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The Evolution of Minimalist Shoe Theory

Posted by on Mar 2, 2011 | 8 Comments

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:

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  1. Angelina
    March 2, 2011

    Props to you as well for admitting and acknowledging how your shoe stance evolves over the years… like you, I feel like my shoe stance has evolved over the years. I feel like most collegiate athletes who are sponsored by a particular shoe company are so enamored at the idea of getting “free schwag” from someone, anyone, because they’re willing to train 4-6 hours a day everyday, and eat, sleep, breathe the sport and put their whole hearts into it, that they never really question what they’re putting on their feet.

    I think it’s only when an athlete, collegiate or non-collegiate, gets injured that they’re forced to reflect on perhaps why what “90% of the runners out there were doing” didn’t work for them…. because until you get injured yourself, you fail to realize that 50% of the 90% of runners out there… are also getting injured fairly frequently…

  2. Angelina
    March 2, 2011

    ElyDave– consider the Invisible Shoe as an option: especially if you want the closest thing to barefoot with that extra layer of protection… plus you can choose your own lace colors, and have bead decorations on them etc if you care about looks or individualizing them. What I like about them compared to the Merrell True Glove is that they’re customized to your individual foot shape and size, where the Merrell True Glove still has a “toe box” and still mimics a shoe more so than a non-shoe entity.

  3. Angelina
    March 2, 2011

    I agree whole-heartedly that it’s important for people to realize that running with good form is of first and foremost importance with regard to not getting injured, and 2nd comes what you happen to be wearing or not wearing on your feet. I have found a similar correlation, based on my own body as a personal case study (I ran for Florida State NCAA D1 xc and track) and was injured my first year and a half pretty much… I ran in mostly minimal footwear all through high school, but also ran about 20 miles a week, and specialized in 400-800m and 4k xc… in college, we ran 30-55 miles a week, I specialized in the 800-6k, and I ran in overly cushioned running shoes for 70% of my mileage, training flats, spikes, minimalist footwear for 20% of it, and then 10% of it was barefoot strides or barefoot cooldowns and such with the team on grass etc.

    I didn’t get injured my last few years at FSU, but a lot was in part due to a great improvement of form.

    Once my form improved, once I strengthened my hip flexors and didn’t overstride, and a bunch of other things, I was able to run higher mileage in a Nike free, a Nike Lunar racer, a Saucony Kinvara, an Invisible Shoe, you name it. I’ll run barefoot barefoot on grass or dirt… but when I want that extra layer of protection but the closest thing to barefoot, I choose my Invisible shoes ( When I want to do middle distance or sprint workouts with my spikes in, I’ll wear a Nike or Saucony racing flat/spike… like you said… it’s about your goal, where you’re coming from, what you’re trying to get to, and ultimately using shoes as tools for a specific purpose.

    Great post- you rock!

    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.

  4. Elydave
    March 2, 2011

    I’m just getting into the idea of minimalist running after having a winter severely curtailed by injuries, and having plenty of tiem to read. I don’t think I’m ready to go barefoot all the time, though I will try it in the summer, mainly becasue I travel worldwide and end up running a lot on the streets in strange city centres, or on treadmills on oilrigs. I’m currently slowly acclimatising to forefoot running form either in my normal running shoes, or socks on a treadmill and I intend to buy a pair of minimalist shoes in the next few days.

    I’m a little stuck on my choice though. I’ve got it down to either the Merrell Trail Glove or the Inov8 F-lite 195, do you have any particular advide on this or is it just get a pair of one of them and try it.

    Incidentally, I’ve been going sockless in a pair of my favourite shoes lately and getting much better feedback to my feet, and it was only when I looked at them that I realised they have very little padding and no heel/toe height differential. I guess my feet knew it all along!

  5. Kate (KittyK)
    March 2, 2011

    It’s good to see that you are confident in yourself to re-evaluate your position and change it. That’s quite hard for most people. I remember your zealot days – you were scary!

    When I came back to running in May 2009, I started barefoot on an indoor track. This was so important to learn form. About 2-3 months later I discovered trail-running and I had to evaluate precisely how I wanted my running to go. Do I stay barefoot but run trails very slowly, OR put on some minimal shoes and have fun. I chose the latter option and I don’t regret it. I will say I am more of a minimalist runner because it’s the option that allows me to have fun. Initially it was VFF’s, then I made my own minimalist shoes, now I have a pair of Merrells. I am finding that each shoe has it’s own individual purpose. VFF for trail in summer, hacked water boots for trail winter (Or very cold winter road running), and Merrells – well.. I’ll get back to you on that after I have run in them :)

    I was asked last night at the running club about my stance on running shoes and if barefoot was better. (I am the only BFR/MR at our club). I think they were shocked when I said, that there was NO fool-proof evidence to say BFR will fix your injuries, BUT there is no evidence that running shoes will prevent injuries. You chose the shoe you need to do the job. As long as you are running, you are happy and not getting injured then that’s all that matters. I think BF/MR runners are seen as zealots and it’s shocking that after the “Newbie” period is over, most of us are actually quite open-minded about “shoes” and their roles.

  6. Jen
    March 2, 2011

    I think it’s great that you evolved and can help all the rest of us newbies to do the same. I thought I would learn to run barefoot to replicate it in shoes, but found that it was just so much fun that I didn’t want to quit. The snow changed that real quick. Great post!

  7. Brandon
    March 2, 2011

    2007: “I also adopted a serious anti-barefoot stance. Since I now did all running barefoot, all shoes became evil”

    I think you mean an anti-shoe stance? :-)

    Great post though. Funny to see your progression across the spectrum of running footwear (or lack-thereof!) Maybe someday I’ll do it too, but I’ll need to include my specific injuries as they’ve caused me to jump all over the place.

  8. shel
    March 2, 2011

    so basically i evolved a lot faster than you, is what you are saying. i knew right from the start that no-shoes-ever was not an option for me. bf running was just going to be a training tool, and i prayed like mad for a shoe that would allow me to do what i loved, do it right, and not get hurt. you have had a major influence on the now vast array of shoes at my disposal. as a forever minimalist i am grateful for all the wonderful choices available to us. ordered a merrel trail glove and an inov-8 xtalon for this year’s races and adventures and i am so looking forward to never having cramped toes again.