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The State of Barefoot Running in Europe

Posted by on Jul 18, 2011 | 27 Comments

I had the opportunity to travel to Germany this last week to address a crowd at an outdoor trade show in Friedrichshafen, Germany with my friends at Merrell.  It was a great opportunity to engage members of the running industry in discussions about barefoot and minimalist shoe running.

My conclusion- Europe (and the rest of the world) seems to be about 18-24 months behind the US.  They are experiencing what we experienced in 2009… a small but unmistakable simmering just below the surface. The BFR/MR movement is on the cusp of expanding beyond the few early adopters for the exact same reason it exploded here- those that tried it fell in love with it and shared with everyone they knew.

When I have a little more time, I will elaborate on my thoughts.  Shelly and I are frantically preparing to hit the road tomorrow, so I haven’t had much time to write.  When I do get the time, I’ll share some of the experiences from Germany, including:

  • 40 hour stretch with one hour of sleep,
  • Driving on the Autobahn and being passed by a Porche going about 180 mph,
  • Language barriers and driving across the country with no money,
  • Going three days without seeing a fruit or vegetable,
  • A run-in with the police at a beer festival,
  • And of course a run-down of the actual trade show.

The best moment- An Italian gentleman asked me what I thought of Vibram’s Five Fingers.  I told him I was a big fan and that I ran a 100 miler in a pair of KSO’s.  I also told him the Vibram sole was incredibly durable- a friend (Jesse Scott) ran approximately 2500 miles in a pair of KSOs.  His response-

“I know, I designed them.”

That moment made my day.

Until I get time to write a formal write-up, I’ll pose a question.  I have quite a few international readers.  If you live outside North America, post a comment telling us where you’re at and what is the state of barefoot and minimalist shoe running in your area. 

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27 Comments

  1. Ronald
    July 22, 2011

    I am from the Netherlands and I have to say that it’s getting pretty big here. There are a few dutch sites specifically geared towards barefoot runners and even a few shops with just barefoot shoes. Including the Merrells!

    It’s still a bit behind though. I would guess around 12 months or so. There have been some semi official barefoot races here so its progressing pretty fast.

  2. Levi
    July 22, 2011

    Hi Guys,

    I wouldn’t say I am a minimalist runner, but I run only in flats and comfortable shoes.I am a Hungarian, living in France at the moment. There is only one running store here in Nice, where the flattest shoes are Brooks Green Silence and Asics Hyperspeed 3. I buy my shoes online :D During the period of a day I see hundreds of people running on the promenade, especially during summer season. Good few of them have a very efficient running technique, including lower and upper body bio-mechanics, but nobody is running in flats.
    Although, I have seen a pair of mizuno flats on a homeless person, don’t know where could he get them.

    People don’t know anything about running technique training here, just about the mileage I guess.

    But there are lot of races coming up, will be showing off in my INOV8 195s :D

    Take Care Man

  3. simon
    July 21, 2011

    I live in the south east of England and have been trail running (injury free) in minimal footwear for at least 2 years.
    I don’t see what all the fuss is with VFF, a pair of cheap plimsoles with the inner sole removed is as near as barefoot as you can get, with the added bonus of not being too expensive or hard to get hold of.
    I have recently started running completely barefoot(7 miles) and have had no problems whatsoever with the transition. The only issue I have is with the double-takes and strange looks I get.
    I have not seen any barefoot/minimal runners in my home town as of yet. I feel that it may be a while before barefoot running is acceptable and not seen as a weird trend.

  4. Paul
    July 21, 2011

    Hello, I live south of Munich, Germany. There is some fuss here about barefoot hiking. There are 50 official barefoot trails in Germany now, intended for hiking, mostly with children. There are trail guides for barefoot hiking. We have barefoot hiking days organized by local authorities. Barefoot shoes sell very well, but mostly for walking and hiking.

    In running the situation is very different. Most regular trails in Germany are well maintained, but with gravel, which makes barefoot running difficult. There is some attention to natural running among runners and I see people buying racing flats in specialized runners stores and running with them (Saucony Type A, Adizero Pro, Mizuno Ronin …). Triathletes seem to be more open and leading in this regard. Sometimes you see a runner in Vibrams. But I never saw another barefoot runner. Chris McDougall’s book is not yet very known in Germany.

    If I run barefoot I often get very sympathetic comments and questions from people and some half-smile from runners who cannot believe that this is possible.

  5. nick
    July 20, 2011

    Hi Jason,

    My situatin is a bit peculiar. I have been living in New Zealand for 2 yearsbut I am originally from Switzerland where I am spending a few months at the moment.

    I have changed my running form and adapted to barefoot/minimalism last december whilw in NZ. The country is quite open-minded. People don’t judge much people who run barefeet and you hardly see people having a go at you when you do. (I must admit people give me a weird look when they see my short-stride running form, quite different from the manly heel-striking form :-)). Also, people are walking barfeet in NZ all the time from 7 to 77 years old and I see more and more people running with vibrams and heaps of trail runners using the Inov8 range which is a good sign. You still have the stubborn ones claiming that barefoot running will ruin your joints though. When it come to the market, the only minimlaist shoe range you find is the New balance minimus, vibrams and Inov8 as well, no Merrells though, but they should be available in a few months though.

    Here in Switzerland it is quite different. Haven’t seen any vibrams, minimus or merrells so far and heard that it was hard to find them. France seems to be in the similar situation as I could judge from the running forums.

    Hope that helps!

    Cheers

    Nic

    • martin
      July 20, 2011

      I’m living in Switzerland. I started running in VFF last october, but for the last three months I’m running barefeet only, as the VFF hurt my plantar fascia.
      There are some stores where you can buy VFF, but they are very expensive, a pair of KSO costs for example CHF 198.-, that is as of today USD 240.-. Merrell Trail Gloves and other models of the Merrell barefoot line you can buy in two or three big outdoor chains, for about CHF 149.-, that is USD 180.-. The salesman told me, that the trail glove isn’t for running, but for special muscle training. I don’t run in the trail gloves, as barefoot my knee hurts less, but I’m hiking in them.
      I’ve never seen so far people running barefoot or in MRS apart from a few people in my family. I attended a 5k lately and was running barefeet, and I heard all the time people expressing their astonishment by shouting loudly “…barefoot”.
      It is very very rare to see people walking barefeet in a town in Switzerland.

  6. Phil
    July 20, 2011

    Here in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand just starting to see signs of a simmer. I have a couple of friends who wear vvf and zemgear and seen vvf on a few other feet. It is common here for children to go barefoot or wear flip flops (and some adults too almost year round) my own children included and before ditching conventional shoes altogether a couple of years ago I would also be barefoot or in flip flops over the summer.
    I was put off by vff because of cost but wear run amocs and invisibleshoe hauraches when necessary and find them realy comfortable and recommend them to people who ask about them and express an interest in the whole barefoot/minimalist thing.

  7. Laura
    July 19, 2011

    Hello and thanks for this post: looking forward to more travel notes from the Teutonic Territories…
    I reside in the UK and have started the “simmering” you refer to; but I’m still eliciting glances when trekking/running/working out with my FiveFingers…not that I mind: it’s a great conversation starter.
    The rest of the time I wear in VivoBarefoot and these look more “normal” so get eyeballed less ^_^
    To say that I’m a convert to minimalistic shodding would be somewhat understated: I can hardly wear anything else these days. But no matter: the feet are happy!

  8. Marc V
    July 19, 2011

    Hi Jason,

    I’m an avid reader of your blog and a barefoot runner. In the Philippine Islands, particularly in Cebu, barefoot running is fast growing. We have a dedicated group called the “Cebuano Barefoot Runners” that run Monday nights on recovery. Most often fellow members wear VFFs, Evos and huaraches. Used to be we get a lot of stares and smirks from fellow runners but now barefoot running is a growing trend.

    Marc, Cebu, Philippines

  9. Mauro
    July 19, 2011

    Hello from Italy!

    Despite designing VFFs, we barefoot and minimalist runners are quite in infancy too as a movement.
    In every running/trail/triathlon forum the thread is discussed, often violently, but please consider our running movement is 35yo and up in average, so it’s quite difficult to introduce barefooting as something beyond the simple trend – this is the way they’re marketed here, anyway: Merrell and others in the BF industry still doesn’t have an Italian site (or they don’t import BF models, like NB), to say, and this is maybe important to consider when noticing that if you wear VFF at a race you’re probably the only one.

    For me, barefoot running is something started because I was tired of buying costy Kayanos every other month because of my strange stride, years ago… Reduced to neutral shoes first ( the hardest part, in my book), then went lighter and lighter. I now like the comfort of a flat racer for longer runs, but I enjoy a few kms in my handmade huaraches or VFF Classic.

    I follow with a great interest the movement as it spreads, because I’m a shiatsu practitioner who has been a professional copywriter for 20 years, so… it’s fun from both sides.

    Ciao everyone!

    Mauro

  10. Jonathan
    July 19, 2011

    I am an Australian living in The Netherlands. For the past year I have been apart of, and an avid follower of, the BF/MR movement. Just previous to leaving Australia I came across a pair of VFF on a funky looking dude in my local gym – I asked some questions and immediately became interested in the concept. He pointed me towards a store only a few minutes up the road in Bondi who stocked all styles of VFF. I tried on a pair of Sprints and fell in love straight away.

    I waited until I arrived in the Netherlands to purchase a pair but ran in to difficulty with locating a reseller.. After a thorough search on Google I managed to locate an on-line reseller in the South of Holland. 4 days later I was the proud owner of my first pair of minimalist shoes!
    Since my arrival in Amsterdam I have joined club Phanos which is an athletics club in the beautiful old Olympic Stadium. I have been training in preparation for middle-distance running events at the Paralympics in London 2012 and have trained in my VFF for the most-part. This has obviously caught the eyes of a lot of my fellow club members which has meant I spend a lot of time explaining the concept and the positive impacts on ones running form, bio-mechanics, and foot/lower-leg strength.
    This almost overwhelming, but still sceptical, interest in the BF/MR movement along with my career as a Muscle Therapist had the imaginary light bulb flashing furiously above my head. Holland is a very active and sport-crazy nation and is yet to be introduced to this whole new world of running – seeing how big the movement is becoming in America prompted me to get on-board and spread the word over here. I sent an email to Vibram’s head office in Italy explaining what I have written above and was just hoping someone, anyone, would be able to point me in the right direction to get started on this opportunity whether that be as a reseller myself or an ambassador. A week later I receive an email from the Commercial Director of the distribution company of Vibrams (amongst many other products) for The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemborg. Two more weeks later I was having a meeting over lunch with the CM and Sales Manager about how we can work together to educate people on this movement.

    After all this I now find myself in the very unique position of being a consultant, utilising my Muscle Therapy skill-sets and Athletic background to structure running workshops for consumers, clinics for store clerks/retailers and gymnasiums, creating training programs for consumers to help guide them through the important beginning phases of BF/MR – basically a lot of what you are already doing across America Rob & Shelly! We are still in the very early stages of piecing together our different ideas and models but have long term goals as our main focus.

    As is the main emphasis of the Barefoot Running University, education is our driving focus – the sales side of things will sort themselves out.

    I would very much have enjoyed the experience of meeting with you in Friedrichshafen Rob to discuss my ideas and perhaps get some constructive feedback from you. Any guiding advice you could give me would be immensely appreciated!

    “You don’t stop running because you get old. you get old because you stop running!”

    • Jonathan
      July 19, 2011

      Ps…. Its early morning here in Amsterdam as I wrote that letter and for some reason I called you Rob…. D’oh..!

      Sorry Jason!

  11. pol
    July 19, 2011

    I’m from Barcelona. The barefoot or minimal running here it’s not really popular. I run with a pair of 5fingers, and many people ask me why, but if i have to be honest, during last 2 months before, i saw a few people, maybe three running barefoot and hopefully, we are increasing. But, as an exemple, in europe NB does not sell the minimus collection..

  12. Phil
    July 19, 2011

    Near Birmingham, UK. Never barefoot as a child, started after reading Born To Run in Oct 2010 and being intrigued – minimalism resonated with how I used to run before teaching myself to heel strike (d’oh!). Almost at the point where all my running is barefoot and starting to look at minimalist shoes, which seem very hard to find in the UK – couldn’t go back to “normal” trainers now! There is a definite buzz about barefooting in my running club, but I have never seen anyone else around barefoot or with obviously minimalist shoes. So all my learning is from experimentation and inspiration from blogs like this – thanks!

  13. Matus
    July 19, 2011

    Great to hear that you were visiting Europe. I’ll be in Germany next week and you just gave a me an idea of purchasing Merrell Pace Gloves for my wife and a friend of ours, since they are going to be unavailable for about one more year here in Slovakia.

    Central Europe, Slovakia, where I live is about roughly 5 years behind not only in barefoot running. There are about two stores in the whole country where you can get FiveFingers, and there’s no way of buying Merrells, NBs, Vivo Barefoot or anything similar at all. Also things like gels are nearly unheard of. Good that we have internet. We can envy you and complain to our retailers and stores. Some of them might start listening.

  14. Dan
    July 19, 2011

    I’ve been barefooting for about two years, and in that time minimalist running has definitely started to appear in the mainstream press and also the running magazines.

    I’d say there is a healthy skepticism about it, and although I don’t see many other pairs of Vibrams around at races, I have seen quite a few pairs of the Inov-8 BareGrip 200s.

    There are a few ardent advocates such as John Woodward and Lee Saxby who run training courses for people wishing to make the transition to barefooting.

    Serious running stores such as Accelerate in Sheffield are really promoting open mindedness about barefooting, and stock a good range of minimalist footwear (in comparison to others).

    Ioanna definitely has a point about the pricing – that’s certainly a big dissuading factor.

  15. gareth 'runningowl' Irvine
    July 19, 2011

    Sheffield, UK. used to run and play football(soccer) barefoot as a kid so was interested in BFR/minimalistic but didn’t really get into it till after reading Born to run.

    now run a couple of times a week barefoot for a few miles in 60mpw. fastest easiest miles i do apart from racing. aiming to do a parkrun(weekly free 5k) in barefoot soon.

    locally the movement is slowly gaining pace with Accelerate, a local running store pushing it and doing introduction to natural running training nights once a month. still get bizarre looks from people but it is catching on.

  16. OreMan
    July 19, 2011

    You could be right about that 18-24 month gap. Here in Latvia we are perhaps even more behind.. I started occasionally running barefoot a bit more than a year ago, and bought my first minimalist shoes (VFF) this January.
    Since then I have tried to write about benefits of barefoot running in my blog and in our local running club’s website. However, there are actually very little number of persons interested in it. I know some 3-5 persons that are now starting to transition to barefoot or minimalist running (influenced by me), but the movement itself is at the very first stage, I guess.
    About minimalist shoes – as far as I know, there is no way you can get them somewhere in Latvia. I don’t know any shop where any kind of minimalist shoes could be bought. I ordered my first VFFs from HongKong, the second pair I bought when travelling to China, and I won an Invisible Shoes DIY huaraches kit in a giveaway from a Canadian blogger :)
    I don’t know, maybe Merrell would want to advertise their minimalist shoes by sending a pair to me for making a review for Latvian audience.. ;) As far as I know, there have been no such reviews in Latvia yet, maybe an open market area.

    • gareth 'runningowl' Irvine
      July 19, 2011

      Try getting in touch with new balance in UK. There new minimalist shoes is excellent and with a bit of sweet talk may send you a free pair.

  17. Joe
    July 19, 2011

    UK. Started BFR 2 years ago and everyone thought I was crazy. Now more and more people are asking me about minimal shoes and barefoot running and people are realising that less is more.

  18. Kim
    July 19, 2011

    Denmark here. Not much BF/MR here – I have not one person run in wibram and that is all in this city of 40.000. In the running club nobody is interested so far.
    I run in trail Glove, but must buy them in UK since they are not available here – not even from the official Merrell website.
    Only available MR so far is Terra Plana Evo and Neo and some Wibram models

  19. John
    July 19, 2011

    I live in East Java, Indonesia about 50km outside of Surabaya. Running in general here is pretty rare, much less the BFR/MR movement. I run in KSO’s and get strange looks pretty constantly. Shoe choices are limited unless you live in a place like Surabaya. People here spend a fair amount of time barefoot to begin with, but running while barefoot is not really a thing.

  20. Ankit
    July 19, 2011

    I live in New Delhi, India. There are NO takers for BF/MR around here, multiple reasons:

    - Very little running culture as such.
    - No availability of any MR shoes whatsoever
    - Common perception says that you run barefoot only if you can’t afford a pair of shoes

    Running barefoot would be still common among the running community in the countryside (which is pretty much only the kids) – mostly because these kids’ families can’t afford shoes!

  21. Heikki
    July 19, 2011

    I live in Finland, Europe. Me and the better half have been runnin bf and minimalistic for half a year from now. In our small city, there seems to be no other minimalist or bf runners. Friends have asked lots a questions and after anwering they have agreed: “that makes sense!” I think that we will see new converts among our friends soon. Biggest mall here carries Merrell barefoot gloves and some other minimalist shoes. But they got no glue what they are selling. Pricing is ok.
    Fittnes-, running- and general sport mags here have had guite general articles about bfr lately, just shoe introductions and some technique overview. Maybe next year we see barefoot running booming here.

    • Susanna
      July 19, 2011

      Hey, I’m living in Helsinki (Finland) and I started running in Five Fingers in May 2010. This year I made Helsinki City Run (half marathon) in them and I’m going the run the full marathon in August. I think I’ve seen one runner running with Five Fingers and no one barefooted in all this time..

      I’m trying to make the change for bf but it’s slow going and it’s winter again soon. I run a lot in a indoor track last winter.

      But there is a change happening. The Finnish running magazine has been quite negative about the bf/minimalist thing for a long while, but.. the last magazine had two good and positive articles of bf running. So they have finally surrendered. =)

  22. James
    July 19, 2011

    Christchurch, New Zealand (and recently Sydney, Australia) – not much BFR/MR action here. You can get VFF’s easily enough though Ioanna is right that they are expensive. Haven’t seen any Merrels or Vivo’s here but there are Terra Plana and Innov-8 shops in Sydney. Physio’s and Podiatrists look at you funny when you tell them you run barefoot or in vff’s. The better ones have heard of Pose but not much more than that. You’d see a (very) few people running in vff’s in Sydney but I haven’t seen anyone here in Christchurch wearing them – though they are sold in a number of running and hiking shops. Talking to the staff about them is funny because they have no idea what you might use them for. And I asked a shop owner about Merrel Trail Gloves and he came back with something like “Why would you need a different type of glove for running trails than on the road?” I explained they were a new model from Merrel but unfortunately they weren’t in his catalog. Not sure how long we’ll have to wait until we get some out here.

  23. Ioanna
    July 18, 2011

    I live in Melbourne, Australia. The barefoot/minimalist running movement seems to be very much in its infancy here. It’s pretty rare to see anyone barefoot or in minimalist shoes, much less running that way. The only place I’ve come across other barefoot/minimalist runners in Melbourne is online. I suspect part of the reason is that very few stores carry minimalist shoes and the pricing is insane. The VFF, Merrel and NB lines cost more than twice the US price here, even though our dollar is stronger than the USD, so it’s not exactly a compelling proposition for the average person.