Frequent fails of barefoot shoes

barefoot on leaves

(reading time: 9 mins)

What’s a long distance to run? 10,000 metres? A marathon? A 100 mile ultra-marathon in mountainous terrain, barely stopping through day and night for 20 hours?

There is a growing understanding that the human body evolved to run for several hours and cover tens of miles daily. Over long distances humans are the fastest animal on the planet because we lose heat efficiently, making us the supreme ‘persistence’ hunters, and our ancestors pursued our prey to collapse for an easy kill. Humans have only made tools for around 200,000 years, so for the first 1.8 million years of human evolution, the ability to run long distances was a probably a key factor preventing our extinction – before large brains and the ability to change our surroundings really gave us the evolutionary leg-up.

Long distances used to be shorter

In 1972 my father watched an athletics event in Edinburgh, where a mix of Olympic hopefuls and lower ranked amateurs were competing. In the 10k the slower runners came in long after the podium places had been decided, but everybody stayed and cheered the stragglers home, feeling that anyone finishing a 10,000m run was achieving something special.

At this time distance running was to the general population a bit eccentric and unnatural. It was the same for many scientists,with some near Victorian paranoia about the effects of distance running on the female physiology, including fears that marathon running might collapse a woman’s womb! 1972 was a important year for running. As well as being the year the modern running shoe was born, it was also the first year women were allowed in the Boston Marathon.

The first Olympic womens’ marathon wasn’t until Los Angeles in 1984. By then expectations of how far the average person could run had changed and my father was just another office worker pounding the streets on a Sunday afternoon to counteract the 9 to 5, often running as far as the athletes he’d watched with some respect 12 years earlier. Like the majority of joggers he valued his long term health, had no intention of running in old fashioned flat soled gym pumps, so invested in specialised running shoes. Highly cushioned and supportive, a multi-billion dollar industry had grown rapidly since the Seventies to save millions of amateurs from the apparent dangers of all that running.

Why the move towards barefoot?

A few decades on, the barefoot/minimal running movement has prompted a re-examination of running techniques and found the modern running shoe to be fundamentally flawed in several ways. Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run is a key text of this movement). Their most damaging property by far is the large cushioned heel pad, which encourages you to throw the leg too far forward, landing heel first on a straightened leg. The leg then acts as a partial brake on your stride, forcing your ankles, knees, hips etc to absorb an unnatural and wholly unnecessary impact.

The most convincing demonstration of how unnatural it is to ‘heel strike’ is what a runner does on a treadmill without shoes. Within a few strides runners land on the forefoot not the heel because it’s too painful to do otherwise. And it’s notable that the Kenyans have utterly dominated distance running in recent decades. This is partly because running barefoot as children helps to develop a good forefoot running technique.

I’ve re-trained myself to run in a forefoot style. I won’t describe the process in depth here – there are some good how to’s in the links below. I do believe reducing your runs to barefoot/minimal only (going ‘cold turkey’), and sometimes running completely shoeless are important so the forefoot style is clear and distinct in your mind. Otherwise there is a risk of gradually going back to heel striking. On the other hand some people over-complicate what is only a return to running more naturally. I actually saw one YouTuber say while he’s convinced a barefoot style is better, he thinks it will take him months, maybe years to get there!

Most ‘barefoot’ runners actually use some kind of barefoot/minimal shoe, which is perhaps less contradictory than it sounds. Our barefoot ancestors had tougher feet and supporting tissue than modern humans, as they were barefoot all day long. Another issue may be that humans evolved to mostly run on soil, which absorbed some of the impact on landing. So puncture resistance, a sole pattern offering grip, and some cushioning in a shoe seem a reasonable compromise for modern runners landing feet primarily on hard urban ground or trails. Although again I do think time spent running completely shoeless is also important as a check on technique.

Five requirements of a ‘barefoot/minimal’ shoe

There’s a lot of marketing around barefoot and minimal shoes, and debate about the true meaning of those words when applied to footwear. To me any such shoe must keep to these five key principles:

  1. Heel and toes at the same height off the ground, what’s known as “zero drop”.
  2. Good feedback of ground conditions through the sole of the shoe.
  3. Plenty of room for mid-foot and toes to spread out.
  4. Minimal or zero arch support, as support undermines the natural strength of the arch.
  5. Light in weight – a key reason running barefoot is so efficient is because there is a considerable disadvantage in strapping weights onto your feet!

How the industry gets it wrong

As this is a new industry no-one has yet built the perfect barefoot/minimal running shoe. The existing sports shoe manufacturers, Nike, New Balance, Addidas etc market what are labelled barefoot/minimal style shoes. But as a buyer my impression is they either don’t get it, or feel committing to minimal shoes might undermine the validity of what they’ve been doing for decades. So for example at the time of writing, I found all mens’ runners in the Nike Free range available in the UK had either a 4mm or 8mm heel to toe drop, breaking condition 1 above. My Nike Free Distance RN’s are a slight improvement on standard running shoes, but even with a 4mm drop I found you really have to concentrate on maintaining a good forefoot style, it’s too easy to slip into a halfway style. Plus their toe box is only marginally wider than my old heel striker trainers.

The invasive arch of Merrell’s Bare Access 4 is sadly not unusual.

Merrell’s offerings were either trail shoes or the only road shoe I could find, the Bare Access 4, which I ordered and returned because it had an invasive arch support that rubbed even walking around the living room. Addidas don’t seem to be offering any minimal road shoes in the UK right now and although the New Balance Minimus range are generally well received, they’re currently only offering general trainers for cross-fit and weight training.

There are some specialist makers of barefoot shoes. I bypassed the odd looking Vibram five fingers, although these are arguably the closest thing available to a pure barefoot shoe, and made my transition to barefoot/minimal running with Vivobarefoot Motus (faulty and returned without issue) and then Trail FG. The fit and feel of both were good, and they certainly meet all five of the principles above for a barefoot shoe.

However my current running shoes of choice are the Altra Instinct 3.0 and Altra The One2, both road shoes with zero drop and a wide toe box. They do have around with 1/2″ to 1″ cushioning, similar to thinner soled heel-strikers trainer, which inevitably reduces ground feedback. This matters because research suggests excess cushioning may cause a runner to subconsciously hit the ground harder as the brain seeks a certain level of information about ground conditions underfoot. But what is excessive cushioning? To me Altra seem to have it about right, especially with The One2. By contrast in the very thin soled Vivobarefoot Trail FG the absence of any cushioning was for me at least, too harsh for road running – my feet kept seeking out grass verges or other chances to land on something other than concrete, even if only for a few steps. The only feedback my brain received was a constant message that went; ‘…Concrete! …Concrete! …Concrete!’. I hope Vivobarefoot will consider offering one or two models with some cushioning, i.e 10mm plus, without feeling it compromises their commitment to barefoot principles.

Although I prefer the Altras one major gripe is the conventional level of arch support. This may be a by-product of the way the company came about – father and son ran a shop where they customized standard heel striker trainers with zero drop soles, before moving into manufacture of their own zero-drop running shoes. With all the claimed barefoot/minimal shoes I’ve tried, arch support seems to be the one thing manufacturers are reluctant to ditch (Vivobarefoot and Lems are notable exceptions here).

I’m not in any way a health professional, but do subscribe to the argument that arch supports may weaken the foot due to simple engineering. The inside of the human foot is a flexible arch, which spreads the body weight out forwards and backwards to the heel and ball of the foot as our body weight lands on it. The foot works in the same way as a brick arch which pushes the weight of the masonry above your head out to the supporting walls. The way to make a brick arch collapse is to push something up into its centre – applying the same principle to your foot would suggest arch supports prevent muscle developing naturally and so build weakness into your foot. Given this, and the fact that arch support will never be perfectly positioned for every foot shape they come into contact with, I hope Altra will also adopt ‘zero arch’ as a basic principle along with ‘zero drop’ in their running shoes.

Will the big names ever make proper barefoot shoes? Perhaps they don’t ‘get it’ as I said before. But there’s another reason why I believe only specialist manufacturers are likely to make good barefoot/minimal shoes for a while yet. Have you noticed how rarely your favourite trainer is available for more than a year? In Born to Run Christopher McDougall reveals this is a deliberate marketing strategy of the multinationals. The reason for these frequent model changes is less the belief you’ll be seduced by this season’s offerings, but because they know when customers find a designs that suits them, many will buy two, three or more pairs of that shoe in the knowledge it will soon disappear, which then boosts sales overall. Trainers are constantly marketed as being the result of extensive research and development, but if you look at customer reviews frequently designs get worse year on year. Is that because the R&D departments of billion dollar companies keep closing in on a great design and somehow the scientists get their data wrong and send the designers off course? Unlikely. The reason for those constant design changes is primarily marketing, which often requires the multinational to make a shoe that’s worse than previous designs to keep sales figures high, simply because it’s different.

A barefoot shoe is by its nature the minimum needed to give a close to barefoot experience. If a barefoot shoe keeps to the five principles above changes are likely to be incremental, a process of regular refinements which would theoretically result in only a few designs; the ideal road running shoe, the ideal trail running shoe, the ideal competition shoe etc. Ok, there probably is no such thing as right for all feet – only the Tarahumara tribe described in Born to Run seem to approach that with the Huarache sandals, a simple strip of leather with straps to hold it in place. My point is the specialist barefoot/minimal industry must avoid change for change’s sake because they have a knowledgeable customer base, so must listen to their customers and refine. This is the barefoot shoe maker’s best strategy to develop their market share, and is a fundamentally different business model from established multinationals.

If not, we may have to bin all types of running shoe and go back to running as 2 million years of evolution dictate!

Related info:

  • Christopher McDougall explains why running shoes are bad for you on Real Sports
  • Treadmill running without shoes The Guardian
  • Cold turkey is best when making the transition to zero drop running style
  • A 2014 study shows many minimal/forefoot runners are actually heel striking – possibly due to never running shoeless?

Specialist minimal/barefoot shoe manufacturers: