Unraveling the Mystery of Barefoot Shoes

Have you ever slipped your foot into the glove-like interior of a barefoot shoe? You have to place each toe in its individual casing, making your foot into a hand for just one weird moment.

You might be surprised to hear that not all barefoot shoes are shaped like foot gloves, though. In fact, barefoot has another name: minimalist. Minimalist shoes aren’t shaped like feet—they just remove most of the padding we’re used to so that our feet can flex better while running. What, then, is all the buzz about?

Barefoot Running

Let’s start with the basics: just what is this barefoot running phenomenon? A reporter from the Guardian tells us that barefoot running is nothing new, but only a section of the population were into it. When Chris McDougall published the book Born to Run , a study of barefoot runners in Kenya, it suddenly became a mainstream practice.

The point of barefoot running is to change your jogging gait from hitting your heel first, to hitting the front of your foot first. The idea is that this is more efficient and prevents more injuries. Does running barefoot really do this? We’ll explore that in a minute.

Minimalist Shoes

Nobody went completely barefoot, of course. There’s too much concrete in our country, too many dangers on the road. So companies developed shoes that could function like you don’t have anything on, yet still provide protection.

Barefoot shoes range from transitional to full-on glove, so the term “minimalist” is used to cover all types. Transitional shoes look just like normal running shoes, but really have very thin soles so the ball of your foot hits before your heel. Examples include Nike’s Free , New Balance’s Minimus , and Adidas’s Adapt . Vibram is a shoe company famous for their foot glove construct, called, fittingly, the FiveFingers . If you’re brand new to barefoot running, start with a transitional shoe and work your way up to the FiveFingers. But keep in mind, says a shoe blogger , everybody is different, so you should focus on choosing a shoe that works best for your body, not what someone told you would work best.

Barefoot and Your Spine

Now we come to the big question. Since Born to Run was published in 2009, have we been able to tell that barefoot running is actually good for us? And more to the point—for our backs? According to Stanford sports medicine physician Dr. Michael Fredericson , not necessarily. The only conclusive evidence they’ve found is that it more efficiently dissipates forces of stress to our joints in the spine and lower body. It hasn’t proven to prevent injury. Our shoe blogger suggests that if you really want to keep injury at bay, you should switch things up every week. Don’t go cold turkey barefoot—run barefoot some days and go with a regularly padded shoe other days. This will strengthen the muscles of your feet without putting too much strain on them.

Do you run barefoot?

So what’s the verdict? Barefoot running can reduce the impact of running to your joints, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent injuries. The choice is up to you. Do your own research, try on some shoes. To get you started, we’ve found a pros and cons list .

And once you’ve decided whether or not to go minimalist, let us know about it! Leave a comment so our readers can hear how barefoot running works—or doesn’t work—for you. Are you already a barefoot runner? We’re curious—does your back feel better or worse? Our readers want to know, so leave a comment now!