Training

How to Choose Barefoot & Minimalist Running Shoes

You can call it a fad, a new fitness craze, but most wouldn’t. In fact, not only does barefoot running put you in touch with nature and offer an element of freedom, but opting for more natural tracks such as beach fronts and rural terrains also provides you with some serious benefits for building your strength and balance, along with your running ability.

barefoot running

What is Barefoot Running?

Barefoot running, believe it or not, is pretty much what it sounds like. It involves shoes that are little more than your very own feet. While some people may actually run barefoot and reap the rewards of the likes of sand running, minimalist running shoes provide you with the experience and benefits of running barefoot.

Benefits of Barefoot Running

If you’re new to the idea or haven’t tried barefoot running before, you might be thinking about blisters, callouses, stepping on sharp things and hobbling. In fact, these are teething issues, minor obstacles in the grand scheme of how barefoot and minimalist shoe running can help to develop your gait and strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments of your feet.

By going without the raised heel of a shoe, you can allow your Achilles tendons and calf muscles to stretch and elongate. Going shoeless isn’t just for strength, either, but also to reduce injuries and tightening, keeping the parts of your feet that are so important to your gait more limber and ready for action.

It can help to improve your balance and proprioception – the sensors that inform the brain of the effort employed by your body during movement. A good example of this is the strength applied in each of your smaller muscles in your feet, ankles and legs when keeping you balanced. Running with barefoot and minimalist shoes can help to better activate and strengthen these muscles.

You can also benefit by learning how to run. This may not be something you’ve given a lot of thought to, as running usually comes with instinct. However, by running with barefoot and minimalist shoes, you learn to land on your forefoot when you run, rather than your heels, which can make you heavy and slow you down.

minimalist running shoes

Why Use Barefoot or Minimalist Running Shoes?

Barefoot and minimalist running shoes are designed to let your feet work as naturally as possible so that you can strengthen and develop your running ability. You’re used to adverts for shoes boasting the ability to help you jump higher in basketball or run faster on tracks, but minimalist running shoes may actually help you to do those things in the long run. They don’t provide you with cushioning or support that alters your gait or the way your foot lands, and provide you with just enough protection to stop debris hurting your feet while your run.

Minimalist shoes are different to barefoot in that they offer a slight (minimal) level of the usual protection of support you’d find in an average running shoe. In other words, they’re the best of both worlds, and are a good stepping stone towards barefoot running.

Choosing Barefoot or Minimalist Shoes

Choosing the right barefoot of minimalist shoe is down to user preference. Of course, budget comes into it, but the most important thing is to assess your needs. If you’re inexperienced at barefoot running, we suggest something minimalist at first that can help your transition.

For longer distance runners and anyone new to barefoot running, minimalist running shoes that are lightweight, flexible and provide good foot protection while allowing a good level of ground feeling is a good place to start. This also applies to anyone who is heavy- or flat-footed and therefore likely to rely on the cushioning of normal, more supportive running shoes.

As you begin to advance or you’re looking for something closer to barefoot, options like the type of shoes that look like gloves for the feet are better. They allow you to feel the ground more, while protecting you from the obvious risks of the road such as pebbles and glass, and arguably provide the greatest pre-barefoot running experience. These shoes allow you to learn the mechanics and form of barefoot running, build your strength, and transition into barefoot running, without the pain.

Looking for a step by step checklist for your first pair of minimalist shoes? Try this:

  • What’s the heel-to-toe depth? This means the height different between the forefoot and the heel. In minimalist shoes you should look for a drop 4mm to 7mm drop. Barefoot shoes will be less, so look for 0mm to 3mm.

  • What is the stack height? This refers to the height of the shoe’s sole. This might be 3-4mm and is referring to the amount of cushion.

  • Pronation: Minimalist shoes don’t have cushioning or protection against the pronation of your feet, which is when the arch flattens to provide you with shock absorption. Minimalist shoes are neutral to encourage a natural movement.

  • How heavy are they? The shoes you’re looking for should be as light as they come.

  • How flexible are they? Barefoot shoes, and some minimalist shoes, should be able to bend right up, meaning that when your foot is in it you can contour with the terrain.

Take Home Message

From increased strength and balance to improving your gait, dexterity and ability to cover, barefoot running (to which minimalist shoes are an excellent stepping stone) is perfect both for people on the mend after an injury and anyone looking to build their natural speed and power.

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Jack Boardman

Jack Boardman

Writer and expert

Fitness writer, specialising in weightlifting, boxing and MMA training.


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