The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

Shoeless Joes: Barefoot Running and Minimalist Shoes

Posted by on Wednesday, May 30th, 2012


We’ve talked about how to pick out traditional running shoes. However, as you may have noticed, over the last few years there has been a movement towards running barefoot or in “minimalist” running shoes, that is shoes that are extremely thin soled and flat; the idea is to be as close to barefoot as possible while providing a little cover for people who don’t love the idea of being absolutely bare. You’ve probably noticed people wearing minimalist shoes like the Nike Free or the Vibram Five Finger shoe, which has defined toes that make you look like you’re really barefoot, that is if your feet are metallic silver with red accents.

This is an extremely sticky issue that I have been a bit reluctant to wade into, because there are so many factions advocating one way or the other. When they are not advocating for their choice (barefoot vs. traditional running shoe), they are busy accusing another faction of lying to further their agenda.

For better or worse, though, let’s talk about it today.

The idea behind barefoot/minimalist running is that all the mechanics put into running shoes over the last few years–cushioning, air filled soles, anti-pronation support, midfoot bars that do something–has not protected runners feet, but rather made them weaker. Running barefoot, or running in minimalist shoes makes runners’ feet work more and grow stronger. Switching to a forefoot strike as well (where runners land on their forefoot first as opposed to their heel) will also shorten runner’s strides, making them run more efficiently and make them less susceptible to injuries. You can read a lot more about minimalist and barefoot running at Barefoot University or Barefoot Runner and there is good info about how to make the switch to these kinds of shoes from Anthony Mychal at the Stack blog.

People who have not made the switch to barefoot or minimalist shoes say there isn’t really any evidence that running barefoot makes you less prone to injuries. They point out that while people ran barefoot millions of years ago, they did that on soft dirt and grass, not the asphalt the majority of people run on today. They say they are happy with their traditional cushioned running shoes, so why should they switch? If they naturally heel strike, why should they do something that will force them to forefoot strike? Some also say they tried to switch to barefoot/minimalist running and ended up with worse injuries than they’d had with traditional shoes (to which barefoot running advocates reply, “You did it wrong,” which may be true in some cases, not in others; it’s a pretty big accusation for someone to make without looking at a person’s foot or knowing anything about that person’s running regimen).

I got into this topic this week because I read a post about barefoot running vs. running with shoes on the Podiatry Today blog by podiatrist Kevin Kirby. The post itself more or less states that there’s no evidence yet that barefoot running is markedly better in any particular way than running in shoes, except that barefoot runners have greater metabolic efficiency while running. Kirby also notes that the world’s top runners are still wearing shoes and doing quite well for themselves (though he does admit this might have something to do with shoe company sponsorships).

The article is interesting, but more informative is the exchange in the comments section between Kirby and a barefoot running advocate. The reason people have so much trouble making the decision about what kind of shoes to get is because there is so much antagonism between both sides. On one side the barefoot running advocates claim podiatrists don’t want to agree with them because they make too much money treating injuries created by traditional heavier running shoes made by the Big Shoe Companies and prescribing orthotics for feet weakened by Big Shoes. On the other side we have podiatrists saying, “Hey, stop accusing us of that, we’re on the runners’ side. All we’re saying is that this is being hyped beyond the evidence.”

(I should note that it’s funny when barefoot/minimalist running advocates insinuate that traditional running shoe makers and podiatrists are all in it for the money, like the minimalist shoe makers aren’t. Vibram is probably crying with joy that they can put out shoes that are essentially not much more than slippers and charge $75 for them.)

I have a feeling the answer is something that will not please either side, and that is this: barefoot running/minimalist running may be right for some people and wrong for others. Traditional shoes may be right for some and wrong for others. The only way to find out is try both. And if you’re happy with what you’re doing and are running comfortably, well, then maybe you shouldn’t try any kind of switch. Find what makes you happy, not what someone says should make you happy (and be glad you have a choice).

Whichever shoe you choose, if you find yourself with any kind of injury, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, and Dr. Ryan Minara have helped thousands of people get back on their feet.



If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.