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Barefoot And Minimal Running
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One of the newest developments in running is actually very old. It's going barefoot, or at least running in what are called minimal shoes.


Our ancestors didn't have cool shoes to run in. They ran barefoot chasing down those mammoths. Later, people started running in sandals and what were essentially leather bags. As skills developed, they ran in boots, moccasins, and other footwear. It wasn't until the 1800s that shoes were even made for right and left feet. Running shoes became available in the early part of the 1900s, when such companies as U.S. Rubber (Keds shoes), Adidas and Puma started making specialty shoes. It wasn't until the beginning of the running boom in the 1970s that large numbers of people - especially adults - began to run in shoes made just for running.

As shoes became more specialized, companies competed to make their shoes more supportive to protect runners' legs from shock and make the increased distances easier to handle. They added support under the whole bottom of the shoe, but most especially under the heel to soften heel impact and return that energy to the runner's stride on the push-off.

The result has been general assumption that shoes should have a built-up heel and a lower forefoot, with lots of support for the arch and a fairly rigid upper that holds the foot firmly. People wear these shoes for all kinds of activities, too, so their feet and posture get adapted to this "high-heeled" configuration.

The Controversy:

The current shoe design has in recent years become a point of difficulty for some runners, who believe that the shape of the average shoe has tilted the foot in such a way as to hurt people more than it helps. Because the shoes have such high heels, the heel is guaranteed to strike first, with greater impact than landing on the middle of the foot or on the toes. That impact shock is passed up the legs and affects the ankles, knees and hips as well as the lower back. Landing farther forward on the foot helps avoid that impact.

Some people have gone so far as to reject shoes entirely for running. They advocate a return to running barefoot. They argue that the human foot is designed to flex with walking and running as well as flex, with the toes being able to flex and move as part of the running stride. As a result, putting feet into rigid structures with a big heel and lots of plastic support actually cause injuries, according to their arguments.

The downside of going barefoot is the same as it was when people first started wearing sandals. The world is full of sharp objects that make going barefoot painful and potentially dangerous.

For others, the problems with running barefoot are nearly as bad as wearing shoes that are too built up, so those folks have gone with shoes that are considered "minimal". Right now, there's no consensus on just what is a minimal shoe, but the general guidelines for them include such things as a low profile, a soft upper and as small a height difference between the heel and forefoot as possible.

If a shoe has the same height in the sole in the heel and forefoot, it's called a "zero drop" shoe. Minimal shoes often still have a small slope from heel to toe, though. The support in a minimal shoe can be anywhere from non-existent to fairly cushy. The sole, however, is usually made of a fairly tough material to minimize the possibility of punctures.

Whether fully barefoot or minimalist, runners have to relearn to use their lower legs and feet when transitioning from the big supportive shoes to the minimal style. This can take months and needs to be done gradually in order to let the muscles, tendons and ligaments adapt. New barefooters often feel aches and pains in their calves and shins as they get used to the new style of movement; however, the change often results in immediate and remarkable reduction in problems in the knee, hip and back.


For many runners with knee and other injuries, it would be wise to look at going barefoot or minimal for at least part of their running. If they do try it, they should be careful at first not to transition too quickly!

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