April 27, 2011

A Personal Overview Of Barefoot-Type Shoes

The following is by no means scientific, but rather a personal insight from an ex-shod runner gone barefoot… gone holistic. This means I am not a hardcore evangelist for any particular type of running, although I am inclined to think the forefoot-strike approach is the desired running form for most runners, shod and barefoot.
Part II : Barefoot VS Minimal VS Neutral
The increasing mumbo jumbo of the industry makes differentiating the various types of shoes quite tenuous. Let me try and offer a bit of help by defining what I think characterizes each type.

A barefoot shoe is a barely-there foot protector that serves the only purpose of protecting the skin under your foot against the elements without getting in the way of your foot’s natural movement. The most famous of them, the one that started it all so to say, is the Vibram FiveFingers. Only runners with barefoot form (forefoot strike) and proper muscle build-up should use these on a regular basis. 

Transitioning runners used to neutral or mildly-structured shoes should start by wearing their usual shoes 70-80% of their training time, then end their training sessions either fully barefoot or wearing the barefoot shoe. Particular attention has to be given to pain and soreness and plenty of rest in between barefoot training sessions is advised. As structure builds up (I’d say about every three weeks to a month), increase barefoot time or distance by about 10-20% depending on progression. Increase all the way to full barefoot. A comfortable transition can take anywhere from 6 months to a year for experienced runners. Runners using heavily structured shoes and motion control should first transition to a neutral shoe using the same strategy, and then from the neutral to barefoot.

SIDENOTE. In my opinion, the absolute best way to learn barefoot running is to do it from scratch, or while recovering from an injury. Why? Because with lower effort capability, you’ll be much less able to do too much, too soon and will have to pay more attention to pain and body signals.

A minimal shoe is a sort of cross-breed between a neutral shoe and a barefoot shoe, in that it won’t shed all of the cushioning and structure of a traditional running shoe in favour of an all-out barefoot approach. Minimal shoes of decent quality should include a zero-drop type sole (minimal-to-no height difference between the heel and the forefoot), no motion control (absolute flexibility of the sole), little-to-no toe lift (the front part of the shoe will lay flat instead of curving upwards), low elevation from the ground and very light weight (4-7 oz). Minimal shoes include some (unspiked) running flats, Vivo shoes, GoLite, Inov-8 shoes and so on.

The following GoLite video is a dead-on example of what I mean.

Neutral running shoes are traditional running shoes making an effort at getting out of the way. That mostly means no motion control, lighter weight and a slimmer, flexible sole, but also significantly more cushioning than minimal shoes. The Saucony Kinvara, Nike Free, some Zoom shoes and many others fall in that category.

Some Road-Tested Shoes
Following is a list of shoes I have purchased and used, some more than others, and my appreciation of them. I’ll try to make this as objective as I possibly can. So here they are, in alphabetical order.

La Sportiva CrossLite
  • Type : Minimal
  • Use : Trail running
  • Price : 100-120$
This is a very stiff sole for a minimal shoe, but since it’s a hardcore trail runner, I figure it’s necessary. This shoe has a very aggressive spike-type pattern that will grip in thick mud, on wet surface and on pretty much everything that comes your way. The top lacing is protected by a gaiter-type fabric that prevents pebbles and debris from getting inside. This is a very narrow shoe and has a snug fit; I wouldn’t recommend it to runners with wide feet. I use these only in hardcore trail conditions where I know I might end up landing on sharp rock tips or other barefoot-unfriendly trail hazards.

MEC Moque Boot
  • Type : Barefoot
  • Use : Winter running
  • Price : 20-40$
This is my take on winter Vibrams. These slipper-like shoes are originally intended for water sports like kayaking. Made of thick neoprene, they are warm and isolated enough to allow barefoot-like running in winter conditions. They don’t get wet easy, which is a true blessing. The soles are made of soft rubber and offer decent grip; however they will wear out very fast if you run on anything else than snow. I recommend wearing socks inside. The absence of lacing makes it very important to make sure you buy the proper shoe size unless you want a BlisterFest.

Merrell Barefoot True Glove
  • Type : Barefoot
  • Use : Road running
  • Price : 120-140$
I was very excited when these were announced late last year. These shoes are offered in many different versions, from casual to road and trail running. They feature a Vibram outsole and all you can expect from a barefoot shoe. The huge disappointment, however, is that the inner sole, more specifically the arch support, seems to have been misconceived. First of all, it is strange that a barefoot shoe has any arch support. But the worst is that said support is positioned several millimetres too far upfront, lifting the ball of your foot instead of the arch. At first I thought my feet were somehow not compatible with the design, but the issue was confirmed by a sales rep at a specialized shoe store and by several other customers as well. I am not saying the Merrell Barefoot are bad shoes, but I am seriously advising anyone who wants to buy them to try them out in store before doing so.
UPDATE. I have field tested the Merrell TrailGlove, for which I wrote a product-specific review.

New Balance Minimus
  • Type : Barefoot
  • Use : Road running
  • Price : 110-130$
This is one interesting shoe. New Balance has really done its homework on this one. The Minimus features a Vibram outsole much like a FiveFingers, but without the individual toes. It has a very large front end that leaves plenty of room for your toes to wiggle, grip and move any way they like, while still offering a good fit through the lacing system. The shoe is feather light and extremely comfortable. I only have a couple kilometres in them so far, but I am very enthusiastic about them.
UPDATE. I have ran about 40KM in these shoes, 28 of which in a single trail run in easy conditions (light gravel paths, easy hills, etc.). I am very disappointed with the results. The Minimus is NOT a serious trail runner, the material of its outer sole ripped off inexplicably and the overall behavior of the shoe is, in my opinion, unfit for serious trail running. I will keep wearing them, but only for short road runs.

Nike Free +
  • Type : Neutral
  • Use : Road running
  • Price : 100-120$
The Nike Free resembles a neutral shoe whose soles would’ve been put through a table saw. It features very deep lateral and longitudinal creases that make the rubber extremely flexible. The top is made out of mesh, which makes it very light and well-ventilated. The removable insole can be taken out to eliminate a layer in-between your foot and the ground and makes the shoe a little roomier for wider-footed runners. It is also compatible with the Nike+ system, a little microchip that you put into the insole and that connects with your iPhone / iPod Touch and serves as an advanced pedometer. Although two very close friends run in those and love them, I can’t say I like the Free. I find it bulky and very high to the ground, which eliminates my proprioception (how your foot feels the ground) and pushes me back into heel-striking. This is a shoe I have run about 50km in and won’t wear again for running. (it’s a size-7 BTW, so if anyone wants it it’s yours).

Saucony Kinvara
  • Type : Neutral
  • Use : Road running
  • Price : 120-140$
To say I had mixed feelings about this shoe is an understatement. The Kinvara was the first runner I bought after going barefoot for more than a year. Although it has a significant heel-to-toe drop, the shoe is very light, flexible and seems to have been made to be worn without socks (a huge plus for me). I first wore them for a 10K, then a long run, after which I started having arch pains. I initially blamed the shoe, but realized it was I who had changed my running form. I have to say the arch section of the sole is stiffer than I’d wish and I think that, combined with the relative height of the shoe, is part of the reason why it’s easier to fall back to heel striking. As soon as I refocused on a forefoot strike at all times, the Kinvara became my shoe of choice when I needed a padded ride or to bring along in trips, when I didn’t know what surface I’d be running on. I have put hundreds of kilometres in those and will buy another pair when I need it. I just hope by then they have an identical model, but lower to the ground, zero-drop style. With all that said, I don’t consider running in Kinvaras barefoot running, but I think this is one great transition shoe and a viable option for any forefoot striker.
UPDATE. Saucony unveiled the Kinvara 2, an improved version of the original. It's even lower to the ground, which I think makes it an even better shoe.

Vibram FiveFingers Classic / KSO / Bikila / Komodo
Oh, my. I’ll try not to write a novel about these, but it’s going to be hard. The FiveFingers are in part what brought me to barefoot running. They are like the MacIntosh of running; those who use them swear by them (and often evangelize, all guns blazing) while nonbelievers scoff at their sight.
Although I cannot oversight the fact that the FiveFingers are largely responsible for the popularity of barefoot running, I have to remain objective about what they bring in terms of benefits.
The original FiveFingers (the Classic, the Sprint and the KSO) were no more than foot gloves. A thin Vibram outsole with laser-etched wave patterns that would open up and offer traction when your foot moves, topped by a ventilated fabric and a basic Velcro adjustment strap. And, of course, the individual toe pockets that made them famous. I initially bought the Classic on the misguided information that they were intended for running. They are not. They are closer to ballerina shoes than anything with their open-top style and they will wreak havoc on your top foot skin with their bungee-cord closing system. Ouch. I kept them for a while to walk around, but eventually gave them to a friend for everyday use. (On the same basis, I couldn’t honestly recommend the Sprint to any serious runner.)

I then got a pair of KSO’s, then another one. I have ran thousands of kilometres in those. As long as you stick to short and medium distances (say, up to a half-marathon), you should be fine with KSO’s if the ground is not wet. The grip is excellent, the proprioception is unparalleled and the protection for the underfoot is exactly what you need, no more. The problems start with the rain or when you crank up the mileage; the interior conception of the original FiveFingers is just too coarse. If your feet get wet or you run long distances, they will rip through the side of the ball of your foot, leaving a blister if you’re lucky or a bloody mess if you’re me. When going downhill on a longer outing, the separators between your toes will hit hard over time, giving you black nails and sore toes. Finally, the top of the toe pockets, mostly the one for the big toe, is made of a thin fabric that tears open quickly from the friction of your toe nail – more of an aesthetic issue than anything however. As for trail running, the KSO’s capabilities are limited. Frankly, there are terrains you just can’t run in these; coarse gravel and sharp rock tips are two examples.

As my barefoot experience was broadening and new products hit the market, I started thinking the FiveFingers would slowly disappear because of these flaws, plus the fact I’m not sure what the advantage of separated toes really is (considering the other Vibram barefoot soles in New Balance and Merrell, for example, that make you run on a thin, flexible sole that is just as good). That was until I tried the Bikila, and moreover the Komodo.
Looks like Vibram really paid attention to feedback from first-generation customers. They came back with a running-specific product, the Bikila, and a cross-trainer, the Komodo. Both feature a well-improved interior liner that feels as smooth as the inside of any running shoe, without adding bulk. The sole now features grip patterns that add a little more cushioning to the ride, a much-welcome improvement over the originals (after all, the idea of FiveFingers is foot protection; if you run on a nice, smooth and safe surface, you’re gonna do it 100% barefoot). The toe pockets have an improved fabric upper with tear-resistant material added. The overall conception of both these models has been greatly improved. I was so impressed with the second generation that I actually bought a pair, something I was doubtful about before trying them out.

After trying both the Bikila and the Komodo (I ran with one in each foot), I chose the latter. I felt it offered more comfort for long runs with its added removable insole and I preferred its double-strap adjustment and upper cushions over the rawer feel of the Bikila. The Komodo doesn’t feel bulkier and seems to offer greater comfort, plus the option of removing the insole should the need arise. I am looking forward to trying them over a long distance.

UPDATE. I now have ran several long runs in my Komodo's, ranging from 15 to 25KM, and even a 12KM mud bath of a trail run. They passed the test with flying colors.

SIDENOTE. As a barefoot runner, I try to avoid socks as much as the Plague. However, with the advent of more shoe-like barefoot shoes, some might be tempted to wear them with socks. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but I’m definitely not going to recommend it. In my opinion, socks will only make your feet damp and add a layer of friction in the equation, multiplying the chances of blisters. There is, however, one exception. If you have to wear socks, for warmth or comfort or any other reason, I suggest the Injinji. It is a very tight sock with individual compressed toe pockets that literally morph to your feet. I have never had a blister wearing these, which includes runs from anything to 30K.


  1. Thank you! That was very informative

  2. Hey my name is also Todd :)
    but anyway I like how you described the types and facts.
    I am 17 with a strong belief for a more simplistic/natural wourld. I will pay my respects to existence by becoming as natural as it gets.
    thank you so much. sincerely Todd G

  3. After discovering minimalist running, I bought a pair of Achilles sandals from Vivobarefoot a couple of months back. I was excited to try these, and after a couple of preliminary trials went out and ended up putting 10 miles on them one afternoon in October. They have a peculiar division that separates the big toe, with a slit going all the way through the sole so the toe moves independently. They have a velcro strap across the back of the heel to secure them on the foot. After the 10 miles, I discovered that the separator does impact the big toe especially, and I'm still dealing with a blue big toenail over two months later. When I posted a review on Borntorun.com, they failed to post the review, although it was objective. When I emailed them to ask why, I eventually got a reply that they accidentally deleted the post along with some spam, but that they would post the review. They never posted it. I continue to use these for occasional 2-5 mile outings, but not for longer distances as the irritation (if not outright bloody mess) is still a problem if I try anything much longer. Since I already have more shoes than Imelda Marcos, I don't try a pair of every new model that comes along, especially since I more often make my own out of flip-flops these days costing between $1.00-5.00. If you do try these I would suggest you put them on while holding the foot back @ 1 cm away from the lip at the front of the shoe and cinch the velcro strap pretty tightly to hold your foot back away from the front of the shoe, where the impact will probably cause a quite painful injury. I do not think I will be trying to buy another pair of these, although the sole material does provide decent protection against some sharp trail rocks, etc.

  4. Leon, have you tried Huaraches? or Luna Sandals? I'm curious what you think.

  5. http://home.kc.surewest.net/leonw/
    This has my comments about hurraches, although I'm probably the hardest person to please on earth about shoes. I just can't use them. Tried many times. Maybe ok for some people, but not for me. I wonder literally if the Indians who wear them are just so used to them from wearing them from birth on.