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The Changing Barefoot/Minimalist Shoe Paradigm

Posted by on Mar 23, 2011 | 5 Comments

The semi-pro social psychologist in me loves observing the maturation of the barefoot/minimalist shoe movement.  I love talking about the past, current trends, and making future predictions.  I’m lucky to have a great network that includes some brilliant minds that objectively discuss the movement.  In fact, this is a reoccurring topic on long runs with Jesse Scott.

Two articles in particular struck a chord- this one by Birthdayshoes founder Justin Owings, and this one by Living Barefoot’s Al Gauthier.  Justin’s article touches on the reasons he prefers Vibrams, while Al’s article addresses the issue of minimalist shoe reviewers.  Both articles address different aspects of this evolving movement.

The Distant Past

Back in the day (several years ago), barefoot runners looking for some sort of protection had few options.  Some talented pseudo-cobblers crafted their own shoes.  The rest of us either used aqua socks or hacked the Hell out of our old cushioned trainers.  We didn’t even begin using the term “minimalist shoe” at that point.

The Not So Distant Past

Vibrams changed the game.  Justin does a great job illustrating the benefits of the shoes.  This gave us the first high-quality true minimalist shoe.  It didn’t work for everyone, but worked reasonably well for most.

The First Wave

Around 2009, a few small companies started getting on board.  The most notable was probably Terra Plana, along with Kigo, Soft Star, and a few others.  These early adopters started producing minimalist shoes that gave Vibram some competition.  Still, options were limited.  Most barefoot runners could find something that worked reasonably well for most conditions.

The Second Wave

This wave hit around the end of 2010 and continues today.  The minimalist shoe market has absolutely exploded with companies like Inov-8, Merrell, GoLite, and New Balance producing shoes that meet a wide variety of needs of barefoot runners.  Suddenly we have options.  A LOT of options.

We’re now faced with an interesting paradigm shift.  Barefoot runners have always made sacrifices when selecting shoes.  If you needed a trail shoe, you’d sacrifice fit for traction.  If you needed a winter shoe, you sacrificed comfort for warmth.

Today, the market has grown to the point where most people could find a shoe that not only fits their own unique foot, but is designed for their specific running needs.  We have never had so many options.

I was making a list of my preferred shoes the other day.  I like to think of shoes as tools, so I am always searching for the best tools for specific tasks.  I was surprised to find seven different shoes on top of my list of about ten different categories.

Back in the day, I had one shoe that served as an all-purpose shoe.  It didn’t work well for anything, but was adequate enough to get the job done.  Today I have a closet full of shoes, each one uniquely designed for a specific task.

Is this the new shoe paradigm?

Retailers worry about the longevity of minimalist shoes.  My old Vibram KSOs have been in service since 2008.  My Merrell Trail Gloves have about 700 miles on them without much wear.  Unlike the EVA-based supportive foot coffins, these things last forever.

I doubt retailers will suffer, though.  Instead of purchasing one pair of shoes every 300 miles, I think minimalist runners will purchase multiple pairs of shoes that will last 1500-2000  miles.


Minimalist runners demand more specialization from their shoes.  Fit becomes increasingly important, and different shoes will require varying degrees of protection.  For example, my ideal road shoe would be incredibly thin and light.  For trails, I want something with considerably more traction and a little more protection.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

This brings me back to Al’s article.  Al correctly addressed the issue of reviewers automatically giving glowing reviews without mentioning negatives.  I agree that this dilutes the usefulness of reviews.  Based on the new shoe paradigm, reviews shouldn’t be viewed as specific recommendations.  Reviews should be used to help determine which shoes should work for which tasks, NOT as a blanket recommendation for a shoe to be a one-size-fits-all solution. How we interpret reviews must change as the number of choices grows and matures.

This is the fundamental idea behind this previous post about the best way to choose minimalist shoes.  It’s important to understand that proper minimalist shoe fitting is individualistic.  As more shoes enter the market and choices increase, this issue becomes more important.

The Merrell Trail Gloves are a great example.  I love the shoes.  About 75% of the people I have talked to love the shoes.  The other 25%… not so much.  Why?  It’s almost always a fit issue… the shoe simply doesn’t fit their foot very well.  The new minimalist shoe paradigm requires us to take responsibility to make our own decisions.

It’s an exciting time to be a barefoot/minimalist shoe runner.  We have the attention of the running industry.  Embrace the choices we have today!


On an unrelated note- Shelly and I are searching for a tow vehicle for our RV trip this summer.  We need help locating a VERY specific Chevrolet Suburban. If you happen to work in the car sales industry, or know of someone in the industry, this is what we’re looking for:

If you know of anyone that can help us locate one of these, please contact me.  I can be contacted at robillardj “at” gmail “dot” com.

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  1. Patton Gleason
    March 29, 2011

    Great post! I can’t believe it took the minimalist movement to question the idea about shoes lasting “300” miles. Just about everything I own, I am getting well over 1000 miles on it. Part of that is great product, with less EVA. Perhaps a bigger part is a more efficient running form. If I can make my shoes last longer with a less impactful gait cycle, hopefully I am doing the same with my body. An interesting time indeed.

  2. Dave Robbo
    March 29, 2011

    Great article JR. These are indeed very interesting times. I like your point about owning numerous pairs of shoes. I have purchased more pairs of shoes in the past 12 months than I have in the past 5 years.
    We may end up as ‘maximalist’ consumers of ‘minimalist’ shoes…!
    As you say, though, it’s great to have so many choices available.

  3. Damien Tougas
    March 23, 2011

    I agree. I read Al’s article this morning too and the first thing that came to my mind is that there is no such thing as a perfect shoe. Just the right shoe for the right job. This means that when reading a review you have to be aware of the perspective of the reviewer, the shape of their foot, and the intended purpose for which they are reviewing the shoe. We need to work on that classification system to help us better categorize these things!

  4. Janice Nicholls
    March 23, 2011

    Wow, I so agree with this article. I used to run in a pair of Brooks motion control shoes. One pair. Every six months I’d buy a new pair and the old ones would become gardening shoes.

    Now I run in bare feet whenever I can (and I just got a treadmills so am doing it alot on the treadmill now). If I can’t go bare and am running pavements with some rough areas, I choose Vibrams. My Classics are my favourites because they feel like a ballet slipper. I have KSOs, but don’t use them much anymore now that I have the Classics. In the winter when there is snow, but the roads are bare, I prefer my Terra Planna Evo Barefoots. Once there is snow covering the roads and traction is an issue, I switch to my Merrell Pace Gloves (or whatever the female version is called).

    I find it kinda funny that as a barefoot runner I own more running shoes than I ever have before! However, you are right about them being tools with a specific shoe serving a specific purpose. I’m very fussy now and freedom of movement is critical.

    Thanks for the article. Interesting times.

  5. Kate (KittyK)
    March 23, 2011

    I totally agree. There isn’t one shoe I think that fits all our needs. Most of us run in a lot of different environments and as minimalist runners we have different demands of our shoes in those environments; Winter-road, Summer-road, Winter-trail, Summer-trail.. even on different types of trail you probably would want different shoes. It’s to do with that fine balance of ground feel over protection.

    It is kind of ironic, that as minimalist runners we want less shoe when we run, but to achieve this we need a plethora of shoes. 🙂