Barefoot and Minimalistic Running

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Are minimalistic shoes like the Vibram 5 Fingers just a popular fad or a real physiological breakthrough in the sport of running?

Many runners today are going the minimalistic route and finding relief from foot and knee pain.

But before you ditch your highly cushy supportive running shoes for a pair of these minimalistic bad boys you need to see what experts are saying.

Is this an area where you need to jump on board, or a trend to let pass by?

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In 2009, Christopher McDougall wrote the bestselling book Born to Run. Told by his doctor that he wasn’t built to run and should not continue to attempt it, McDougall goes on a fantastic journey to find help for himself. Setting off to find a “lost” tribe in the Copper Canyons of Mexico he comes in contact with an American known as Caballo Blanco (White Horse), who has gotten into the world of the Tarahumara Indians.

This book gives a great history of the ultra-running tribes of running lore, medical evidence that people were designed to run long distances, and brings you in contact with some amazing characters.
McDougall also talks about what he considers to be the painful truths of running shoes.

  1. The best shoes are the worst. Runners wearing top of the line shoes are 123% more likely to get injured than runners in cheap shoes.
  2. Feet like a good beating. Balance and vertical impact are closely related. The legs’ impact forces are lightest in bare feet and heaviest in well-cushioned shoes.
  3. Human beings are designed to run without shoes. The decondititioned musculature of the foot is the greatest issue leading to injury, and we’ve allowed our feet to become deconditioned over the past 25 years. Pronation has become this very bad word, but it’s just the natural movement of the foot. The foot is supposed to pronate.

Truly minimalist shoes are intended to help you develop your form by allowing your feet and legs to work the way they were intended to. In other words, the goal is to mimic how you would run if you were barefoot- shorter stride, faster cadence, and a midfoot or forefoot foot strike.

However, some experts have differing opinions. Listen to this quote from Dr. Jason Karp an exercise physiologist and USA Track & Field coach:

“I’ve been asked a lot lately about barefoot running/minimalist shoes. I’m not a big fan. For most people who run (who are also overweight), they are putting themselves at an increased risk by not having shoes with shock-absorbing qualities. We tend to copy what the best runners are doing, but while the Kenyans and Ethiopians grow up running barefoot, Americans do not, so it is not a natural way for us to run like it is for them. People can try it, but they would have to integrate it very slowly and systematically into their running.

I tend to agree with Dr. Karp, the careful and systematic approach is the best. Many people start by transitioning to minimalistic shoes and then go to barefoot running if they still feel that it would be of value to them. Here is what I would recommend:

  • First, have a solid running base built up (preferably with shoes).
  • Next, start by doing one shorter run per week BF/M style while listening to your body. You may need to use the run/walk approach to build up endurance slowly. At first your calves and feet may be very sore.
  • Once you can comfortably do one shorter run per week BF/M, try to add another day per week.

In conlusion, barefoot and minimalistic running is definately worth a try. It might do wonders for your knee pain. Just make sure you transition slowly and listen to your body.

Books Mentioned in This Episode

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Barefoot Running- How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee

P.S., I would love to hear about your experience with a minimalistic shoe.

14 Responses to Barefoot and Minimalistic Running

  1. LJHudd October 26, 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    Thank you for another great podcast! Been running barefoot for a couple of months now, it has been very good for me so far, I have learned better form which is what I needed because I kept getting various injuries while running shod.

    Just recently watched a panel of experts discuss barefoot and minimalistic running on youtube, search for “Newton Natural Running Panel 2010 part 1” there are 12 parts, it was fascinating.
    Also, there are some great videos and studies done on running barefoot vs. shod on
    The only thing I’d disagree with is their opinions on ‘evolution’ which makes no sense to me – I believe God designed us to be able to run barefoot. His designs are far superior to that of mans designs.

  2. Collette Wixom-Call October 27, 2010 at 9:17 am #

    I just ran a marathon in the Vibram Bikila about a month ago…and my longest “barefoot” run has been about 6 miles…I find my body responds very well to minimalist running adn I have MUCH better form now. I echo the warning to start minimalist running slowly and listen to your body.

  3. Ryan Taylor October 30, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    My experience with minimalistic running shoes has been the following:

    Prior to getting my VFF Classics, I had run a 10K and Half-Marathon in the typical running shoe. I decided to go with Vibrams this past June to prevent possible future injuries. I eased into my running with the following plan:

    Week 1: Running 1/2 mile, 3 alternating days a week, one time on grass.
    Week 2: Running 1 mile, 3 alt. days a week, one time on grass
    Week 3: Running 1.5 miles, 3 alt. days a week, one time on grass
    Week 4: Running 2 miles, 3 alt. days a week
    Week 5-8: Kept with the same plan, but increased the mileage 1/2 mile each week.

    It was the salesperson (Chris) at my local running store (he lives/trains in Vibrams) who gave me the above plan. I did experience a bit of pain in my feet and lower legs, but the running on the grass at least once a week really helped. After week 8, I contacted Chris asking if it was safe to get back into my regular training and his response was, “If you feel good, go for it. Though listen to your body, it will let you know if you do too much.”

    I feel great with my Vibrams and will be running my 2nd Half Marathon ( next week. I’m a happy convert, though will probably never go full barefoot since our local government loves to chipseal the pavement ( which makes for very “rough” pavement when dealing with bare feet.

  4. Angie October 30, 2010 at 5:28 pm #

    @LJHudd- Thank you for sharing your experience with VFF’s. I’ll definitely check out the website and video that you mentioned. I also believe that the human body was “designed” to run long distances. Happy running!

  5. Angie October 30, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    Collette- I’m glad that you’ve had good success with minimalistic/barefoot running. Congratulations on the recent marathon. Keep up the awesome work!

  6. Angie November 9, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    Ryan, Thanks for sharing your experience with minimalistic shoes. It looks like you followed a good plan to ease the body into it without injury. Like you said, the key is to listen to your body. Keep up the great work!

  7. Steven R. Martin January 15, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    My re-introduction to running was in part due to my casual research into barefoot running. I stopped running 14 years ago when pain in my left knee appeared and seemed to have become a permanent condition when I ran, regardless of hard surface or grass.

    I bought a pair of VFF KSO’s in April 2010, and began the slow, methodical steps toward continual usage. Oh, I had the pain in my shins, calves, and ankles, and I reduced my actual running time, sat out some days and cross trained instead. But I have to say, I can now run 2 to 3 miles per session without any after effects to my knee!

    Ironically, it was because I was looking for new goals and motivation that I discovered MTA, and I want to say you and Trevor have provided a bountiful resource for those of us who have rediscovered running and want to go farther!

    • Angie January 16, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

      Hey Steven, thanks for sharing your experience with the VFF’s. It’s exciting to hear that you’re building back a running base and feeling great. Keep up the wonderful work!

  8. Tristan February 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    Or you can just jump in and take the pain.
    I’ve been running VFFs for about a year and a half I got my first pair two weeks before the City2Surf in Sydney 14kms I knew I was underdone I ran 14kms the day I got them and took about 4 days to recover but still managed to do the 14kms two weeks later in good time.
    Have since done a marathon and half marathon in them.
    Have completely got rid of my niggling calf injuries and no other problems at all.
    The ‘expert’ quoted above is just someone who has no understanding or imagination.
    Also did same 14km run barefoot last year on bad chipseal I was underdone (about a month’s total barefoot running before ) for that as well completely blistered up my feet but the great thing about that is that the skin heals itself! I didn’t have to buy new ones lol
    So in conclusion it wasn’t the ideal way to start VFF/barfefoot running and if you have the discipline and patience build yourself up but on the other hand no harm done to jump in the deep end just some pain.

    • Angie February 17, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

      Hey Tristan. Thanks for sharing your experience with barefoot and minimalistic running. I gave the conservative way to start for those who aren’t as “hard core” as you 🙂 Keep up the awesome work as you pursue your running goals!

  9. Barefoot Roses October 17, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    I downloaded this episode months ago but just got around to listening to it today. I was pleased that you had an open mind view on the barefoot/minimalist form of running. I wanted to make note that one of your specialists commented that running barefoot for overweight people would not be a good idea. My BMI is considered obese. I have been running barefoot for two years and have run two half marathons in VFFs. I have not experienced any injuries that would make me think that conventional running shoes are better for overweight people. Have a good run.

    • Angie October 18, 2011 at 8:13 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your experience as a heavier running going barefoot. I think the key is to build up a solid running base and transition slowly. The body is designed to adapt to the demands we place upon it. I’m glad that you’ve had such a good experience with BF/Min running. Awesome job with those two half marathons!


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