A Shoe Guy’s Take On Barefoot Running And Minimalism

Photo: Mario Fraioli | Competitor

There is no ideal type of running shoe, but there’s something for everyone.

Before coming on board at Competitor in 2010, I worked as the manager of a specialty running shop, where I got the following question from customers no less than twice a day when working on the floor:

“So, what do you think about barefoot running and minimalist shoes?”

My answer was always the same: for most runners, I believe that shedding your shoes for a short period of time a few times a week is an excellent supplementary strengthening exercise, but suddenly going sans shoes or switching to minimalist footwear isn’t going to solve all your injury problems—or even decrease the likelihood of future injuries, for that matter. If anything, I’d add, you’ll actually be encouraging the onset of injury if you’re not careful about what’s on (or not on) your feet.

Before I go any further, let me be clear: I am not against barefoot running or running in minimalist footwear. In fact, as a flat-footed forefoot striker, I train in many shoes that are categorized as racing flats and, when the weather permits, I love to do barefoot strides on grass. Why? Because it works for me, and my build, mechanics and gait allow for it.

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But just because running in less of a shoe works for me doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. The beauty of running shoes is that they come in all shapes and sizes, from barely-there slippers to overbuilt boats and everything imaginable in between. And while there’s no magic formula to fitting someone in a pair of shoes that’s going to make all their aches and pains go away, there are lots of excellent options available that will address each individual’s needs and help minimize the risk of injury.

I would tell customers who came into the store for a fitting that running shoes are tools—they are not magic bullets. A lot of runners are in search of the shoe that’s going to make their plantar fasciitis disappear or stop their knee from hurting. Sorry folks, but to my knowledge no such shoe exists. Same goes for shoes the purport to tone your legs and make your butt look better, but that’s a topic I’ll save for another day. The same principle applies when it comes to running barefoot or training in less (or more) of a shoe. Neither approach is any more likely to cure all your woes than a heavily posted motion control shoe or one of the maximally cushioned tanks that seems to be all the rage right now.

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When a customer would come to see me for a shoe fitting, it was my job to assist him or her in finding a tool that fit their foot well and enhanced their running experience while allowing them to run with the lowest risk of injury. Sometimes that ended up being a cushioned trainer, other times a stability or motion control shoe and, in some cases, a performance trainer or even a racing flat. At the end of the day one’s not better than the other and there’s no good or bad, right or wrong. The best type of shoe to run in is the one that works best for the individual.

In the long run—pun intended—most every runner will benefit from sprinkling some small doses of barefoot or almost-barefoot running into his or her training. After an initial adaptation period of getting used to having nothing or next to nothing on your foot, progressing to the point where you can do a set of barefoot strides a few times a week or cooling down for 10-15 minutes on grass after a workout will strengthen your feet and lower legs, lessening the likelihood of annoying overuse injuries brought about my repetitive stress on weakened muscles, ligaments and tendons that have been underused by years of wearing shoes. That’s not to bash running shoes, but the fact of the matter is that our longstanding reliance on artificial protection for our feet has lead to a reduction in range of motion. They’ve also given muscles, ligaments and tendons permission not to work as hard to propel the body forward and absorb impact.

Back to the tool analogy: you don’t always need a hammer to drive a nail; sometimes the end of a wrench works just as well to get the job done. The same principle applies to running footwear. Not every flat-footed pronator will feel comfortable in a pair of stability shoes; sometimes a lightweight trainer or racing flat will do the trick, regardless of what the wet test shows or what my eyes see when you’re on the treadmill. At the end of the day, it can be beneficial to have a few different options in your toolbox. Competitor editor-in-chief and fellow shoe guy Brian Metzler recommends developing a quiver of shoes. “If you are alternating between several pairs in your quiver,” he says, “you’re less likely to be prone to overuse injuries because your gait habits and foot strikes change slightly in different shoes, and you’re not going to wear out shoes quite as fast.” After performing literally thousands of shoe fittings, I’ve come to conclude that there are no “rules” when it comes to finding the right running shoe. The right running shoe is the one that fits the best, feels most comfortable on your foot when you slide it on and addresses your own individual needs when you spring into motion. And for some, I realize that the right running shoe may be no shoe at all. If that’s you, congratulations, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

We’re a society of shoe wearers—have been for a while, probably will be for a long time. I’ve seen running shoes of all types work wonders for a lot of people. And while it’s pretty clear that running shoes are going anywhere anytime soon, I do believe that all runners can benefit from giving some overdue attention to the muscles and other movers in our feet that have been neglected since we first learned how to lace up a pair of sneaks. The combination of a properly fitting pair of shoes and some supplementary strengthening work in the form of barefoot running or training in a less-structured shoe, will keep your hooves happy and the risk of injury minimal.

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