Barefoot or trainers?

I’m going to try my best not to be biased when I write this article because, not only am I a barefoot enthusiast, but I’m also a barefoot runner.  And yes, when I say “bare” I mean bare; as bare as a babies bottom!

Evolution of the running shoe.


The debate over this topic has gone on for many years now.  It all started when minimalist shoes like Vibram Five Fingers popped onto the scene like a flasher running through a scrum in a rugby game.

Many people had no clue what they were and what the hype was all about, but they bought them anyway in hope they could make themselves look cool and impress the opposite sex.  Where many failed miserably, many others achieved monumental success.  But I’m not one to let ego control my purchasing decisions so I let others play that game.

Fast forward to the present and we still have a good deal of attention directed toward the barefoot lifestyle.  The question that still looms heavy is, just what is better when it comes to running—using trainers or going unshod?  The answer is more in the mechanics than the footwear.  Here’s how it goes.

The traditional running shoe.

When you wear a thick-soled, spongy-heeled shoe, you have an enormous amount of cushion under your heel.   This gives you the sense of security to pound that very same heel into the ground as hard as you see fit while running.  That may feel comfortable, but in reality you are sending metric tons of force into your kinetic chain – the link of joints that run from your feet all the way up to your neck.

You can get away with that for weeks, months and maybe even years, but it’s risky business my friend.  Your joints don’t like being shocked like that on a repetitive basis.  Eventually you can literally “run” into problems like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, bone spurs, iliotibial (IT) band syndrome and patellar tendonitis.

barefoot or trainers

A common misconception.

Impact is the main issue at hand here.  Uncommon to popular belief, running barefoot does NOT cause impact to your joints.  In fact, it is the complete opposite.  Think about this for a second.  If you ripped off your shoes and sped on down the road with a normal heel-strike gait, what do you think would happen to your calcaneus (heel bone)?  I’m guessing it would shatter somewhere around stride three or four.  That’s where the art of barefoot running comes in.  That’s right.  It’s an art.

When you run barefoot, you are forced to change your landing mechanics.  Instead of smacking your heel on the ground, you land softly on the balls of your feet and your heel either never touches the ground at all, or it grazes lightly.  In turn, you land softer and miss out on all the impact you would get by wearing trainers.

Let’s say you simply changed your gait while wearing your flippy, floppy shoes.  You would still spare yourself the impact and do your joints a favor.  So regardless of the shoes, it’s more of a landing issue that you need to be aware of.

Just remember that tight glutes, hip flexors and a locked pelvis can alter your stride, no matter what you have on your feet.  If you lack the flexibility to move smoothly, this can translate down to your landing mechanics.  Avoid this by stretching regularly before and after your runs.  A weekly dose or two of yoga is also a really good idea.

Practice makes perfect.

Lastly, if you are looking to run barefoot, don’t think you can do it overnight.  It can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to go from shod to unshod.  The first thing you need to do is learn how to run with a forefoot strike, then slowly get thinner and thinner shoes until you get to something equivalent to a Vibram.

Once you get there, start going for short jogs barefoot and take your minimalists with you.  As soon as your feet start feeling a bit uncomfortable, throw your shoes on and finish your run.  Keep increasing the distance until you can go a normal length and you have it.

There’s a lot more to the transition, but that’s a good, quick summary for now.  If you are looking to eventually go barefoot, contact me and I can help you get there.  I know this topic very well and do education on it all the time.  With that, go try out what I’ve discussed and let me know how you do.

 Read more from WatchFit Expert Kevin Rail

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