This blog will cover the pros and the cons about adopting barefoot or minimal shoes, and everything you need to know about this hotter-than-hot sauce topic before taking the dip.
Since 2004, when Nike released their first Nike Free (Nike), we were all drawn to this interesting looking shoe, fun design, yet shocked by how little it weighted and the lack of structured components (no posting, no difference in cushioning densities used). While this event was our first exposure to minimalistic footwear, barefoot running (or barefoot anything) only became popular circa 2010. Since then, every single footwear company has come up with a minimal or barefoot shoe model and I am sure you have seen many “toe wriggling” advocates around campus, in the gym and on the road (or trails).
But this new athletic trend is still a hot potato. Many experts are arguing about the benefits and problems of using barefoot/minimal footwear. To help you make an educated decision, we sat down with two of our RecSports Certified Personal Trainers (CPT), who also happen to be fitness and endurance addicts, to discuss the advantages and drawbacks of this trend.
Ambre Sheehy, M.S., CPT, has been in the fitness industry since 2009. Ambre currently holds the position of RecSports Coordinator for Fitness, teaches several Group Fitness and Small Group Training classes. In her free time, Ambre is a trail runner and enjoys working out whenever she can (she has an impressive collection of workout shoes in her office). Ambre is a minimal running shoe user.
David Schofield, M.S., CPT, has been a Personal Trainer since 2010. He currently is a RecSports Graduate Assistant for Facility Operations and a Personal Trainer. Dave co-taught the Triathlon Small Group Training class in the spring and the Faster 5K Small Group Training class in the fall. In his free time, David trains for triathlons, does mountain biking, and runs around town. David uses traditional or lightweight running shoes.
RecSports (RS) – What is “barefoot running”?
Ambre – Barefoot running is about using minimal footwear to mimic and encourage natural motion in the lower extremities. Usually barefoot or minimal footwear have a lower heel cup, meaning not as much cushion in the heel, and, in some instances, the toes are separated. With barefoot running, runners land differently on the ground and tend to cover less surface when coming in contact with the ground compared to traditional running shoes. These traditional shoes also inhibit our natural foot striking motion.
David – Barefoot running refers to running literally barefoot, running with minimal shoes, or even running in Vibram FiveFingers®. These shoes are different from regular running shoes and have no structure. What is interesting is that Vibram FiveFingers® were originally designed for yacht racers, as this footwear allowed racers to have a better grip and balance on the boat. The brand has now expanded to all athletic venues.
RS – Why has barefoot running become so popular?
Ambre – I think there has been a general shift in the way people think of fitness and this is highly influenced by the way society is evolving. A couple of years ago, the big trend was aerobic exercise (or cardio). More recently, there has been a bigger societal focus on individualism. In a way, barefoot shoes are a more abstract form of individualism. It is part of functional fitness, which allows to workout with movement of everyday life.
Another aspect of the growth in popularity of barefoot running is that rear foot strikers have more injuries. With cushioned shoe, your foot tends to be seen as one big bone, when you have 26 bones and 33 joint in your feet. But, by mimicking the natural foot motion, barefoot brings back movement into the mix, the articulation that your feet crave. Your feet pick up information from the surface, such as temperature and surface type. Your feet are a complex hub of sensory nerves and spinal segments. So if you cannot feel the surface and react accordingly, it can affect your whole body, from your legs up.
David – The popularity of barefoot running really became apparent with the publishing of the book Born to Run. The author, Christopher McDougall, reinforced the argument that barefoot running can be used to prevent injuries. Following the publishing of the book, it seemed that barefoot running really became popular and so many people became advocates of this trend. And now every shoe company has jumped on the wagon and came out with their own version of minimal/barefoot shoe wear. Unfortunately, a lot of people do not know what the difference is between minimal and traditional footwear. It just looks cool and everyone wears it. I am worried when I see people running with barefoot/minimal shoes on the roads…
RS – How is barefoot/minimal footwear different from traditional running shoes?
David – We all have different biomechanics, different gaits, pronation styles, and arch types (low or high). For example, a person with a high arch, who overpronates (arch collapses and foot rolls inward when landing on the ground) will need some structure in their footwear to avoid injuries, whether it is with structured shoes or foot inserts. It will keep the ankle-knee section aligned and well supported. Barefoot or minimal footwear is the very opposite. These shoes have no support, barely any cushioning and they act more as a protective layer of dense foam or rubber between your foot and the ground.
Ambre – Barefoot shoes are more of a mimic of a second skin and don't have much cushioning or shoe structure, like the Vibram FiveFingers®, for example. Minimal shoes have the same second skin property except they have some cushioning property, like the Nike Free or the Brooks Pure, just to name a few.
RS – Is it a fashion fad or is it a legitimate fitness/running trend?
Ambre – I think barefoot running is going to stick around, as it truly is a functional aspect of fitness. The Nike Free shoes are certainly hot commodities, but minimal footwear will stick around and has its place in functional fitness.
David – The past few years, there has been a desire to go back to our roots, to what our ancestors were using, to make things simple. But no one is arguing that we should sleep on the floor like a caveman because that's what people used to do before all the technology started to develop. Nowadays, we have the means to make things to improve our lives, including running shoes. With the amount of miles that a runner covers, there is a definite need for structure. The absence of a heel cup and a lower heel drop can create Achilles tendonitis (overstretching the Achilles tendon), other calf-related injuries, and stress fractures. The fact that we have a lot more man-made surfaces around us is another problem.
But I think there are some benefits to incorporating barefoot running into your fitness routine. Barefoot/minimal footwear engages more muscles and is more natural. But it should however be done carefully and progressively and should be a well-educated choice, not just a cool thing to do.
RS – Why are some fitness experts and running experts in favor/not in favor of this trend?
David – The idea here is that midfoot or forefoot strikers (the landing is more on the mid-section or front of your foot) are not landing on their heels as much, which is said to have less impact on your lower limbs and body. But this idea originated from studying elite athletes who are going much faster than the average runners. A popular Harvard study that studied the foot strike patterns between minimal and traditional runners a few years ago also focused on studying elite runners. Forefoot running is more a function of speed and anyone, when running faster, will see their gait change into a forefoot running strike. And there has not been a study stating that running shoes are causing injuries. Instead of placing the emphasis on the footwear, I am more concerned with people overstriding, meaning that the heel is landing first, with the foot well ahead of the body’s center of gravity. It may seem more efficient to take longer stride, but in reality it is not and is a source of injury for runners. So as long as your foot strike is under your body’s center of gravity, you are running efficiently. Over the last years, we have seen a lot more people suffering from stress fractures caused by barefoot running. People need to be more educated about it and really adopt this trend cautiously and progressively.
Ambre – Just like anything else, using minimal footwear as part of functional training is not for everyone but it can help with the culprit of shoe cushioning problems, especially in the lower legs. The foot craves articulation; it wants to move, and traditional running shoes are just not offering that flexibility. When I was doing some research on the topic, I found a study that suggested that babies have great dexterity in their lower limbs. The study mentioned that babies should remain barefoot for as long as possible to ensure that the feet muscles are strengthening properly because shoes could affect the development of their feet. But don’t take my word for that. It was just an interesting idea or study I came across.
RS – Are barefoot/minimal shoes appropriate for the gym? Why or why not?
Ambre – Vibram FiveFingers® are definitely the final step to going barefoot, whether outside on the trails or in the gym. It is recommended to start with shoes with less support than your regular footwear and progressively go to a more minimal shoe. There is also an added advantage to using minimal footwear in the gym, because the shoes weigh less and offers a better grip and feel of the exercises; you feel more in control and are more aware of the way you move through your exercises. However, in high movement/high intensity Group Fitness classes, I would be careful with minimal shoes and would recommend using them only for advanced users. There are also some advantages for weight lifters, but again, be cautious and know how to use these shoes.
David – The minimal shoe is appropriate for the gym, for certain people who have good biomechanics. But it is important to start very easy, by walking, running on the grass for short periods until the proper musculature is built. Lightweight trainers (a lighter version of a traditional running shoe) are a good alternative as they still have some structure and would help with sloppy gaits.
RS – Do you run barefoot?
Ambre – Yes I do! But only on soft surfaces and trails. I use minimal footwear for my long runs and workouts and incorporate barefoot running on a grassy field whenever possible. But I never use my minimal shoes on the roads. It’s a big no-no.
David – No I don’t. I use traditional shoes for my long runs and lightweight trainers for my races or faster workouts. At times, I do some strides on the grass, barefoot, but only as a drill or strengthening exercise. However, I wear Nike Frees in the gym.
RS – How would you approach this hot topic, if a client would be interested in giving barefoot/minimal running a shot? And would you advise against it or encourage him/her to try?
Ambre – As part of functional training, I would help my client break it down into steps. The first step would be walking 10 min. or so, on the floors at home, without shoes, and master walking barefoot for up to one hour. Then, as a second step, we would start walking and jogging with minimal footwear on soft surface. Once the body is adjusted to that exercise, it is a good time to start running on the trails and slowly increase the distance. So you notice it is a real progression, and it takes some time to adapt. But these steps are important to remain injury free and be stronger.
David – I would first go over some basics with my client, like looking at the wear pattern, the “age” (how many miles or how old the shoes are). This is an important part as shoes have a usual lifespan of 300 miles, for an average person. I would also tell my client to make sure that their running/athletic shoes are different from their everyday footwear. And I would use minimal shoes or barefoot training as part of strengthening, functional training, to strengthen weak ankles and lower limbs. I would also incorporate some barefoot running at the end of a workout as cool down, on a soft surface. But I would not suggest them to run long distances, or use them for prolonged period of time, on man-made surfaces.
Your RecSports Personal Trainers will hold a barefoot/minimal footwear seminar on March 30, 2013. Stay tuned for more details. In the meantime, if you have any questions on the topic, feel free to send us a message on our Facebook page or email us, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bowman, Katy. “Barefoot Training Guidelines.” IDEA Fit Website. Published: December 2011. Website.
Burfoot, Amby. “Barefoot Running, Two Sides of a Very Hot Topic.” Runner’s World Magazine. Published: Jan. 12, 2010. Website.
Gainesville Trails & Gainesville Parks. Website.
PTontheNet. Maximizing Your Minimalist Footwear. Published: March 13, 2012. Website.
PTontheNet. How Foot Mechanics Impact Barefoot/Minimalist Training. Published: Nov. 17, 2010. Website.
Reynolds, Gretchen. “Making the Case for Running Shoes.” The New York Times Online, Wellness Section. Published: March 21, 2012. Website.
The Sports Physiotherapist. The Running Shoe: Excellent Shoe or Excellent Marketing. Published: March 29, 2012. Website.