Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're a lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Barefoot Revolution: Why It's Hot and Why It's Not

I know I am opening up a can of worms with this topic. And I am completely okay with that! I have not read Born to Run though I hear it is a great read. I have however read a lot of articles and done a lot of personal research on the biomechanics of running and why barefoot is good/bad for you. Also, in this post I will probably use the words "barefoot" and "minimalist" running interchangeable. Yes, I do understand that some people run completely barefoot while others consider themselves barefoot runners but still wear shoes that are very light or zero drop. But for all intents and purposes of this post, I will use them as one and the same.

So, with that garbage out of the way, here is my take on whether or not you should ditch your shoes for a pair of those frog-toed Vibram Five Fingers....

Men's Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove (10.5 M in Olympia)Vibram Fivefingers Bikila (45 Mens, Light Grey/Palm/Dark Grey) - M345Women's Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove (8.5 M in Chili Pepper)Saucony Womens Progrid Kinvara - Discontinued Style Blue/Black Running shoe Sz: 10
Running barefoot or in minimalistic type shoes can be incredibly beneficial. I believe there are two main benefits to barefoot/minimalist running. The first being that it greatly reduces a heel strike type running form. I personally believe, as do many research studies, that heel striking is one of the biggest factors in causing injury.

A barefoot/minimalist shoe reduces the amount of cushion in the heel area. Without that cushion you realize how painful it is to land directly on your heel. This forces you to start landing with a mid-foot strike. Mid-foot strike running is much easier on your joints, especially knees and shins. Also, look at the lean of the girl pictured in the GOOD running form above. See how she is automatically leaning more forward? This will help you run faster with less effort. When you land on your heel, not only are you sending that shock force up through your shins and knees, you are also causing yourself to brake with every step. Your body has to work much harder to overcome that braking force than it does when you are leaning forward and landing mid-foot. Side note about form: When you lean forward make sure you are not breaking at the waist and bending over. As in the stick people pictured above, your whole body should be included in the lean. Its more from your pelvis and not from your waist.

Another awesome benefit from running in minimalist shoes or barefoot is how it strengthens your feet and legs. Think of it like a baby chicken. If you break away its shell for the chick and don't let it do it on its own, it will never be strong enough to fly. Same with all the cushion special pronator shoes. When you baby your body its whole life, it will never get strong. Your body learns to rely on the cushiony supportive feel of shoes. However, since your body's mechanics are not made for this (and the type of running it generally supports) you are likely to get injured. 

This video is AWESOME for explaining good form and a mid-foot strike. Hopefully it will better explain what I am trying to show with my lovely drawings above :)
I believe many runners would benefit from doing one completely barefoot run a week around a grassy area. Hopefully you have heard that you need to ease into barefoot/minimalist running. If your body is not accustomed to it, you are going to be sore at first. You will use different muscles and place more strain on certain parts of your body than it is used to. But you will be strengthening your body in a good way. As you run barefoot you should notice how your form changes. When you go back to wearing shoes, try to remember that feeling and recreate it. Whenever I am at a park, whether for speed work or for a recovery run, I run barefoot. You need to be careful though when dealing with pine cones, rocks, unidentified objects, etc.

With all those benefits to the minimalist movement are you feeling convinced you should try it? Sure, if you want. But I am not a believer that it suits everyone. In fact, I disagree that every runner should join the "revolution". If you are happy and comfortable with what you are running in now, why switch? Not everyone will benefit from it. If you don't make the switch safely, or if you don't fix your running form with the switch you could actually increase your risk for injury. Also, running barefoot can be dangerous in the fact that you could step on something sharp/hard/poisonous. It takes a long time for your feet to become callused enough to run completely barefoot.

I love running in light-weight shoes. Not necessarily because they are generally more of a minimalist type shoe but because I don't want to lug the extra weight around. Also, I don't like a lot of squishy cushion when I run. I feel like it takes away my spring and makes me feel sluggish or sticky. But that is my preference. I do enjoy a more cushioned shoe when doing trail than when doing speed work or tempo on road and grass. I have two pairs of running shoes. A lighter more "barefoot" shoe and a heavier (though still light) more "cushioned" shoe.

When buying shoes, if you want a true minimalist/barefoot shoe you have to get what is called a "zero drop" shoe. That means there is no change in height from the heel to the toe. Many light-weight shoes that claim to be minimalist are not zero-drop. They are usually still less of a drop than other normal shoes though. But shoes such as the Nike Free, Nike LunarElite, Saucony Kinvara and Asics Gel Speedstar are technically not true barefoot shoes. That being said, it is okay. You don't have to get a true barefoot shoe to still get the benefits of running barefoot. The LunarElite and the Kinvaras are my favorite running shoes ever I think. I can definitely tell a difference in my form and in the strength of my feet and legs from running in these lightweight less of a drop shoes. 

I hope this has provided a different perspective on running barefoot and the minimalist movement. While there are many benefits, I don't think everyone needs to chuck their favorite pair of shoes. Do what you like best. Experiment. Try running barefoot. Try fixing your form! That is the message I hope you get from this article. Form is more important than what shoe or lack of shoe you are wearing. Read more on how to fix your form here.

These are some good resources if you want to check out more on barefoot running:
Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Vintage)Barefoot Running Step by Step: Barefoot Ken Bob, the Guru of Shoeless Running, Shares His Personal Technique for Running with More Speed, Less Impact, Fewer Injuries and More FunThe Barefoot Running Book Second Edition: A Practical Guide to the Art and Science of Barefoot and Minimalist Shoe RunningThe Barefoot Running Book Second Edition: A Practical Guide to the Art and Science of Barefoot and Minimalist Shoe RunningThe Barefoot Running Book Second Edition: A Practical Guide to the Art and Science of Barefoot and Minimalist Shoe RunningThe Minimalist Runner: Transitioning From Traditional Running Shoes To Minimalist Running Shoes (Volume 1)


  1. I'd love to know your thoughts on Chi running. It seems like from you article you would be for it. I am just now reading about it. I am a heel striker and am working on changing the way I run. Great article!

  2. Great article. I am not convinced barefoot running would be for me. I am afraid of getting injured. But, I would like to fix my form and always wondered about those barefoot shoes.

  3. I love my Vibrams!!! I've used them since the beginning of my running experience and will never run in a traditional running shoe because of them. Not only are your balance and form benefitting but many people (including myself) get relief from injuries from wearing them. My hips used to kill me when I would run (which is why I never got into it like I have now) but the pain is nonexistent now. If you can't tell by now I LOVE LOVE LOVE these shoes and will recommend them to every person I see :)


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