Running Barefoot vs Running Minimalist

Some people embrace running in minimalist shoes.
Some people embrace running in nothing but bare feet.
Some people embrace running in traditional running sneakers.

Each of these people tend to focus on one solution being the best. These people are often the most vocal proponents of their methods, as they see their success and want to impress it upon others.

Surely there must be other ways to run? You don't need to stick to simply one type of shoe (or unshoe)! If you want to try running barefoot, you aren't locked in to running all of your miles barefoot. This is obvious but it often bears repeating as it's easy to lose focus on one's purpose.

Know your purpose

Since you're reading this site, you're obviously interested in exploring different forms of running. Why? Is it injury prevention? Because you read about it in a newspaper, online, or elsewhere? What do you want to gain from this exploration?

Why stray from solely barefoot?

For some, there is no reason and that's just fine.

Whether you stray from solely barefoot depends on:

  1. What you value out of running.
  2. What your goals are for running.
  3. What works for you -- after all, no one cares how you run.

Why mix barefoot and minimalist running

I value running fast over trails and other unstable terrain. My goal is to often traverse the area as quickly and as efficiently as possible. I am able to run faster on trails with minimalist shoes than with barefeet. There simply isn't the need to think as much about footfalls.

Also, the shoe helps ensure each step is more stable and consistent. This helps reduce chance of injury on trails as it dampens the effects of errors due to bad steps.

Running shod leads to deviating from your natural form. The tendency of those wearing shoes is to get too confident, not think enough, and by extension not run with as good of form as possible. This allows you to run faster, however it can also act as a degradation of your running form.

This is where running barefoot comes into play, this is your reset to zero, the removal of your bad tendencies and your migration back towards natural perfection. I think of running in shoes as a fast progression towards bad form, running in minimalist shoes as a slow progression towards bad form, and running barefoot as the baseline for proper mechanics.

Barefoot running is particularly useful for:

  1. Learning to run correctly to begin with, when speed shouldn't even be considered.
  2. Continuing lifelong as a method of perfecting, improving, and maintaining running form.
  3. Mental stimulation, due to the feedback provided from unhindered feet.

Utilizing minimalist shoes is particularly useful for:

  1. Technical Trail running
  2. Mitigating footfall variation

What to look for in a minimalist shoe

To reiterate for the hundredth time, each person will be different. In order of priority, here is what is most important to look for in a minimalist shoe:

  1. Zero drop - Nearly all traditional running shoes are twice as thick in the heel than the forefoot.  Zero drop running shoes simply applies a 1:1 ratio -- meaning that the heel and forefoot are the same distance off the ground -- there is no “drop” from heel to toe.
  2. Simplest solution to what you need. Any part of the shoe that exists, but does not serve a purpose for you, is a detriment. 
  3. Lightweight - minimized weight and sole. The less you're carrying, the less effort you're expending.
  4. Built for surface. Traction is vastly different when traversing technical trails than it is when cruising through the streets.
  5. Forefoot protection.
Forefoot protection is key because having a protective plate of some sort in the forefoot not only makes one less timid on rocky, rooty trails (a definite improvement over the bare foot), but also provides rigidity and energy return in one’s footstrike and stride that would otherwise be absent. By having a solid platform to push off of with every footstep, a greater confidence in one’s footing — the ultimate goal — is achieved. [link]

How to implement in your life

  1. Make sure you understand why you want to attempt this. If you don't have a purpose, you won't have success.
  2. Throw out your preconceptions of how fast and how far you should be running. If you are in a marathon training plan, you can not implement this. This transition in itself is a training plan.
  3. Start training by learning how to run barefoot. Only barefoot. Pour all of your running energy into learning how to run lightly and gently on nothing but your two feet. Don't run with sneakers, don't run with minimalist shoes, and don't confuse your body by putting anything else on your feet. Force the change you desire by being in the state which allows your body no choice. This can be hard, which is why you spent time earlier deciding why you wanted to accomplish it. Remember these reasons now and that there is help transitioning.
  4. If, and only if, you're comfortable running barefoot, it is time to add in a minimalist shoe. Do you still get pains when running barefoot? Do your calves still hurt after every run? Then you're not ready. You will know when you're ready -- when a run feel painless and you end with a smile as opposed to a grimace.
  5. Review your shoe needs (trails, street, etc.) and experiment with the least amount of shoe that meets these needs.