prove this.

"I live in central London where we have unnatural man made surfaces like concrete and tarmac."  And you think running with an inch and a half of foam covered by rubber and having your feet enclosed in caskets is natural?  Motion control, pronation control, cushioning, etc., etc., that's natural?  Really?

Your feet are not as defective as you have apparently been led to believe by the shoe manufacturers and some in the podiatric community.  God didn't create a perfect species but came up short when it came to the feet.  Think about it.


Posted: 03/03/2011 at 21:17

As for standing on glass, it obviously would be a potential issue if you actually did that. You will find that if you run barefoot one of the things that you instinctively do is look much more at the ground in front because foot placement is obviously going to be of more interest. That really does avoid most of the issues.

I think that there is a small chance that you will pick up a splinter but I consider the risk of an extra day off to be trivial compared to the years off with injuries I use to get. For me the trade off is simple, a few extra quick to fix things now or jump in some shoes and not know what is building up until you're side lined.

A lot of the more experienced barefoot runners say that glass is a very minor problem. If you check the barefoot forums the percentage of runners "on the bench" is very very low.


Posted: 03/03/2011 at 21:24

1) Standing on glass - been there done that. I don't wear shoes around the home or garden or quite often if I'm just going to walk down the road. Can't say that I watch foot placement that much - you'll walk into lamposts if you spend all your time focusing on the ground.

2) Barefoot TJ Barefoot TJ - Barefoot / minimalist running is a fashion trend. We are talking about what we choose to wear on our feet - not the fact that we have feet. Very different.

3) There is plenty of research on running in this shoe, that shoe the other shoe. Not all of it positive but it's out there you just need go look for it.

BTW - no such thing as God.

My feet are nothing like yours - put together by my genes and they are far from perfect.

going barefoot can lead to serious injury, which is why as a child my school insisted we wear shoes after my little sister chopped her toes off on a piece of string.


Posted: 03/03/2011 at 22:18

Hey biker-mouse,

1) I see what you're saying. I don't mean that you just look at the ground, I mean you look at that (and other stuff in your way) more than when using shoes in an instinctive way, or at least I think I do! I frequently run on pavement made of concrete slabs and find that I don't really put any great "thought" into avoiding the cracks where the slabs stick up, it's sort of taken care of to some extent (kind of like a built in helping hand - your brain probably picks up a lot from peripheral vision but a glance at your anticipated route now & then helps a lot).

2) I agree that some people will be hooked for it as a fashion thing. But for me (and others) that is not the case. I've never been one to follow fashion, (if you saw me you'd agree right away I expect!). For me it's just to find a way to run, any way that works, that is fun and, for me, this has worked (and is fun) so far.

3) Yes, there's lots of research. I think what TJ is saying is that there's actually nothing scientific and "correctly" reviewed that most companies can point to for why any shoe is like it is. That may go for many/all shoes on both sides of the debate. We can all be seduced by spin if we have a want.

Yes, feet sure are all different. They mostly have the same basic characteristics, some affected more by modern life or the chance of genetics etc. than others. Life is not a one thing fits all. I think many people could run in cushiony shoes and some do so for decades. I also think many people could run barefoot given the inclination (like me). Actually I think most people could do either and I don't need to push anything here, but happy to add my perspective on things.

Sad to hear your sis' hurt herself, hope she's fine now. I hurt myself in running shoes.

I think there's a chance that either way you *could* end up with a problem. I don't think that barefoot presents more of a risk in most cases, just different risks which I would say are (typically) summed up as follows:

  • Cushiony shoes: low immediate risk, high long term risk.
  • Barefoot: increased immediate risk, low long term risk.

I gather that appropriately reviewed independent scientific research backs this up in a convincingly high number of cases.


Posted: 03/03/2011 at 23:17

In reply to Dominique who asks:

  1. Have you tried running barefoot and if so, are you a convert?
  2. What tips do you have?
  3. What minimalist shoes can't you live without?".

 For me:

  1. Yes, I remember doing this as a kid over the school holidays. 40 years later I've been giving it another go since November 2010 (in fact you can see my 1st run when starting again here). Am I a convert? Yes I am.
  2. Tips; Get advice from the barefoot forum "stickies" for people new to barefoot. Do it at least a bit to begin with using no shoes at all if possible. Take it slow, I did about 0.1 miles to start with and added about that each time. If it hurts then stop, take an extra day+ off, perhaps consult the forums to find out why. You MUST land "mid" foot (on the pads just behind your toes) and then LET YOUR HEEL TOUCH down (don't try to stay on your toes). Have fun, some people may give you funny looks, enjoy!
  3. There are no minimalist shoes I can live without yet. I keep a pair of plimsolls in a bum bag for back up on longer runs, (I am still learning). I want to find something better than the plimsolls I have & keep trying the new "barefoot" shoes but, for me, I've not found "the" shoes.

Posted: 04/03/2011 at 00:41

I should correct my answer to number 3 above:

3. There are no minimalist shoes I can't live without yet. I keep a pair of plimsolls in a bum bag for back up on longer runs, (I am still learning). I want to find something better than the plimsolls I have & keep trying the new "barefoot" shoes but, for me, I've not found "the" shoes.

It was late by then .

Yes, there are no running shoes that I can not live without yet. I hope that the manufacturers get there one day so we can all have the best of both worlds.

I do use minimalist shoes when not running but out & about. I've not found any of those that I'm entirely happy with either. Most of the time I use Terra Plana "Aqua's" but they slap the pavement too much for my liking. I've not found much that does not do this except perhaps huaraches which I will probably use in the summer if I don't come across anything better.


Posted: 04/03/2011 at 11:48

I've got a pair of Fivefingers and love them. They're part of a range of shoes I wear throughout the week:
standard Adidas trainers (neutral)
off-road trail shoes
Fivefingers

and I've also got xc spikes for xc races and various light(er)weight shoes for racing - Nike Mayflys for 5k, Saucony Fastwitch for 5mile/10k and Nike marathoners for HM's.

I like the Fivefingers as they help me to learn to develop a quicker cadence and stop me over-striding. I can't run fast / do speedwork in them (sub 7min miling) but for short distances (<5 miles) at 8min mile+ pace they're great. I run on pavements and tarmac in them and don't have a problem with the surfaces.
I don't think I'd ever go completely to running in them 100% of the time but as a training tool for a mid-pack runner they're worthwhile


Posted: 04/03/2011 at 11:49

I run in Vibram Five Fingers for 99% of my runs - both on road and off road, covering about 50 - 60 miles a week. No real problems to speak of and whilst my 'normal' pace is about 7.50 I have run much quicker in them. I've done one marathon and a number of 10k's again without any problems.

The Vibrams are expensive but I ordered mine from the US and got them brought over by a friend. They work out much cheaper that way.

I have run barefoot but whilst the Vibrams are not perfect they are a happy medium.

Would definitely recommend them.


Posted: 04/03/2011 at 13:05

Piggyback Rideplease wrote (see)
To the person above who was bothered about man-made surfaces, stuff like concrete and tarmac are easy if they're smooth.


First of all I never said I was bothered about man made surfaces. The fact that they are also smooth is not at all relevant. Man evolved running on surfaces which give less impact than you get from compressed concrete used for paving slabs. This is not speculation density tests have shown this.
As such I was questioning the logic of running in minimalist shoes on very dense surfaces simply because we have not evolved to run on surfaces such as concrete. As such the question must be asked do we need protection when running on surfaces such as this to deal with the impact?
I followed this by stating that not enough research has been done which I feel is true.

Barefoot TJ Barefoot TJ wrote (see)

I just had to reply to you, Squeak.

You think "barefoot... is a fashion trend?"  Seriously?  It's a fashion trend to run/live barefoot?  Hmmm.  I wonder what the creator thinks of that.  Our feet are fashion trends.  Are our arms, legs, necks, etc., fashion trends too?


If you wish to be pedantic it is your right just as it is mine to believe in science rather than a higher being.  My point was that from a shoe manufacturer perspective, nike, adidas, asics etc will jump on the bandwagon simply because it is an additional market. I do not think that they will do any worth while research simply because they have not done this for the high weight high cushion shoes they also sell.

I'm indifferent about barefoot. I use Newtons, Vibrams and even run with no shoes on what so ever in the right locations because it suits the way I run. Yes I am a barefoot runner !!!

I think that not enough research has been done at this time to make any conclusion, however some people continue to present it as the cure for all issues. How many people running barefoot at the moment have done so long term, compared to the number of people running with supported shoes for example the last 20 year.
Just by volume you will hear of more people being injured with supportive running shoes.

All I am asking for in decent independent research which provides information or evidence. Some people are converts or believers in all sorts of things which have little scientific evidence supporting the belief and although I recect their views I simply prefer to remain remain open minded while I await solid evidence.

People should find what works for them and be happy


Posted: 04/03/2011 at 17:26

I've done a lot of miles BF and in Vibrams on the treadmill, but only a few outdoors. One thing I do know is that, if I'm relegated to a treadmill workout, I get far less DOMS after a BF / Vibram session than I do when I've worn shoes. I've read articles from renowned sports doctors that have suggested BF running changes the way we pronate. This would explain, as pronation can ripple all the way up the body, effectively putting many muscles at risk of DOMS or over-use injuries.

BTW - Numerous studies, most recently the Harvard one published in nature, but several others going back to the '70s (I've seen them) all concur that the BF running style subjects the joints to upwards of 4x less impact. However, this means the achilles, calves and associated muscles take extra strain. 

What is needed is an objective study comparing injury rates between FF strikers and Heel Strikers. I believe BF running form, particularly high cadence and low contact time, will create fewer injuries. However, you need muscle condition and training to get this right, which your average jogger simply won't have.


Posted: 05/03/2011 at 01:09

There are impact studies that show the force generated from both a heel strike and a barefoot strike. They show that with a heel strike the force is disipated though more of a spike.

With solid man made surfaces like smooth concrete barefoot is even easier than with soft surfaces as you can ramp up the cadence and return more of the energy via the elastic properties of the arch etc. so you put less energy in yourself for a given speed (by about 4% I gather). There is also the bonus that less time is spent between each step than with a heel plant (that uses lower cadence) so the (already lower barefoot) force required is more evenly distributed (i.e. less force applied more frequently resulting a lower total impact).

I'm not sure if Dominique RW was asking for the technical stuff and I never quite understand why most barefoot related debates on RW UK head this way. We all want to run, we don't have to agree on all the facets of any given method. People are free to run how they like, we don't need to argue about it at *every* chance!

Have you tried running barefoot and if so, are you a convert? What tips do you have? What minimalist shoes can't you live without? 


Posted: 05/03/2011 at 12:36

The US army is now offering its folks a training course to reduce injury rates through use of barefoot/forefoot landing etc.

See the 3rd entry in this posting on the BRS site: Here.