Barefoot running versus minimalist shoes

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Currently, the ever-present question in the running world is: to run barefoot or to not run barefoot? Barefoot running is all the rage these days, with many barefooters swearing it has helped improve their running. They claim that sneakers tend to distort our running, making us run in a less optimal manner. Some barefoot runners run barefoot all or most of the time, weather permitting. Others may do it occasionally as a form of cross-training.

While it is true that barefoot running has different biomechanics and running economy than running with sneakers, what little science we have doesn’t confirm most of the benefits barefooters regularly tout. Barefooters often claim that running sneaker-less encourages landing on the forefoot(as opposed to running with sneakers which encourages landing on the heel), which they claim reduces the risk of injury. This isn’t necessarily true, and there is little evidence of reduced injury due to barefoot running.

Of course, there are some rather obvious issues with running barefoot for more than a few miles, like callouses, and blisters, among other things. As a compromise, some people wear minimalist shoes while running. They are like socks but with extra padding for the soles of your feet. They are supposed to be just like barefoot running bio-mechanically, while providing just enough protection for your feet.

The point of this blog post though isn’t to answer the question of whether or not barefoot running is better, but if minimalist shoe running is bio-mechanically equivalent to running barefoot. According to
Running in a minimalist and lightweight shoe is not the same as running barefoot: a biomechanical study:

CONCLUSIONS:

Barefoot running was different to all shod conditions. Barefoot running changes the amount of work done at the knee and ankle joints and this may have therapeutic and performance implications for runners.

So it looks like minimalist shoe running is not the same as barefoot running, at least when it comes to bio-mechanics. As for me, I’ve never tried barefoot running for more than a few miles. The most common arguments for it are unpersuasive to me since they are almost always based on a very common logical fallacy I’m a bit tired of: The naturalistic fallacy – “it’s more natural, therefore it’s better!”. I did a post on this fallacy a while back: Radioactive Brazil nuts and the naturalistic fallacy

I will of course continue to look into this and I hope more good research is done on the bigger question of barefoot running, rather than how minimalist shoes compare with it. I may try doing it occasionally if I have the time, just as an experiment, even though I find the arguments for it unpersuasive at best.

Have you tried barefoot running or running in minimalist shoes? Have you experienced any benefits from it?

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8 responses to “Barefoot running versus minimalist shoes

  1. If I run near where I live (not often enough, unfortunately!) or at the gym I wear “normal” runners / joggers to protect my feet from stones, provide cushioning against the concrete or bitumen, etc… but if I’m at the beach I’ll go barefoot in the sand because I like how it feels. I’m intrigued by the minimalist shoes though – have you tried them?

  2. Ouch. I can’t imagine. Barefooters must run on the balls of their feet to avoid stones hitting their insteps. Wouldn’t you have to build up tough soles over a period of years? The minimalist shoes sound like a good idea.

  3. I’ld like to give another reason for running barefoot or even in the buff for that matter: the more diverse tactile sensations we experience, the more alive we really are. And I’m not speaking metaphorically here. By covering ourselves, we are transforming all the different signals we receive into a single dull monotone; and the brain quickly blocks that out. Think about it: what are your feet feeling right now? If they are in a pair of shoes, every step will feel the same. But if you are barefoot, every step is rich in tactile sensation. Even feeling the wind across the tops of your feet. Increasing the granularity of what we experience eventually increases the granularity of the mind. Increasing your granularity of awareness is equivalent to being more alive. This is the reason I took up barefoot running a few years ago. To be more alive.

  4. Thank you for your post, Jim! In no way was this post meant as a putdown of the subjective experience of barefoot running; if it feels good, keep doing it. However, some people claim it helps prevent injuries or improves speed or form. The evidence is lacking for these objective benefits.

    I may occasionally run on grass for maybe 1/4 mile tops, so I kind of know what you’re getting at. For a variety of reasons, I don’t want to run barefoot beyond this distance. I’m glad barefoot running makes you feel more alive. Joggling makes me feel the same way. Cheers!

  5. No problem, Chris. I didn’t take it as a putdown. BTW, I’ve been into joggling for the last two years. Ironically, my reasons for joggling are far more objective than those for barefoot running: I do it because it really sucks the oxygen out of you — when I run competitively without the pins, I get much better time — it’s a great training technique. There’s a pic of me running in a race with the pins about a 1/3 of the way down in this article:

    For the last year, I’ve been working on a series of consecutive tricks while running: backcrosses, flourishes, pirouettes, etc.

  6. Meant “2/3 of the way down” and wow! didn’t mean for the article link to auto-expand in the blog (was just trying to get to the pic).

  7. That’s impressive Jim! I can only juggle/joggle balls, I don’t juggle clubs or anything else(yet), and at most I can juggle 4. I totally know what you mean, and I can understand why clubs would be so much more challenging than balls and why if you joggled during training but not during races, you’d get enormous benefits from the joggling. I can do some tricks, but hardly as good of a joggler as you.

    That’s kind of why the balls I train with(Sil-X balls full of silicone) are slightly heavier compared to the balls I race with(bean bags). Been busy these days training for the Yonkers marathon with just a few days of tapering left. It was great reading that article about you, don’t worry about it. Have fun with your next race Jim!

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