Runners still debate what’s best – thick-soled sneakers or barefoot running shoes? Does more cushion protect your feet better? Do minimalist shoes make them stronger? I was curious, so I gave barefoot running shoes a go.
When people talk about barefoot running, they’re usually referring to running in minimalist footwear. Barefoot shoes often have a thin sole and separate movable toe pockets. They allow your feet to move more freely, while still providing some protection from splinters, stones and debris.
Why run barefoot?
Classic running books have explored the benefits of running barefoot – or wearing minimalist footwear. For example, Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run and Adharanand Finn’s Running with the Kenyans. (Runner’s gift-list, anyone?) Meanwhile, Dr Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body marvels at how evolution has given us feet so well-engineered for the task (the author famously runs without shoes).
Despite the popularity of these titles – and the persuasive arguments they make – shoes with thick soles and cushioned heels still outnumber barefoot alternatives at races and in sportswear stores. I had to wonder, is going barefoot the running world’s best kept secret? Or is minimalist footwear just a gimmick? I decided to find out for myself. Soon after, a pair of Vibram FiveFingers KSOs arrived at my door. (No wonder people ask, ‘Why do runners have so many running shoes?’)
Unboxing my Vibram FiveFingers
‘You are the technology’ announced a slogan on the shoebox. Clearly, I’d chosen the right shoes for my barefoot experiment. I flipped open the lid and examined my new FiveFingers.
Compared with my usual chunky-soled trainers, they looked sleek and streamlined. The upper side bore a set of individual toe pockets, stitched from a stretchy fabric. A mesh upper offered some airflow, while a single, adjustable strap encircled the elasticated opening. On the underside, everything was glued onto a single rubber outsole, shaped like a cartoon foot. This flexible sole was mostly smooth, aside from some minor texture around the heel and toes, along with some ultra-fine slits, which only show when the sole is bent.
Transitioning to barefoot shoes
After inspecting my barefoot shoes, I was eager to pull them on and try them out. But something else inside the box stopped me in my tracks. Alongside the shoes, I found a pamphlet with a ‘suggested transition plan’ for those wearing FiveFingers for the first time. Beyond the change in footwear, I’d assumed running barefoot would be like-for-like in every other way. But this pamphlet urged me to proceed with care.
During the first two weeks, the plan suggested wearing the shoes only for a short time for daily activities, such as walking or around the house. Running was out of the question. In the weeks that followed, the plan suggested using the shoes for a fraction of a usual session, but only every other day. Week-by-week, the shoes could be used for a greater amount of these sessions. At week 13, the overall intensity and number of workouts could go up, but the final instruction was to ‘listen to your body’. The message was loud and clear: rush at your own risk.
Trying out my FiveFingers
I slipped my FiveFingers on – taking care to put each toe in the correct pocket – and wore them at home. They felt more like socks or slippers than shoes. Compared to clomping around in outdoor shoes, my footfall felt softer and more agile. Once I’d got used to the strangeness of seeing my wiggling toes, I soon forgot I was wearing them at all.
When I took them outside for my first run, the difference was stark. My footfall changed immediately. With scant cushion on the heel, I automatically adjusted my stride to soften my landing. Long, loping strides and heel strikes gave way to short, quick steps on my midsole and forefoot. My stride felt swift and light, yet I could tell the shift in footfall was working my calf muscles much harder.
How much I could feel through them surprised me less. With just 2mm of insole within the thin outsole, I was much more aware of what was happening underfoot – I could feel every stone, bump or tree root. I automatically started to scan the route ahead for the softest and smoothest places to land. As a result, I was much more in tune with my surroundings. My steps become rapid and nimble as I aimed for the most comfortable spots to strike down.
After my FiverFingers’ first outing, I understood why the transition plan was so wary. At the time, I regularly ran half marathons in my cushioned sneakers. After just one mile in barefoot shoes – yes, a single mile – my soles were sore and my calves ached. I was shocked. I felt the same way I had as a beginner on my journey from side-line to start line. While I was trialling the shoes, they were testing me too. Clearly, adjusting would take some time.
Have I found my ‘sole’ mate?
Over several weeks, I gradually increased my distance. I switched between short runs in my barefoot shoes and long runs in my traditional shoes. This allowed me to keep my distance up, while my body adapted to running barefoot. Soon, my soles had toughened up and my lower leg muscles were strong enough that I could use my barefoot shoes for large parts of my training.
At the time of writing, I still wear regular trainers for many of my runs, particularly when I’m going long-distances or off-road. But adding barefoot shoes to my collection has allowed me to strengthen parts of my legs and feet that were sheltered or underused by my go-to running shoes.
More than anything, the experience of going back to just one mile reminded me how we runners can always find a fresh challenge – whether we want to run faster, go further or simply test out some new footwear!