Running Shoes vs. Barefoot Running

And so the controversy rages on… For many of you who breathlessly read Born to Run or The Barefoot Running Book and couldn’t wait to shuck your sneaks in favor of good old fashioned flesh, barefoot running just makes sense. Lots of other runners are sticking with traditional shoe tech, while some of you are trying your hand (er…foot) at more minimal footwear options.

So Who’s Right?

We’re not about to call any balls or strikes on that issue. But a recent study from the University of Colorado (read more details here) has been bouncing around the past couple of weeks. This study, the first of its kind, found that running in the Nike Mayfly (one of the lightest running shoes currently available) offered a limited physiological edge over going barefoot.

As many bloggers have already pointed out, there are all sorts of complications inherent in designing and carrying out biomechanics studies. The results from the CU study – that runners wearing a featherweight running shoe may use 3 to 4% less energy than barefoot runners – are far from conclusive. We expect a lot more studies – and a lot more debate – in the coming years.

A Different Perspective

Performing well, staying healthy and enjoying the experience are at the top of every runner’s wish list. We can all agree on that. Whether running in shoes or running barefoot is “best” is really a false choice, and as many runners already know, the reality is a bit more complicated. Different styles of running will work for different runners in different conditions and for different objectives.

Not to end on a total kumbaya moment, but we’re glad to see so many runners continuing to tinker and experiment with new ways to train and race so they can build upon those three pillars of enjoyable running: performance, health and happiness. And we look forward to more objective research into the science of running, including studies on barefoot and shod styles.

What do you think? Have you tried minimal? Barefoot? Is a traditional trainer your only shoe for the foreseeable future? Share your experience with us.

  • Lou Renner

    I’m a competitive cross-country runner. When I’m in a race, I wear cross-country spikes, which are pretty minimalist. For everything else, including my day-to-day walking around, I’m in Invisible Shoes sandals. Speaking of which, they did a very good analysis of the CU study:

  • Marvin

    Dr. Lieberman’s view: What We Can Learn About Running from Barefoot Running: An Evolutionary Medical Perspective

  • Matt

    Thanks for the link, Marvin. It’s nice to see some other academic research out there. Lieberman’s point that study from an evolutionary biology perspective makes total sense, and some of his findings on footstrike and anatomical adaptations are echoed in many of the mainstream books on barefoot running. Clearly the tone of Lieberman’s piece is that there are far more questions than answers at this point, but he makes a valuable contribution.

  • Matt

    Another great resource, Lou. Thanks for sharing this article and its critiques of the CU study findings.

  • Todd

    I’ve spent the last 2 years transitioning from the most anti-minimalist shoe to running in minimalist/neutral shoes. I ran XC in highschool & some in college and then for the last 17 years. Knees, hips, shins and arches progressively got worse each year until I ended up being recommended to run in the Brooks Beast, limited to 10Ks and lots of ice. That was then, 2 years ago. Now I run in Newtons, Kinvara & train lightly in Vibram & Merrell TrailGloves. I haven’t had to ice knees or shins for over a year now. None of the pains, other than muscle pain from training and my arches have come back. I ran 2 marathons last year, best was 3:24. I am now training for ultras now. Inconceivable just over a year ago. Not just the “minimalist” shoes, but a minimalist lifestyle of addressing form, fitness and nutrition. For me, a light flexible shoe that lets my foot act like a foot should act, as well as running naturally (weight over footstrike and mid/forefoot striking @ 180spm) has transformed my running. Newtons have been a big help in aiding my footstrike. I tried barefoot, but it isn’t practical for me but is fun on occasion for a very limited distance to train for treading lightly.

  • George Harris

    I went from standard running shoes to more minimalist shoes about three years ago after some very serious running injuries the previous four years. Started with Newtons then Kinvara and now the Brooks Pure series. I am now on my third year of not having any serious running injuries. My piece of advice I give people who want to go to minimalist shoes is that they may not work for everyone and to go slow breaking into them.

  • Mark Zureik

    My lit review does support barefoot running in some cases and not in others. It’s a bit sciency though but hopefully you find it interesting since you appear to review the scientific literature.

    barefoot running

  • ricosta shoes

    Choosing the right running shoes is one of the most important decisions you can make as a runner. Spending the time and money to get the best running shoes for you will help keep you running comfortably and injury-free.

  • kraki

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  • Richard Ford

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