How Barefoot Running Shoes Work

By: Nathan Chandler & Craig Haggit
Nike Free running shoe
The Nike Free was one of the first shoes to market that touted the barefoot feeling to runners.

Ah, to feel the sand between your toes, the wet grass on your feet. These two hallmarks of the good life imply that you can check your shoes at the door. A growing number of runners are taking up the mantra and trying barefoot running. Many more would join this crowd if it weren't for the fact that most of us don't live on a beach or in a perfect suburban lawn. Rocks hurt, pavement's unforgiving and the biting cold of winter can be flat-out dangerous.

Enter barefoot running shoes. Also called minimalist running shoes, this trendy footwear is more than a fad and has been catching the attention of people and companies inside and outside of athletics for a lot of reasons. But what are they, exactly? What are the benefits of using them? And do the benefits outweigh the risks? Bottom line, are they right for you?


Let's get one thing straight: Wearing a barefoot running shoe is not the same thing as running barefoot. Even the most minimalist footwear still changes the experience to some degree. The whole concept is to find the perfect harmony between the physical support of a traditional running shoe and the benefits of running barefoot. Any shoe that aspires to be compared to going barefoot should allow the same degree of flexibility to help you improve balance, provide plenty of feedback from the ground to watch for the pain that can precede injury, and yet still give the wearer a measure of protection from broken beer bottles and other hazards.

As of mid-2014, Interest in minimalist shoes seems to have peaked and experienced a drop in popularity. This shoe category makes up less than 5 percent of running shoe sales [source: Runner's World]. But paltry sales haven't dampened the enthusiasm of true barefoot believers. Keep reading and you'll see the different types of barefoot running shoes on the market.


Types of Barefoot Running Shoes

The eye-catching Vibram FiveFingers brand has transcended its running roots to become a fashion shoe as well.
The eye-catching Vibram FiveFingers brand has transcended its running roots to become a fashion shoe as well.
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Between going truly barefoot and wearing traditional running shoes, you'll find innumerable nuances of coverage and functionality. What passes for barefoot running shoes runs quite a gamut, so let's examine the primary types of minimalist shoes intended to be worn by runners. Later on in the article we'll talk more about different brands and the features to watch for when you go to buy this type of footwear.

  • Trail running shoes: Rugged trail running can be hard on the feet, so this type of shoe is the least barefoot-like of all. They have thicker soles for extra grip and abrasion protection and fairly complete coverage of the upper foot. Some brands will leave you wondering where the barefoot part comes in, though the structure of even these hardy shoes is relatively thin.
  • Road running shoes: You really start to see the crowd stretch out when you look at minimalist shoes designed for road running. Most have thin, flat soles on shoes so flexible you can roll them into an "O" shape. Some shoes in this category offer increased top-foot coverage and look very much like regular running shoes until closer inspection.
  • Foot thongs: Quite possibly the most interesting barefoot running "shoe" out there is the foot thong. I'm not talking about a woman's sultry podiatric accessory, but rather a small strap-on foot pad that protects only the ball of the foot, and nothing else.

You might have noticed by now that one thing all these types have in common is the lack of physical support for the foot, which is the whole idea. So is all that talk over the years about getting the right running shoe to support your foot a bunch of hooey? Can barefoot running shoes really do anything to prevent injury, or is it just a crazy fad that's going to send runners to the doctor's office?


Running Injuries and Barefoot Running Shoes

Barefoot running encourages a forefoot strike, which proponents assert is how our bodies are designed to run.
Barefoot running encourages a forefoot strike, which proponents assert is how our bodies are designed to run.

As we mentioned earlier, minimalist shoes are designed to provide the improved balance and foot and leg strength you get from the barefoot experience while simultaneously protecting feet from road hazards. But how successful are they?

Christopher McDougall's 2009 best-selling book "Born to Run" quickly became barefoot running's manifesto. It spawned a surge in the popularity of barefoot running and in barefoot running shoes. Unfortunately, it also seems to have spawned a rise in the reports of plantar fasciitis [source: Fitzgerald]. This painful heel condition is the result of too much stress on the plantar fascia, which normally helps cushion your landing while walking or running by providing arch support. Most barefoot running shoes try to add just enough cushioning to prevent this very common running injury [source: Mayo]. What these shoes don't do is provide arch support, which still leaves a significant risk for plantar fasciitis. But is that risk inevitable for barefoot and minimalist runners? Some would argue not.


Barefoot running enthusiasts often claim that running in overly cushy shoes encourages poor form, while running unshod or minimally shod allows your body to provide the necessary feedback to your brain to let you know when you're overtaxing your frame and muscles. In "Born to Run," McDougall colorfully describes a trip to Mexico during which he encounters a tribe that runs all the time in nothing but thin sandals yet suffers few injuries. He credits their nearly-barefoot running and the good form it produces for their low injury rate.

The story of our lost connection to our body mechanics goes something like this: Our feet are built amazingly well and should be flexible and strong by nature. Supportive, cushiony shoes have allowed our feet to get away with some major slacking, causing atrophy in the muscle groups of the foot and ankle. Barefoot running proponents claim that this weakness, caused by the very shoes we thought were protecting us, is to blame for many common running injuries. This muscular weakness can't be reversed all at once. It's a good idea to progress slowly and use barefoot running shoes to transition toward barefootedness so your feet gain strength gradually.

A side benefit of barefoot running shoes is the protection from the environment they offer. Besides natural hazards such as rocks, runners have to watch out for human-generated debris like metal and glass that would spell a quick end to anyone's barefoot running. The minimal rubber sole of a barefoot running shoe is usually enough to keep the worst from happening.

If you think you want to give barefoot running shoes a try, how do you know what to buy?


What should you look for in a barefoot running shoe?

Although the shoes worn by pro runners aren't advertised as barefoot running shoes, most of them have the flat sole vital to a good minimalist shoe.
Although the shoes worn by pro runners aren't advertised as barefoot running shoes, most of them have the flat sole vital to a good minimalist shoe.

After ignoring what they probably took to be a fad at first, the big athletic shoe manufacturers are now in the barefoot running game. What's good and what's a gimmick? Here are a few tips to help you find the best buy.

A flat sole is a key component of barefoot running shoes. The drop, sometimes called the differential, is the difference in the thickness of the sole under the heel compared to its thickness under the toe. Ideally this drop is zero, which promotes better running form by encouraging you to land on your forefoot. Most shoes today have a drop of 12 millimeters, while the drops in minimalist shoes are usually much less.


In a market full of companies touting how minimal their shoes are, durability also becomes an issue. Will a thinner sole last long enough to be worth buying? Research the life expectancy of the brands you're considering.

Some companies offer insole inserts with their product lines to help runners successfully make the transition from traditional running shoes to barefoot running. These inserts allow you to decrease the shoe's arch support as your foot gains strength. If a product line offers these inserts, you're likely to have greater success transitioning to minimalist running.

Weight is another factor to consider. Most barefoot running shoes fall in the 5 to 6 ounce (141 to 170 gram) range, which is lighter than the average running shoe. Most runners don't need to worry too much about an ounce here or there, but if you want to replicate the barefoot feeling, then the lighter your shoes, the easier it is to convince your feet they're naked.

Try to test run different brands of barefoot running shoes before buying. For a lot of us, that's easier said than done; specialty running stores aren't always accessible. If you're stuck ordering online, be sure to follow any fitting guides associated with your shoes.

For the DIY enthusiasts, there's always the option of making your own barefoot running shoes [source: Instructables]. While they probably won't stand up to a marathon, they might be fine for shorter jaunts. Exercise caution with any minimalist shoe, but be especially careful if you go the home-made route.


Should you be using barefoot running shoes?

Not everyone agrees that you should ditch your arch supports and thick soles. There's a real risk of plantar fasciitis (and other injuries) from the greater stress you're placing on your foot while running in minimalist shoes. Podiatrists also note that not all feet are created equal; runners with medical issues such as numb spots, flat-footedness, high arches, or other problems should not even try running in barefoot shoes [source: Ignelzi].

The newest studies show that barefoot shoes may not offer many benefits in terms of form. Instead of naturally helping you find your "true" form, they may simply shift stressors to other parts of your body, resulting in injuries [source: Reynolds]. In short, you may find what many (former) barefoot runners already have -- minimalist shoes can be a hazard instead of a help.


In additional to declining minimalist shoe sales, companies have suffered other difficulties. Vibram, which helped popularize minimalist shoes, settled a class-action lawsuit by paying nearly $4 million in early 2014. As part of the settlement, the company is required to stop touting health or strength benefits of its barefoot shoes until it can produce scientific proof. To date, it hasn't.

Yet in spite of that PR setback, there's no doubt that plenty of runners have found success and comfort in barefoot running. If you want to try barefoot running, consider talking to a podiatrist to see if there are any issues with your feet that would cause an increased risk for injury with minimalist shoes. If you get the go-ahead, transition slowly using barefoot running shoes to avoid doing nasty things to your feet. Start with shoes that have limited arch support and padding, and maybe go with a smaller drop in the sole. There's no set time schedule for this transition. Listen to your body.


Lots More Information

Author's Note

Big, soft-soled shoes may rob you of proper form; barefoot shoes may not provide enough protection from shock. How are you supposed to know what kind of shoes to wear when you run? Personal experience is your best guide. The best and most experienced runners learn to listen to their bodies. As they change mileage and intensity, they notice how their bodies respond. The same goes for choosing running shoes. Pay close attention to the story your body has to tell you – you'll start to understand why certain twinges and aches develop. That way, if a certain type of shoe is to blame, you can adjust according and stave off real health problems. - NC

Related Articles

  • Bernstein, Lenny. “People Who Bought these Vibram FiveFingers Shoes May be Entitled to a Refund.” Washington Post. May 8, 2014. (May 19, 2014)
  • Douglas, Scott. “Sales of Minimalist Shoes Plummet.” Runners World. May 13, 2013. (May 19, 2014)
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "The Barefoot Running Injury Epidemic." Competitor. Sept 8, 2010. (May 19, 2014)
  • Ignelzi, R.J. "No Socks, No Shoes, No Problem?" San Diego Tribune. May 11, 2010. (May 19, 2014)
  • "Make Your Own Wear Anywhere 'Barefoot' Shoes." (May 19, 2014)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Plantar Fasciitis." Mayo Clinic Health Information. March 15, 2011. (May 19, 2014)
  • McCarthy, Matt. “The Scientific Case Against Vibram’s FiveFinger Running Shoe.” Deadspin. May, 15, 2014. (May 19, 2014)
  • McCue, Matt. “Vibram Agrees to Settle Class Action Lawsuit.” Runner’s World. (May 6, 2014). (May 19, 2014)
  • McDougall, Christopher. "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen." Knopf. 2009.
  • Parks, Bob. "Is Less More?" Runner's World, Nov 2010 (May 19, 2014),7120,s6-240-400--13691-0,00.html
  • Walker, Rob. "Bare Necessity." New York Times Magazine. May 10, 2010. Page 20.
  • Walsh, Bryan. "Toe Huggers." Time. Feb 1, 2010. Page 45.