The more time you spend around barefoot running and minimalist running — the more articles you read in magazines and newspapers, the more interviews you hear with doctors or runners, the more stories you see on the news, the more websites you see about it, the more research you hear about it — the more often you’ll hear one particular admonition.
Actually, if the piece is supportive of running barefoot, you’ll hear it as a recommendation. If the piece is anti-barefoot, then it’ll be a warning.
And that bit of instruction/caution is:
Transition to barefoot running SLOWLY. If you make the transition too quickly, you’ll get hurt.
Admittedly, even on this site I say something that could sound similar about how to start running barefoot.
But to focus on how quickly or slowly you make the transition is to miss the point. Running barefoot safely and enjoyably isn’t about whether it takes you a day, a week, or a year to do so. It’s about HOW you make the transition, not HOW LONG it takes to make it.
It’s about form and function, not about seconds on the clock.
In other words, the keys to running barefoot are following a few rules: Continue Reading
While barefoot running isn’t new, it’s popularity has been going through the roof since Christopher McDougall’s book, Born To Run, became popular in 2009.
Ironically, Born To Run isn’t really about barefoot running. It’s about the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyon of Mexico and how they’re able to run pain-free and injury free for hundreds of miles, well into their 70s. It’s about the first ever ultramarathon held in the Copper Canyon. It’s about the fascinating characters around this race. And it’s about Chris’s exploration of safer, more enjoyable running.
By the way, if you haven’t read the book, you must. It’s a great, exciting read, whether you’re a runner or not. And, admittedly, I make fun of the fact that barefoot runners treat this book like the bible in my video, Sh*t Barefoot Runners Say and the follow-up, Sh*t Runners Say To Barefoot Runners.
It happens that around the time the book was becoming popular, one of the people featured in the book published a study about barefoot running. That person is Dr. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University and, in a nutshell, what Daniel showed was:
- Runners in shoes tend to land on their heels, essentially using the padding built into the shoes
- Landing in this manner sends a massive jolt of force (called an impact transient force spike) through the ankles, knees, hips, and into the spine
- Runners who run barefoot tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot, with the landing point nearer to the body’s center of mass (not out in front of the body, like shod runners)
- Barefoot runners use the natural shock-absorbing, spring-like mechanism of the muscles, ligaments and tendons within and around the foot, the ankle, the knee, and the hip.
- Barefoot runners do not create the impact transient force spike through their joints
In short, running shoes could be the cause of the very injuries for which they’re sold as cures!
Take off your shoes and you’re less likely to land in a biomechanically compromised manner.
This seems to explain why people who run barefoot often report the elimination of injuries (that were caused by bad form that they no longer use) and, more importantly, that running is more fun!
Now it’s not all as simple as this.
The shoe companies, realizing that barefoot was becoming a big deal, began selling “barefoot shoes”… most of which are no more barefoot than a pair of stilts.
Even the Vibram Fivefingers, which look like bare feet, aren’t necessarily as barefoot as they appear.
In an independent study, runners in Xero Shoes (formerly Invisible Shoes) were found to be biomechanically identical to when they were barefoot.
The key to successful barefoot running seems to be the ability to use the nerves in your feet, to Feel The World. Basically, if you try to run barefoot the same way you do when you’re in shoes, IT HURTS!
Figure out how to do what doesn’t hurt and you’ll be running in a way that’s more fun and less likely to cause injuries.
Now, I know it’s not as simple as that, and I’m the first to admit that the science supporting barefoot running isn’t in yet. But, then again, there’s no science that shows that running shoes are helpful.
Think about this: people lived for millions of years without shoes, or without anything more than a pair of sandals like Xero Shoes or a pair of moccasins. Runners ran successfully up until the 1970s with shoes that had no padding, no pronation control, no orthotics, and no high-tech materials.
The three parts of our body that have the most nerve endings are our hands, our mouths and our feet. There’s only one of those that we regularly cover and make numb to the world… does that seem right?
Put a limb in a cast and it comes out of the cast a month later atrophied and weaker. When you you bind your feet in shoes that don’t let your foot flex or feel the earth, isn’t that similar to putting it in a cast (or as barefoot runners like to say, a “foot coffin”)?
There’s a lot more on this site about what the benefits of barefoot running — and walking, and hiking, and dancing, and playing — may be. If you have any questions, ask them here, or on our Forum. Or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Pinterest.
Join the conversation. Join the conversion. Feel The World!
When I tell people that I run barefoot (or when they see me out running without any shoes), the first response I get is
“Oh, so you run on the grass?”
Or when I suggest to people that they might want to try running barefoot, the first thing they say is,
“With my feet/knees/ankles/eyelashes, I’d need to run on the grass.”
I mean, it makes sense, right?
Grass is soft. Feet are soft. Therefore, feet should be on grass.
Barefoot = Grass is the common wisdom.
But wisdom is rarely common, and what’s common is rarely wise.
Here’s what I can tell you, though. And it’s not just me, every accomplished barefoot runner I know will say the same thing. And all the other good coaches I know agree.
In fact, what I’m about to say is SO true, that if you meet a coach who tells you otherwise, RUN AWAY (barefoot or not, I don’t care) from this person as quickly as you can, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Here it is:
THE WORST SURFACE for learning to run barefoot is GRASS.
Three big reasons:
- BIG: Who knows what’s hiding in the grass. If you can’t see it, you might step on it.
- BIGGER: One of the principles of barefoot running is that you don’t use cushioning in your shoes… well, when you run on grass, you’ve basically taken the cushioning out of your shoes and put it into the ground.
- BIGGEST: Running on grass, or any smooth surface does not give you the feedback you need about your barefoot form to help you change and improve your form.
The best surface for barefoot running is NOT grass or sand or anything soft, but the smoothest and hardest surface you can find.
For me, here in Boulder, Colorado, we have miles and miles of bike path.
In New York City, the sidewalks are perfect!
So, what makes a hard, smooth surface the best? It’s the biggest reason, from above:
Grass and sand and soft surfaces are too forgiving of bad form.
Hard smooth surfaces tell you, with every step, whether you’re using the right form.
If it hurts, you’re not.
If you end up with blisters, you didn’t.
Pay close attention and each step is giving you information about how to run lighter, easier, faster, longer.
I’ll never forget going out on the University of Colorado sidewalks with the Boulder Barefoot Running Club. I had a blister on the ball of my left foot (more about that in another lesson). But I decided to see if I could run in such a way that I didn’t hurt .
At first, each step sent a shooting pain up my leg. Then I made some adjustments and I just felt the friction on the ball of my foot.
By the end of the first mile, I had made some other adjustments — using each step as an experiment — and the next thing I knew I was picking up the pace while putting out less energy than ever. I was running faster and easier than I’d ever run without shoes… and it was painless.
This would have never happened on grass.
I needed the feedback of the hard surface.
If you want to see a barefoot runner get a wistful look in his or her eye, mention a newly painted white line on the side of a road. Smooth, solid, cool… it’s the best!
Oh, and it’s probably no surprise that the advantage of Xero Shoes is that when you wear those on the road, they still give you that feedback you need… but with protection from the surface.
Okay, so the big question is, “WHY use huarache, the Tarahumara running sandals?”
The answer is pretty obvious, but there are some important-yet-surprising pieces to the puzzle.
The obvious answer about huarache is: It’s the closest thing there is to barefoot running, without some of the hazards of barefoot running. Namely, you’re adding a layer of protection to your feet that bare skin simply can’t give you, no matter how well conditioned your feet are.
Especially with the 4mm Vibram Cherry sole material we use in our huarache kits and custom huaraches, you get what I like to call “better-than-barefoot.” The soles are so flexible it’s like having nothing on, so light, you barely notice them… except it’s blissfully clear that you’re not getting scraped up, cut up, scratched up and dirty like you would if it was just your tootsies on the ground.
That said, I’m not going to say “Don’t run barefoot and run with huarache running sandals instead!”
Well, because running barefoot gives you more feedback than running with ANYTHING on your feet.
If you want to know how efficient your form is, go barefoot and you’ll know (that is, if it hurts, you need to change something!).
If you want to know if you could be running lighter or easier, go barefoot and you’ll find out (did I mention: if it hurts, you need to change something?).
Conversely, putting ANYTHING on your feet, including huarache sandals, can mask some improper technique, give you the illusion that you’re better than you are and, possibly, lead to overtraining. Especially at first.
That said, since it takes awhile to develop that new barefoot running technique, and since it takes a while for your feet to get conditioned (btw, they do NOT get calloused), I recommend a mix of barefoot and huarache running.
In fact, what I often do is carry my huaraches with me when I go out barefooting. And if my feet start to get a bit sore, and I’m still a ways away from home, I’ll slip on my huaraches for the 2nd half of the run.
Or, I’ll warm up in my huaraches, and then slip ‘em off (using the method of how to tie huarache sandals here), and take off from there.
Oh, if I’m on serious trails — and by serious, I mean a lot of rocks, twigs, etc. — then it’s all huarache, all the time.
If you bump into someone who opines, “You can’t run in bare feet!” show them this.
Andrew Snope ran 131.43 miles, barefoot, in 24 hours!
Yup. Ran for 24 hours (with just a few bathroom breaks). Did it barefoot.
And if that same opinionated person counters with, “Yeah, but the world record is 188.59 miles from a guy wearing shoes,” you can reply with, “But Andrew’s only been a runner for 3 years, and he wasn’t trying to beat the record. Geez!”
We say a big congrats to Andrew and can’t wait to see what he does next!
In another post, I gave my LONG response to Marc Lindsey’s “article” (it may be a “native advertisement, sponsored by Brooks shoes) about whether barefoot running is BS or not.
Here’s a quick video response to go with that post. Enjoy, and share your thoughts, below.
Marc Lindsay recently posted what I’m sure he thinks is a scathing critique of barefoot running at Active.com called “Why Barefoot Running is BS.”
Sadly, it’s not the well-researched, well-considered investigation I think he believes it to be. In fact, given that the top of the article clearly says “Sponsored by Brooks,” one has to wonder if this anti-barefoot running article isn’t just a piece of shoe industry propaganda. Continue Reading
I received a message from Bryan on Facebook, asking if I had some advice about the fact that when he goes for a run in Xero Shoes, sometimes he can do 3-4 miles without a problem, but sometimes he gets some soreness after a mile or so.
I decided to add my response as a Barefoot Running Q&A video (it’s much more fun that typing).
What do you think?
Add your comments and thoughts, below… then share this with others.
Did you see the episode of Seinfeld where everyone couldn’t stop eating the “fat-free frozen yogurt,” only to discover — after they put on weight — that the frozen yogurt wasn’t actually fat-free, but was just advertised that way?
Well, something similar is happening with “minimalist shoes.”
Why minimalist running shoes?
To answer that question, we need to go back in time. In 2009, Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, and research published by Dr. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard, inspired the barefoot running movement. In large part, the idea to get back to the basics came from a few fundamental ideas:
- Despite decades of “technological advances” in running shoes, and promises that the latest and greatest in padding and motion control would eliminate runners’ injuries, there was not one study — and not even anecdotal evidence — that the big shoe companies could deliver on their promise. Even with insoles made from baby seals, trampoline outsoles, and laces made from the hair of Nepalese princesses, 50% of runners and 80% of marathoners were getting injured every year.
- As Lieberman showed, when you have a big, padded shoe at the end of your leg, you’ll use the padding, land with an outstretched, straight leg, and seemingly paradoxically, send a giant spike of force through your joints — up your ankle, knee, hip, and back.
- Instead, Liberman and others showed, if remove your shoes and run BARE FOOTED, you tend to adjust your gait, land with flexed joints, and use your muscles, ligaments, and tendons, as the natural shock absorbers they are, sparing your joints.
- The foot is made to flex, to bend, to feel the ground. And the brain is expecting information about the ground from the feet (which it then uses in a feedback loop to adjust how you move across the ground). Remove the sensations by wrapping your foot up in a shoe, and you’re short-circuiting this natural feedback loop, and depriving yourself of the pleasant sensations that come from walking or running across varied surfaces.
Put all that together, and vast numbers of runners ditched their shoes to try running barefoot. In fact, many people who were unable to run at all gave barefooting a try. I was surprised we weren’t seeing bonfires made up of old, thick, heavy running shoes.
So, at this moment, you had 2 choices: your old running shoe, or barefoot (or Xero Shoes, which are as close as you’ll get to barefoot, but with some protection).
Not surprisingly, the big running shoe companies saw this situation and had to respond.
At first, they merely put out press releases and claimed that running barefoot would hurt you, that only gifted athletes could do it, and that if you even contemplated running without shoes, you were in destined for unhappiness.
Meanwhile, they were working on a response:
Examples of minimalist footwear
What are minimalist running shoes?
In short, they’re the big shoe companies’ way of capitalizing on the barefoot running craze by offering the only thing they know how to make — SHOES — and promoting them as “barefoot” or “natural.”
To do this, they made shoes that were lighter, more flexible, and with less of a heel-lift.
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about how minimalist shoes are the new big trend in running shoes.
Do minimalist running shoes live up to the claims?
Ah, here’s where things get interesting.
Shoe companies are claiming that minimalist shoes will help you change your gait to a more natural, barefoot-style, way of moving. That their new shoes encourage a mid-foot strike. That wearing their shoes will reduce injuries.
They’re making all the claims that barefoot runners made about removing your shoes completely.
But there is no evidence whatsoever that minimalist shoes will do any such thing.
In fact Vibram, the company that makes the FiveFingers shoe — arguably the original minimalist running shoe — was sued for making similar claims without having the scientific backing to make them.
Let me say it again. There are no studies to back up the claims made by (or, rather, borrowed by) the big shoe companies.
Why aren’t minimalist shoes and barefoot (or Xero Shoes) the same?
One of my favorite things to do is meet someone who’s been wearing a minimalist shoe, including the Five Fingers, and have them put on ONE Xero Shoe and take a walk.
Within two steps they’ll turn around, eyes wide open, and say something like, “Oh! That’s a WHOLE different feeling!”
What’s the difference? The amount of sensation you feel from the ground. I don’t care how much someone in a Nike Free says, “I can really feel the ground in these.” They’re comparing their current experience to wearing ultra-thick running shoes.
But some minimalist shoes still have 1/2″ or more of padding between you and the ground.
And even the newest, lightest, most flexible shoes aren’t as light and flexible as your bare feet.. or a pair of Xeros.
Minimal and barefoot are simply not the same.
And, frankly (and I’ve said this often), even Xero Shoes aren’t identical to barefoot. People wearing them tend to move identically to when they’re barefoot, but since you’re always stepping on the same thing — a thin bit of rubber — when you wear Xeros, it’s not the same as feeling the myriad and varied sensations with every step that you get when barefoot.
But doctors and other experts are recommending minimalist shoes
Yup, they are.
Check this out, though… in the WSJ article, it says:
The American College of Sports Medicine… recommends shoes with a heel-to-toe height differential, or drop, of no more than 6 millimeters, or about a quarter of an inch… buying shoes that are neutral, meaning without extra arch support or rigid motion-control components. The shoes should have enough forefoot room that runners can wiggle their toes easily and shouldn’t have excessive cushioning, the guide says.
But when you go look at the shoes that are marketed as fitting that prescription, you’ll usually find arch support, narrow forefoot areas, thick soles, toe spring, and all manner of other non-minimal design components.
More, I’ve been on panels with a lot of the experts that recommend minimal over barefoot. A surprising number have quite a few anti-barefoot opinions without the experience — personal or from research — to back them up. They’ll say things like, “If you’ve been in running shoes for a long time, you need to spend months, if not years, letting your Achilles tendons stretch out.”
Frankly, I’ve never met a formerly shod runner whose Achilles were “too short” to run barefoot.
I’ve met a lot of doctors (and runners) who think that getting Achilles pain when you switch to barefoot is because of “too short” tendons, without knowing that the real cause is simply USING your Achilles more than is necessary, and that by relaxing and improving your form, you don’t need to stretch — or strengthen, for that matter — anything.
Aren’t you just whining?
Okay, maybe I am
The WSJ article isn’t as anti-barefoot or hyperbolic as many pieces about barefoot/minimalist/maximalist are.
In fact, it promotes everything we stand for here at Xero Shoes — natural movement, lightweight, freedom, feeling.
And, maybe, getting people to switch to something minimalist might make them more likely to go the whole way and try Xero Shoes or barefoot.
But given the experience of tens of thousands of our customers, many who’ve switched from something they were told by shoe salesman was “minimalist”, I wish that what people are offered can really live up to the marketing promises. And I don’t see that happening with “the latest trend in footwear.”
Whether you love cats or dogs, this video will prove that dogs deserve the title “Man’s Best Friend” when you see what they do to the “foot coffins” most people call “shoes.”
They know that barefoot is best (and Xero’s are the closest thing to barefoot)