Is Running Without Running Shoes For You?
We Give you the Facts.
It’s a tough world out there for a runner’s feet. Slamming against the ground dozens of times a minute, flying over all kinds of obstacles, chafing and swelling from constant abuse. No wonder most running shoes offer serious structure and cushioning to protect feet from all these possible traumas.
With so many shoe choices available, featuring everything from motion control to enhanced stability, barefoot or “minimalist” running may seem counterproductive: Who would give up the protection of a good pair of running shoes? Yet in the last few years, more and more runners have given up their traditional running shoes in favor of new “minimalist” models…or no shoes at all. Minimalists claim that barefoot or lightly shod running can help prevent common running injuries, build overall strength and even cut seconds or minutes off your running time.
Barefoot running is nothing new. The Tarahumara people of northern Mexico, whose name for themselves means “fast-running people,” regularly run more than a hundred miles a day with no foot protection at all. And famously shoeless Olympians such as Abebe Bikila and Zola Budd introduced this practice to mainstream sports decades ago. “If we were made to run,” minimalist runner and blogger Leif Rustvold says, “we weren’t made to do it in running shoes.”
With the popularity of books such as Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, and with many shoe manufacturers now offering lightweight, low-profile “minimalist” shoes, you may be wondering if you should give barefoot running a try for yourself. Here’s what you need to know before you unlace those shoes and hit the trail.
Know before you go.
Barefoot and minimalist runners agree with podiatrists and other sports professionals: It’s important to understand the rationale behind minimalist running before attempting it yourself. Though barefoot running may seem like a natural, simple act, it takes time to unlearn old running habits and adjust to your new stride.
“It’s important to have a supportive community, no matter what kind of runner you are,” says Rustvold. Whether you connect in person or online, Rustvold recommends reaching out to “people who can answer your questions and share experiences.” Check out the Resources sidebar for some information sources to try.
If you’ve regularly been logging 30 miles a week, all you should have to do is take off your shoes and head out the door, right? Not so fast! “Up to 40% of minimalist runners experience pain, and in many cases suffer more injuries than traditional shoe wearers,” warns Dr. Terry Smith, DPM. He sees hundreds of runners each year at the Advanced Ankle and Foot Center in Salt Lake City, many of whom are overenthusiastic new converts to minimalist running. Barefoot runners are especially likely to suffer Achilles tendon injuries, Smith says, “but most eventually adapt to their new running style.”
Slow and steady is the best way to approach your minimalist training program. Take a tip from minimalist runner Ute Mitchell: “When I first got my Vibram FiveFingers, I ran for just five minutes at a time, then walked the rest of my route. After a week or so, I built up to 10 minutes of running; then, eventually, to 20,” Her gradual training pace has helped her recover from a knee injury she feared would end her running days. “Now, when I run in my ‘barefoot shoes,’ it’s like I’m flying—like I’m levitating over the ground.”
Build strength, then speed.
In addition to trail time in your new minimalist shoes, you’ll want to log some gym time as well. Sean Sullivan, founder of Somnio Shoes, suggests putting yourself into “pre-hab” to get ready for the transition to minimalist running: “By preparing your body with a program of active stretching and strengthening, you can dramatically reduce your chances of injury.” With every pair of its Nada shoes, Somnio includes a training DVD designed to help runners make a successful transition to a minimalist running style.
Minimalist runner Barbara Hammond knows the importance of gradual strength building: “I started by running barefoot on a treadmill. I was recovering from tendonitis after running a marathon in cushioned shoes, and I knew I needed to build up my strength before doing any serious races.” When she first slipped into her new pair of Mizuno Wave Ronin 3s, she says, “I thought I was in heaven!” Her slow and steady training program has had serious speed benefits, too: She’s shaved two minutes off her per-mile distance running time.
Add to your training toolbox.
Not ready to abandon your beloved running shoes just yet? For most runners, minimalist running is a part of their training—not an everyday choice. “Running in minimalist shoes once or twice a week is an excellent way to approach part of your training,” Dr. Smith says. “It alters your cadence dramatically, forces you to take shorter steps, and works your muscles differently. It’s similar to introducing intervals or cross-training into your workout.”
Whether you’re a neighborhood jogger, a weekend 10K runner or a dedicated ultra-marathoner, minimalist running can revitalize your routine, challenge your body and inspire you to reconnect with your sport. Armed with these safety tips and resources, you’re ready to step out of your cushioned shoes and into a new way of running.
- RunBare, runbare.com Articles, videos and more give you all the information you need to start running or walking barefoot.
- Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. This inspiring book is credited with introducing many athletes to the world of minimalist running—and with helping to rekindle the joy of the sport.
- Wharton Performance Center, whartonperformance.com Father and son Olympic trainers Jim and Phil Wharton provide great information on building strength, increasing flexibility and preventing injuries.
Minimalist Shoes: The Bare Essentials
Ready to pare down to a pair of minimalist shoes? We checked out several models at various prices to give you the skinny.
Ecco Bioms Yak Leather
For making the transition from full-featured running shoes to a true minimalist option, consider these lightweight runners. The rounded heel gives you a smoother heel strike, and the low-profile sole offers a more natural feel. $220, eccousa.com
Our tester says: “The Yak leather upper is an interesting concept, and it actually promoted breathability and a comfortable fit. The rounded heel decreases energy loss and provides a smoother heel-toe jog transition.”
Newton Running Neutral Performance Trainer
High performance meets low profile in these flexible, yet durable, shoes. High-rebound midsole material provides cushioning where you need it without unwanted bulk. Recycled materials mean it’s earth-friendly, too! $175, newtonrunning.com
Our tester says: Not only are these shoes nice to look at, they’re also comfortable to run in! But they fit small, so buy half a size up.
Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS
Perhaps the most readily identifiable minimalist running shoe, Vibram FiveFingers have been responsible for many athletes’ conversion to this running style. Now, runners with wider feet or higher insteps can enjoy a more customized, comfortable fit, thanks to the Bikila LS’ speed lace panel. $100, vibramfivefingers.com
Our tester says: “The laces keep your foot secure so you don’t slide around inside the shoe. Expect an odd feeling between your toes for the first few walks around the house to begin your comfort adjustment.”
New Balance Minimus
One of the best-respected names in running gear enters the world of minimalrist shoes with this stylish model. Its slim sole offers just enough protection, while its 4mm heel rise helps runners adopt a more natural gait. $100, newbalance.com
Our tester says: “They’re like Earth Shoes…for running! I love the comfort of Earth Shoes’ dropped heel and wear them everywhere. New Balance has taken that comfort and brought it to a road running shoe. I’m in love. It has no removable insole, but fits perfectly without it.”
Described as a “minimalist-in-a-bag training tool,” this zero-drop shoe comes with plenty of information to get you started on the road to successful, pain-free minimalist running. A pair of women’s size-8s clocks in at just 3.5 ounces per shoe. $80, somniorunning.com