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The “Barefoot Shoes” Debate

Posted by on May 4, 2011 | 8 Comments

As more shoe companies enter the minimalist shoe market, the term “barefoot shoes” is becoming more prevalent.  This phenomena extends from shoe manufacturers to retailers to the general public.  There was a time this annoyed me.  After all, it’s an oxymoron.  Wearing any shoe, by definition, is not barefoot.  It ranks right up there with “baggy tights”, “near miss”,  and “boneless ribs.”

It caused other problems, too.  When communicating with new runners, it would be difficult to give advice when they claimed to run barefoot only to find out they were running in Vibrams.

At some point, my level of annoyedness reached critical mass.  Instead of going postal, I decided to take a step back and assess the situation.  I realized I had to change my mindset.  By reframing the situation, I had the power to turn an annoying situation into an opportunity.

This is what I concluded:

1. “Barefoot Shoes” is good publicity:  The term is used to describe shoes that allow the same form as barefoot running allows.  The shoes could have easily been called “POSE shoes” or “ChiRunning” shoes… even “natural running” shoes.  The fact that people refer to them as “barefoot” shoes gives barefoot runners immediate credibility.  Credibility leads to things like research.  That’s a good thing.

2. It’s not that confusing… all we have to do is ask: When a new BFR/MR runner claims to be a “barefoot runner”, I simply ask if they use any sort of minimalist shoe like Merrells or Vibrams.  This immediately clarifies if they are really barefoot in a non-threatening way without copping an attitude of superiority.  Simple problem, even simpler solution.

3. Accept companies using the term for marketing: This was a biggie for me… until I recognized the benefit.  Companies use the term “barefoot shoes” in marketing.  Why?  It effectively describes minimalist shoes to a market that does not have the extensive knowledge us vets have.  In effect, it sells more shoes, which creates a larger pool of people running with good form.  Again, that is a good thing.  Furthermore, it effectively creates a divide between lightweight reduced shoes or flats and what I would consider true minimalist shoes.

My point- the idea of “barefoot shoes” annoyed the hell out of me UNTIL I started to objectively examine the pros and cons.  At that point, I realized the pros far outweigh the cons.  Stewing over a situation I had zero control over seemed… well, counterproductive if not simply impossible.

As a barefoot runner, I made a conscious decision to 1) stop bitching about people using the term, and 2) openly embrace the concept and use it meet my own goals to change the world.  So far, so good.


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  1. Mike
    May 10, 2011

    I think it is great. I perfer to run barefoot, but have cut my feet and had large thorns stuck in my foot, so most often I use a minimilist shoes. To call them barefoot shoes to me helps the general public understand they should run in them more like they are barefoot. This will help with form and stop heel stiking, and form is what it’s really all about. I have stress fractures in both legs and can run with out to much pain due to the form of barefoot running, not due to being barefoot or having shoes on.

  2. roscojo
    May 5, 2011

    After 30 something years of running shoes ,i developed a painful foot ,so started running in doubled up socks to offer some protection. I LOVE the feeling of going shoeless and sense I am repairing the injury too . I then started to look at ‘barefoot’ shoes and also found the whole thing annoying BUT I like the idea of minimalist shoes that protect the soles of my feet and tips of my toes. years ago I was told the best running shoes are the cheapest with the least support,sadly I didn’t then believe it. I work 2 days as a waitress I can’t even bare to wear birkenstock clogs as my feet have gone feral . I have started wearing ‘Vivo barefoot’ shoes,I find my feet ache after an 8 hour stint ,but they don’t hurt as they did before plus my knees feel happier.
    I am thinking of making my own simple footwear somehow . I am also waiting for the postman to bring me my first pair of Vibram KSO,as in socks I am looking down to avoid stones and twigs etc.

  3. Jamoosh
    May 4, 2011

    I don’t know if running in a “barefoot shoe” means better form. In have to be very cognizant of my form when running in a barefoot shoe otherwise I revert back to my old heel strike. Sure, I am a work in progressand I am only a sample size of one, at this point for me Barefooted = Good form; Minimalist Shoe (Vibram or Merrell) = Heel strike. Need more practice.

  4. Brandon M
    May 4, 2011

    It does get confusing, a friend keeps saying they will not run barefoot, but are now trying the barefoot shoes. We go back and forth and I have to clarify what they are talking about, barefoot or minimalist running. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you call it, Good Form Running shoes are even better!

  5. Brian
    May 4, 2011

    I always do my best to call any types of shoes ‘minimalist’ and not barefoot, even if the marketing department calls them barefoot. I just think it can be way too confusing for people trying to learn about minimalist or barefoot running because these terms are used interchangeably by so many people. Like you now, it doesn’t bother me when others do it now, but I try to be clear on my end.

  6. Daniel Howell
    May 4, 2011

    I’m gonna have to agree with this. Not easy to do though for us “vets.”

  7. ZoeB
    May 4, 2011

    vast majority! actually, it isn’t really an oxymoron, just a stupid phrasefart that everyone uses…

  8. Dave Robbo
    May 4, 2011

    This terminology is something I have struggled to deal with as well. Possibly a more apt description would be ‘barefoot-style shoes’, alluding more to the style or form of running these shoes promote. The term ‘barefoot shoes’ is what we have so we need to get on with it.

    You make some good points. I think the more terms such as ‘barefoot shoes’ and ‘natural running’ are used in the mainstream, the better, as this leads to increased awareness of the barefoot/natural running approach, and as you quite rightly point out, helps achieve our goal of changing the world.