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Barefoot Shoes - Weirder or Better?

Photo: Barefoot shoes over Wenatchee. These shoes isolate the toes for better grip. More importantly, there is very little padding in these shoes, which forces you to run more naturally on the balls of your feet.

Story and photos by Kim Anderson

A few years ago I was first exposed to barefoot shoes when my teenage son brought a pair home as his ‘school shoes.’ While the rest of the family ridiculed him, I held my tongue and said, “Those look interesting!” 

These were one of the first pairs in the region and I was nervous about the guff he was going to get at school. To my surprise, he not only kept wearing them, he kept praising them. I was yet to be convinced.

My skepticism softened a bit because of an article published in that receptacle of all the best information (WenatcheeOutdoors, of course) titled, "Running Safer and Faster” focusing on techniques of local racer and running coach, Jason Jablonski. This article helped me change my posture and stride to a more forward position that used the balls of my feet for shock absorption. Then over the past year, I met more serious runners who had transitioned to barefoot shoes for this forward positioning and who were now rabid evangelists.

As these shoes were now showing up in all the athletic stores, I decided it was time to try them. I purchased a smooth-soled pair and hit the trails. Initially my trail runs were close to home in the Saddle Rock area on smooth, sandy trails. I was surprised how light the shoes were and how little lactic pain remained  in my calves the next day. I started thinking about longer mountain runs.

Photo: Traction sole (left) provides better grip on the dirts and gravels of trail runs.

My smartest move before embarking on more serious runs was getting a more professional fit and heeding the advice of Josh Tarr at the American Shoe Shop in Wenatchee. He outfitted me with a much better-fitting shoe and one with a better tread for trail running. These shoes had little knobs for better grip in gravel and on rocks. Again, I was surprised how light these were and how freeing it was to run in the mountains with only a little calf and quad pain the next day. This is a common benefit when you remove heel strikes from your running. Another benefit for me: I avoided the joint or back pain I normally experienced after longer mountain runs.

My last test was to run on pavement to see how my body responded on flat, hard surfaces. A friend asked me to do a sprint-triathlon with him, and I decided this would be a worthy test for the barefoot shoes. As a weekend warrior who didn’t train for triathlons, my goals for the competition were:  1) Don’t drown on the swim 2) Ride a bit faster than PeeWee Herman  3) Don’t stop on the run.

Unlike my other runs where I started with fresh muscles, this run followed the swimming and biking legs of the competition. While on the run, I couldn’t ‘rest’ by running slower on my heels -- I had to keep my weight forward even though I was worn out from the swimming, biking, and the 90-degree heat.

I did achieve my goals. I didn’t drown. PeeWee would have been slower. And even though I was hurting,  I kept running. My shock came at the awards ceremony when they called my name. I was nursing an unfiltered vitamin B complex drink (aka: home-brewed  ale) but it wasn’t the drink that had me utterly confused, it was that they announced my name when this was not the part of the program for the random drawings. It took a while to register that I had the third fasted time in the running portion of the race!

Upon reflection I’m not being falsely modest in saying that a good deal of credit belongs to the barefoot shoes. With these shoes, I had to lean forward and keep a steady pace for the entire run. Even though I was exhausted and wanted to slow down, these light shoes forced me to be faster.


  Insights from a newbie barefoot trail runner:

  • Think of your first pair of barefoot shoes as an experiment -- just have fun with them.
  • Buy a quality pair of shoes from a salesperson who knows about barefoot shoes. My first pair, purchased from someone less knowledgeable, was one size too large.
  • Start slowly—your posture and leg muscles need to adjust. Wear the shoes  around home (and walk on your toes) for a week. Next, take short runs and bring your regular shoes  in case your calves start burning.
  • While there are documented  benefits to barefoot running, don’t expect miracles – they won’t give you a brand-new figure. I still have the same butt as before.
  • The shoes last longer than I thought. My teenage son has used his pair (made by Vibram) for two years.
  • Should you buy toed or non-toed shoes? I prefer toed shoes for the mountains because I like gripping the contours of the trail with my toes.
  • Fit the shoes without socks. They should be snug and hard to slip on.
  • If your feet have structural concerns (e.g., flat feet), consult a podiatrist first.
  • Avoid using these shoes in places with deep, loose scree – they won’t provide adequate ankle protection from possible cuts and abrasions.

Editors Note: If you switch to this style of shoe, it's important to change your form and run on the balls of your feet. Research indicates that those who switch and change their form can see benefits, but those who run the same old way in these new shoes will increase wear-and-tear on their bodies. More about this.