Sunday, March 6, 2011

Barefoot runner reviews shoes......what?

   The best way to learn how to run is to run barefoot.  It is an honest, wise, and efficient teacher.  This will always, always be my first advice.  Like with much of life its not always the appropriate approach for everyone.   Considering season, goals, individual circumstances, and even individual personalities barefoot may not be what you want to do now.   Minimal shoes are the next best thing.   I believe without a doubt that barefoot running is the most efficient and enjoyable way to run and allows me to look at a shoe from a different standpoint than I used to have when I bought into the whole stability, cushioning, immobilization in a foot coffin is best camp.  I will always choose barefoot over shod if I can and choose a minimal shoe that is barefoot inspired when I can't.    It seems as if many people want to hear my opinion on these barefoot inspired shoes and there are more and more of them coming out all the time now that barefoot running is becoming a more widely accepted and talked about topic.

   Christopher McDougall said that shoes are like clothing and should be applied as necessary.  Here in Iowa I have decided to take the winter and turn it into shoe review season.   Its a coping mechanism to try and make it through the winter with my sanity intact.    I have close to two years of barefoot running experience that I don't want to keep to myself.  I want to share what I think of shoes  with you by hopefully steering you in the direction of a true minimal shoe that will aid in your running form and if done correctly, lead you on a path to less injury from running .  Maybe saving some time and money along the way and also supporting some of the really fantastic companies out there.

  So what make a good minimal or barefoot inspired shoe?  These are qualities that I find important.  It must be pointed out though that everyone is different in preference as well as body type and just because a shoe works or doesn't work for me don't just take my word for it.  Try on the shoes for yourself if you can.

For the sake of brevity and simplicity I will make a list

  • Ground Feel-  This is how well you can feel the ground with your foot.  There is going to be a dampening of sensation any time we cover our feet.  Those nerve endings are less able to perceive surface texture, temperature, danger, or pleasure.   A thinner sole means you are able to have more feedback and are able to respond appropriately to the ground you are moving on.    The Con to a thinner soled shoe is that it provides less protection from the cold.  The key to overcoming this is to stay as dry as possible and keep moving!!
  • Weight- the lighter the shoe the easier it is to lug it around.  Our bodies were designed to run without shoes so any amount of weight will change our barefoot form to some extent. Its a matter of trying to stay as close to barefoot form as possible while still providing protection for your particular environmental needs.
  • Flexibility- I love to roll shoes up in a ball.  If they pass that test they are on the top of my list.  The shoes should be flexible and move with your foot and not keep it immobile in any range of movement.
  • Wide toebox-  When your foot lands on the ground the toes and midfoot splay and conform to the surface it is landing on.  The toe box must be wide enough to allow for this splay or the shoes will lead to discomfort if not injury down the road.   It is possible to have a shoe allow for splay and yet feel narrow.  The shoe must be very very flexible to do this.  The Sockwa Amphibian water shoes are an example of this.  This is one of the only examples however that I have come across. (edited to add that after months of testing shoes I have found that there are several shoe models that are wide enough)
  • Sockless liner-  Its really nice to be able to wear minimal shoes without socks to increase the sensory feedback.  If there are seams that rub and cause blisters it will make running unfun and whats the point in that. 
  • Zero heel toe drop or very close to it- the heel toe drop is the difference in height of the heel to the toe in a shoe.  A flat or very close to flat, such as a couple of mm, heel toe drop is ideal. When there is a higher heel it changes your posture and will lead to an unnatural running form.  It will encourage you to heel strike and a padded heel will give you a false sense of security and fool you into believing that the shock is being absorbed into the padded heel when instead it is just being sent up through your leg and into the rest of your body. (I would not run in more than 2mm and thats pushing it.  The rest of the shoe has to have some stellar redeeming qualities to make up for the differential)
  • No cushioning or very little-   When you run barefoot you run gently and lightly.  You bend your knees and change your form until it doesn't hurt to run.  If you land with big lumbering hard strides it will hurt and you will stop.  Cushioning in shoes leads you to believe that it will not lead to injury because it doesn't hurt.  
  • Tightening system-  I have found that some kind of tightening system whether it is lacing or velcro, to be very beneficial to the fit of the shoe.  I want the shoe to stay put on my feet yet provide me with options to tighten or loosen based on my changing needs. (this is not mandatory as some shoes do stay on and are comfortable with elastic at the ankle however its a crucial point to consider)

I like minimal shoes for all  areas of life.  For work I wear my VFF KSO Treks.  They are black leather and look sleek and stylish and not distracting however they also lead to some fantastic conversations with people about barefoot running with those that notice them.

There are many shoe companies out now that have casual barefoot inspired shoes and so far I really like the whole Merrell womens barefoot line and I will be testing out a pair from Terra Plana's VIVOBAREFOOT line soon.


  I do not feel obligated to write a positive review of a product just because I received it for free.  I see it as being beneficial for all involved including myself, the company, and anyone that reads my reviews.  It would benefit no one if it were a dishonest review.   The companies take feedback from testers and pass that along to the design team.


There are many other shoe reviewers out there with different perspectives.  Here is a link to a fellow shoe reviewer and barefoot runner Jason Robillard at Barefoot Running University's  post on the same topic.

A note about minimal shoes!
Barefoot inspired minimal shoes should be worked into gradually just as you would with going totally barefoot.  Bones, tendons, connective tissues, and joints need to adapt to a barefoot workload and it will take time.  Shoes should protect your feet yet not trick you into thinking you don't have to actually work and patiently to get stronger.
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