The little lie of barefoot running

As the barefoot running boom continues to explode, it’s important that we debunk the mythology that’s sprung up and face some facts. And perhaps the most obvious fact is this:

If you run with anything between your skin and the ground, you are not barefoot runner.

Let me say that again. If you wear Vibram Fivefingers, New Balance Minimus, Merrell Trail Gloves, Altra Adams, Vivobarefoot shoes, Newtons, Inov8 shoes, even our Invisible Shoes huaraches running sandals, you are not a barefoot runner.

I don’t care if your previous shoes were padded stilts and your new shoes are a “zero-drop” natural movement minimalist shoe, if you’ve got something on your feet you’re not barefoot running.

Barefoot running means that you run in bare feet. Period.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that if you’ve just spent $125 on your Vibram Bikilas you need to throw them away, or that if there’s a barefoot running Meetup you can’t be part of the cool clique. And I’m not saying everyone needs to be barefoot. And, clearly, I’m not saying “don’t buy Xero Shoes” 😉

But it’s important that we differentiate actual barefoot running from minimalist running.


Because more often than some would like to admit, barefoot running and minimalist running do not produce the same results.

The promise of barefoot running is that the sensations you get when your skin contacts the ground — often known as pain — teach you proper running form. That is, if you change your form to make the pain go away, you’ll have a more efficient, lighter, easier stride, and you’ll be able to run pain-free for life.

Anything that you put on your feet reduces the amount of sensation you feel and can interfere with the feedback loop that barefoot running gives which produces those benefits.

Again, I’m not saying that you don’t get feedback from minimalist shoes. You certainly get more than you do when you’ve got 2″ of padding in your  Nike I Can’t Feel The Grounds. As the developer of Xero Shoes, I know hundreds of people who switched to our sandals, improved their barefoot running form, eliminated life-long aches and pains, and now enjoy running ultra-marathons. As one of our early customers put it, “Xero Shoes are just like being barefoot… if they covered the world in a thin layer of comfortable rubber.”

But, I’ve also met a LOT people who bought a pair of Vibrams or Merrells (or any other minimalist shoe), soon became injured, and now tell everyone they know that “barefoot running” is dangerous… and they’ve never run barefoot!

I’ve been on a number of barefoot running panel discussions and, inevitably, there will be some number of doctors, physical therapists, podiatrists and other medical professionals who say, smugly, “Hey, stick with this barefoot running thing. All the people getting hurt by doing it are putting my kids through college!”

Before they can finish chuckling, I fire back:

Me: “You know, of course, that all you guys made the exact same joke 40 years ago when running shoes were invented, right? And you know that people who have no problems running barefoot — and ones who get cured of injuries by running barefoot — will not come to see you, right?”

Them: “Uh…”

Then I pull out the bigger guns: “And when a patient tells you they got hurt from barefoot running, did you ask if they were actually in bare feet? Did you check to see if they simply over-trained by doing too much, too soon? And, maybe most importantly, did you take a video of them running so you could analyze their form and see if they were simply using the same injury-producing mechanics they used when they wore shoes? Or did you see if they were trying to stay on their toes, putting extra strain on their calves and Achilles, because they have a mistaken ideas about proper barefoot form?”

Them: “Uh…”

Barefoot running is more than switching to a minimalist shoe. And it’s more than simply removing your shoes. Don’t believe me? Go to a barefoot running event, find the people in their minimalist shoes, and see which ones are still landing on their heels, as if they’re still in motion controlled running shoes.

In fact, be on the lookout for runners who are actually barefoot doing the same thing! Some of us are either unable to feel those important form-changing sensations, or unable (without coaching) to actually make form changes in order to find a painless way of moving.

For an example of this, check out Pete Larson’s video of the recent NYC Barefoot Run. Most of the VFF wearers, and a handful of barefoot runners are still landing on their heels. (I was there and noticed the same thing, but I didn’t have the brains to video tape it… so, Thanks, Pete!)

Let’s wrap this up with a wish: If you’re one of those “barefoot” runners who has never run barefoot, I can’t encourage you enough to try it. Don’t think there’s some transition you need to go through before you’re “ready.” Ironically, the best advice I can give you is: Just Do It!

Get on a good clean hard surface (a bike path is great, streets work too) and go for a run. Listen to your feet, if they hurt, try to move in some different way so that they don’t. And if you can’t figure out how, then stop and try again another day. Don’t think you need to build up callouses; none of us who successfully run barefoot have any (they’re another sign that you’re doing something wrong). If you can find a coach or some training, get some guidance.

Report back here with what you discover.

The goal is not to be barefoot all the time. The goal is to be flexible. To be able to run comfortably, easily, and enjoyably under any circumstance. To know when barefoot is the best option and when something under your feet is called for. I wear my Xero Shoes for all my walking, hiking, and getting into restaurants. I’m barefoot for a lot of my sprinting training. But, hey, I still wear running shoes, too… when I have to shovel a 2′ Colorado snowfall.

The content of this post does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your health or a medical condition.