Minimalist Running Shoes & Sandals
In the most literal sense, it is just running without any shoes. Speaking a bit more broadly, however, the term can be used to describe a style of running that tries to get as close as possible to the natural movements of running without shoes.
People have been drawn to this way of running because it seems healthier for your feet and joints. After all, our feet are built for movement without shoes. Running barefoot allows your toes and the other parts of your foot the full range of motion they would naturally have.
In response to this new interest in natural running, companies have begun to create barefoot-inspired shoes (also called minimalist shoes) that attempt to give the runner all the benefits of running barefoot while providing some protection and comfort for the foot. After all, not all running surfaces are like a soft bed of grass.
For many, we grew up running barefoot. As we become adults, we lose that natural feel and flexibility of running in this way. Skeptics raise fears of possible injuries and dangers of running barefoot, but in fact, an indigenous tribe in Mexico, the "Running People" (Tarahumara), has been running in minimalist footwear that gives a true barefoot experience for ages.
As the barefoot movement has grown, so have the options for embracing the barefoot running lifestyle. One of our favorite companies, Xero Shoes, offers a wide variety of barefoot running shoes and sandals. We especially like the Speed Force or their best-selling Prio for competitive running. We're not the only fans; the United States Swimming Team also wears Xero Shoes.
What are the benefits of barefoot running?
One of the key components of running barefoot has been increased strength and agility. Barefoot running is believed to promote muscle growth and enhance your proprioceptors, allowing your feet to function better in running activities with increased body awareness. Other benefits can include:
- Reduction of overall injuries: Zero drop shoes help encourage proper running technique, avoiding things like your heel striking first, which puts a lot of stress on your legs.
- Increased strength of your feet: We all know that muscles get stronger with use. A minimalist shoe permits your toes and other parts of your foot to flex and work as you run, while conventional running shoes often restrict movement.
- Connection with nature: It may sound strange, but many of those who run with bare feet or minimalist running shoes love the way the minimal padding between the ground and their feet allows them to feel their environment. If you can remember the sensation of running without shoes through the grass, you'll understand what they're talking about.
Everything you need to know about Barefoot Shoes
Minimalist/barefoot shoes have a few characteristics in common. First, the sole will be thin -- usually less than 10mm -- to allow for maximum flexibility and a feel for the ground. Second, minimalist running shoes are zero drop. In other words, there is no heel-to-toe drop in the level of your foot. Third, barefoot running shoes have a wide toe box that follows the natural shape of your foot.
Minimalist running shoes are typically lighter than traditional running shoes and have less cushioning. That may sound like a bad thing, but modern running shoes have so much padding that they allow for bad habits, like heel strike, that can lead to running injuries. Barefoot running shoes give minimal cushioning that protects your foot and promotes the proper running form.
Compare that to traditional running shoes with thick soles that give heel lift and are also much stiffer. Modern shoes promote unnatural heel strike motions. While claiming to provide "arch support," a traditional running shoe will weaken the muscles and proprioception growth of your feet.
You can certainly run in sandals as well as shoes. As we already mentioned, sandals are the footwear of choice for the Tarahumara. (They call their sandals "huarache.") A running sandal will be designed to attach securely to your foot and will follow the principles mentioned above for minimalist footwear.
Just as not all running shoes are minimalist running shoes, so not all running sandals are barefoot shoes, either. Look for a zero drop and a thin, highly-flexible sole.
When you're on soft grass, go for it! When the surface is right, you get the benefits we've been talking about here, and there is no substitute for the true barefoot feel.
On the other hand, the surface often isn't right, and there are many times when wearing shoes is desirable. Even beach runners, for instance, will run into things like hot sand, where it is nice to have a protective layer between the ground and your foot.
Barefoot running shoes give you this layer of protection from sharp rocks, rough surfaces, and other things that can hurt or injure your feet. They provide that perfect balance between natural feel and comfort, so you can reap the benefits of running barefoot without the downsides. That's why most runners, even those who love running barefoot, wear running shoes.
We hear this question a lot. People who have flatter feet assume they need lots of arch support in their running shoes. Our view is that the important thing isn't how high or low your arch is, but how strong the muscles of your foot are. Arch supportive shoes can actually lead to weaker arches over the long term, since those muscles are not forced to work. On the other hand, a barefoot shoe forces the muscles supporting your arch to be engaged, strengthening them over time.
Our suggestion is to try barefoot shoes and see how you feel. For the first few weeks, you will likely feel some soreness in your arches. As we all know, sore muscles result from being worked. See if you don't find that, in time, your arches are stronger and your soreness goes away.
Numerous brands such as:
- Xero Shoes
- Vivo Barefoot
- Vibram Five Finger
- New Balance
- Body Glove
- Barefoot Ted
All carry a minimalist running shoe, but we highly recommend Xero Shoes due to the variety and number of options that closely mimic the experience of running barefoot.
The other thing we like about Xero Shoes is their focus on minimalist shoes. They don't even make a traditional shoe.
We think you should start by making sure the shoes you are looking at are actually minimalist shoes. Remember, that means you don't want to see any heel-to-toe drop (products will usually be labeled "zero drop"), the sole should be thin and flexible, and there should be a wide toe box. Most minimalist running shoes that you will find in stores should have these characteristics.
Then you should consider the kinds of running you plan to do. You can find minimalist shoes that are designed specifically for trail running as well as more conventional running on a track or sidewalk around town. Many runners do both; a shoe that can handle the trail should work just fine in town.
Look for a company that understands minimalist running shoes and is committed to quality. As you have noticed here, we're big fans of Xero Shoes.
Beyond that, the right pair is a matter of taste, just like with traditional running shoes. Talk to other barefoot runners and read product reviews for zero drop shoes. It isn't always the most expensive running shoes that are the best. Try some on and find the shoe that feels best to you.
We assume that when we wear shoes, we will be protected, and yet many struggle with things like shin splints and plantar fasciitis. The tribe mentioned above, the Tarahumara, has shown for generations the ability to run in minimal footwear for ultra marathons without the typical modern injuries we have grown accustomed to expecting. So what you wear on your feet is associated with injury risk, but it isn't in the way many people assume. It may actually be the traditional running shoes that aren't safe.
Further, there is evidence that authentic minimalist running shoes can help with
chronic knee issues because minimalist shoes promote natural forefoot strike and toe to heel running motion compared to modern shoes, which encourage a heel strike when running.
Not necessarily. Toe shoes look like gloves - they fit around each of your toes individually. Often they are created for the same reason as barefoot shoes: to promote a more natural movement of the foot and reap the potential benefits. But people sometimes find this design feels restrictive. Minimalist shoes always include a roomy toe box that gives your toes maximal freedom to spread and flex naturally.
If you're interested in this option, however, make sure you find a true minimalist shoe with zero drop, and a thin, flexible sole.