Over the last six years or so, my attitude towards shoes has changed dramatically. Over that time, i have slowly developed some personal guidelines that help me understand the relationship between barefoot running and running in shoes.
These still seems to be a significant debate among barefoot runners regarding the use of shoes. I hope my experiences can help others understand how shoes should fit into their running adventures.
I ran as conditioning for high school sports. After high school, I ran recreationally, but only about three miles per week. I never really gave shoes much thought, I ran in whatever I happened to be wearing. Sometimes that may have been barefoot, in wrestling shoes, or in my generic worn-out crosstraining shoes.
Opinion of shoes: Never considered it an issue
This is the year I met Shelly and started recreational running on a regular basis… maybe 10-15 miles per week. I wore my overly-used crosstrainers for every run.
Opinion of shoes: Never considered it an issue, but was a bit too embarrassed to run barefoot.
I started running races. In an attempt to emulate the other runners, I bought some running shoes… Sauconys I believe. I also adopted their heel-strike running gait. How could 90% of the runners be wrong? Not coincidentally, this is the year I started getting hurt. A lot.
Opinion of shoes: Shoes were cool!
This is the year I started barefoot running. I would sometimes use aqua socks when the terrain got too rough. I quickly abandoned shoes because barefoot felt good.
Opinion of shoes: Somewhat indifferent
In my second year of barefoot running, I started connecting with other barefoot runners. I also adopted a serious anti-barefoot shoe stance (thanks for catching that, Brandon). Since I now did all running barefoot, all shoes became evil. This is about the time Vibrams appeared, but they were expensive and looked silly.
Opinion of shoes: Shoes are bad.
By my third year, I realized some conditions are not favorable for barefoot running. Still I tried running barefoot all the time. I bought a pair of VFFs for the gym, and finally used them after 25 barefoot miles at the beginning of a 100 miler. I DNFed at mile 64.
Opinion of shoes: Shoes are really bad.
I started the year in full “all shoes are bad” mode. In the spring, I started posting on the new Runners World Barefoot Running Forum. I was what could be called a “barefoot purist.” I routinely mocked people for asking about shoes. Several people called me out on my mocking (most notably- Lat and Notleh) and challenged my opinions.By that time, I started objectively assessing shoes, their design, and the effect that design had on running.
By the end of the year, I had started teaching others about barefoot running.
Opinion of shoes: Some shoes are okay some of the time.
I started to realize running form was far more important than what you wore on your feet. This is the year I developed the “shoes as tools” idea:
Barefoot is best, but some conditions warrant some degree of protection. In that case, find the best (usually the most minimal) shoe for the job.
I started differentiating various qualities of shoes like heel lift, toe box width, etc. I also started reviewing shoes in earnest. I still had the idea that some shoes were inherently superior to others.
Opinions of shoes: Some shoes are great, others suck.
I have been developing the “shoes as tools” idea to include individuality. I realized my shoe preferences are quite different than other people’s preferences. I may love a particular shoe, but others will hate it. One shoe may be my perfect road shoe, while the same shoe is another runner’s perfect trail shoe. Here’s my latest shoe guidelines:
Barefoot is better for learning good form. It is also the best option for people that are especially good at reacting to feedback from their body. Shoes should be thought of as tools that can be used when barefoot running is not possible. Some people may be able to wear shoes full-time without issues. When picking the right shoe, it is up to the individual to know their own preferences of shoe characteristics. What works for me will not necessarily work for you. As such, it is up to each person to find their ideal shoe for their specific conditions.
I think I’m finally starting to dial in a good working theory of the role shoes play in running.
Opinion of shoes: It’s an individual thing. Form is more important than foot coverings, and foot coverings vary by individual.
The lesson: Keep an open mind.
Of course, this may just be an elaborate justification for my now-huge shoe collection…
On a semi-related note- check out Merrell’s new iPhone app geared toward learning barefoot running: