Barefoot-Like Running Shoes – Terminology Matters, and Science Can Help

The recent series of posts that I wrote criticizing the new Nike Free Run+ running shoe (if interested, you can start with this one) have generated a lot of traffic to this blog, and have prompted a few commenters to criticize me for “attacking” a shoe that I have never worn. My response to these comments has been consistent – I wasn’t attacking the shoe per se, I was attacking the fact that it was being marketed by Nike+ as promoting a “more natural, barefoot-like stride” (quote taken directly from Nike Free Run+ product page). Words matter, and the term “barefoot” has a very clear meaning in both common usage (nothing at all covering your foot) and when used to scientifically describe a running gait. Regarding the latter, he is a direct quote from Daniel Lieberman and colleagues’ paper, Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners, in the highly respected scientific journal Nature:

…runners who grew up barefoot or switched to barefoot running … most often used FFS (forefoot strike) landings followed by heel contact (toe-heel-toe running) in both barefoot and shod conditions. MFS (midfoot strike) landings were sometimes used in barefoot conditions…and shod conditions…but RFS (rearfoot strike) landings were infrequent during barefoot running in both groups.

So it seems that from Lieberman’s paper’s we have a pretty good definition of at least one major component of the “barefoot running gait” (and his is just one example, for another see this paper by De Wit at al., 2000) – barefoot running is characterized by a forefoot or midfoot strike, so any shoe that purports to simulate a “barefoot-like” stride should be designed to facilitate this type of footstrike.

In that same paper, Daniel Lieberman and colleagues’ go on to state:

A major factor contributing to the predominance of RFS (rearfoot strike) landings in shod runners is the cushioned sole of modern running shoes, which is thickest below the heel, orienting the sole of the foot so as to have about 5 degrees less dorsiflexion than does the sole of the shoe, and allowing a runner to RFS comfortably.

And in the conclusions to their paper, Daniel Lieberman and colleagues’ state:

Although cushioned, high-heeled running shoes are comfortable, they limit proprioreception and make it easier for runners to land on their heels. Furthermore, many running shoes have arch supports and stiffened soles that may lead to weaker foot muscles, reducing arch strength.

This has led me to the realization that it would be helpful if I wrote a post describing exactly what

If you were to ask me how I would define “minimalist” when it comes to running footwear, I would say that there are four factors that are most critical:

1. A minimalist shoe should be lightweight – in fact, the lighter, the better. My personal rule of thumb is to look for shoes that weigh 10oz or less each, and many of my shoes now weigh in at under 8oz.

2. A minimalist shoe should not have a lot of structure to the upper – a layer of fabric/mesh sufficient to hold it on your foot is all that’s needed (the original Nike Free 3.0 is a great example of this).

3. A minimalist shoe should not have a thick, heavily cushioned heel. The best example of this is the Vibram Fivefingers, which have virtually no cushioning in the heel, and no heel-forefoot drop.

4. A minimalist shoe should be as flexible as possible to let the foot move and flex naturally. Again, both the Nike Free 3.0 and Vibram Fivefingers accomplish this well.

A fifth, and more practical rule that I believe in is that a minimalist shoe should never cost more than $100. The word minimalist in and of itself implies less of a shoe, and for that reason I can’t understand how any “stripped-down” shoe should cost more than one that is loaded with the supposedly “latest and greatest” shoe technology. Given that many people are interested in trying minimalist running, but are not necessarily ready to shell out the bucks for a pair of shoes that they might not wind up wearing very often, what options are out there?

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

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