How Barefoot Running Shoes Work

Running Injuries and Barefoot Running Shoes

Barefoot running encourages a forefoot strike, which proponents assert is how our bodies are designed to run.
Barefoot running encourages a forefoot strike, which proponents assert is how our bodies are designed to run.

As we mentioned earlier, minimalist shoes are designed to provide the improved balance and foot and leg strength you get from the barefoot experience while simultaneously protecting feet from road hazards. But how successful are they?

Christopher McDougall's 2009 best-selling book "Born to Run" quickly became barefoot running's manifesto. It spawned a surge in the popularity of barefoot running and in barefoot running shoes. Unfortunately, it also seems to have spawned a rise in the reports of plantar fasciitis [source: Fitzgerald]. This painful heel condition is the result of too much stress on the plantar fascia, which normally helps cushion your landing while walking or running by providing arch support. Most barefoot running shoes try to add just enough cushioning to prevent this very common running injury [source: Mayo]. What these shoes don't do is provide arch support, which still leaves a significant risk for plantar fasciitis. But is that risk inevitable for barefoot and minimalist runners? Some would argue not.

Barefoot running enthusiasts often claim that running in overly cushy shoes encourages poor form, while running unshod or minimally shod allows your body to provide the necessary feedback to your brain to let you know when you're overtaxing your frame and muscles. In "Born to Run," McDougall colorfully describes a trip to Mexico during which he encounters a tribe that runs all the time in nothing but thin sandals yet suffers few injuries. He credits their nearly-barefoot running and the good form it produces for their low injury rate.

The story of our lost connection to our body mechanics goes something like this: Our feet are built amazingly well and should be flexible and strong by nature. Supportive, cushiony shoes have allowed our feet to get away with some major slacking, causing atrophy in the muscle groups of the foot and ankle. Barefoot running proponents claim that this weakness, caused by the very shoes we thought were protecting us, is to blame for many common running injuries. This muscular weakness can't be reversed all at once. It's a good idea to progress slowly and use barefoot running shoes to transition toward barefootedness so your feet gain strength gradually.

A side benefit of barefoot running shoes is the protection from the environment they offer. Besides natural hazards such as rocks, runners have to watch out for human-generated debris like metal and glass that would spell a quick end to anyone's barefoot running. The minimal rubber sole of a barefoot running shoe is usually enough to keep the worst from happening.

If you think you want to give barefoot running shoes a try, how do you know what to buy?