Barefoot and minimalist running is growing in popularity by day, but right now it’s definitely still a lifestyle niche. As with any niche and the folks involved in it, differing opinions fly, people get segmented into this group or that, and elitists are born.
Personally, I try to stay clear of all that. When the debate over shoes versus barefoot circles again as it always does, I just roll my eyes and wait it out. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into any one role in life. When it comes to this topic, mostly I just identify as a runner and leave the barefoot part out unless it’s pertinent. Frankly, the barefoot part is only a small fraction of what my running life is about. Obviously, I prefer running with much less on my feet than most people, but that’s because to me it means good form with less injury, and it feels more natural. And I enjoy running much more when it feels natural to me.
My opinion on the whole barefoot vs. minimalist shoes debate is that there should be no debate. I feel strongly that it’s important to embrace all aspects of something important to you, or else you’ll never see the whole picture. I agree that barefoot is your best learning tool. I agree that shoes are tools. I agree that good running form requires a mid-foot strike, straight posture and high cadence. I agree that minimalist trail shoes are good for trails, and that you can go barefoot on trails. You can call me wishy-washy, but I believe that to truly understand something you must welcome all facets into your study of it, not just one or two specific ideas.
People who go barefoot 100 percent of the time arrive at limitations when it comes to extreme temperatures and certain aggressive terrains, and there may be some experiences they will have to avoid because of it. People who never go barefoot remain numb and consequently miss out on the glorious wealth of the world that can be experienced through the soles of their feet. Only those of us who fling aside the puritanical garble from both far ends of the spectrum can really gain the benefits of both worlds.
Like I said, I am a runner first, and a barefoot/minimalist second. Like the rest of the folks in the minimalist niche, I use my choice of footwear (or lack thereof) as a tool to allow good technique and improve my joy in running. I am also a bit of a minimalist shoe geek. I love to test and review all kinds of minimalist shoes for running and casual wear. I believe in minimal footwear and enjoy promoting it over shoes that alter or try to “fix” one’s gait. It makes me happy to think that even in some miniscule way I am serving to shape the future of the sport through the quality of its products.
No shoe company has ever paid me to write a review of their shoes, good or bad, but most of the time the products I write about are given to me free of charge. On occasion, if I want to try out a certain shoe badly enough, I will purchase it myself if the company’s PR department is unresponsive. Some people will tease me by calling me a “shoe whore,” and well, I suppose that’s partially true. I relish in my growing choice of footwear each time I head out for a run (and likewise, in giving some away to others who will enjoy them more). But my intentions are pure: my childlike curiosity and desire to be as involved as I can in this sport are my driving forces.
But I am most certainly not without a canyon of flaws. For the last two years I have run almost exclusively in minimalist shoes. Yes, you read that right. Except for on rare occasions and really good moods, I all but avoided running barefoot out of a fear of nasty blisters and uncorrectable form issues. And the few times I tried to run bare, it felt too difficult and had some less than desirable outcomes. For the longest time I lived by the resolve that it would take too long for my feet to adapt, and in the meantime I want to bank mileage at every run, not limp around over tiny stones that my baby-soft feet can’t handle.
But in the last couple of weeks I have finally taken the opportunity to set aside my hesitations about running barefoot, and just started doing it. I guess you could say I’d finally had enough of hearing myself talk. One night I came home from work, got into my running skirt and sport bra, leashed up the pooch and left the toolbox of shoes at home. I didn’t take a pair with me as a back-up, just in case, like I’d always done (and invariably put them on half a mile later). I left my front door just as barefoot as my beloved dog Oscar, and I found out that it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I ran a mile around the neighborhood and I didn’t get any blisters. So I did it again a few days later and it was a little bit easier. Last night I ran two full miles completely barefoot, for the first time ever. I came home, washed my feet off and started dinner like it was no big deal. Because it wasn’t, not anymore. What a triumph to know such simplicity! In a few weeks my feet will be tougher and I’ll take on more challenges. I am thrilled that I’ve finally overcome my fears and feelings of inexperience related to running barefoot.
So I guess you could say that I am finally coming to a point in my experience where I can make an argument for or against running totally barefoot, because I’m actually dedicated to the use of both toolboxes. But I actually have less of a need to argue about it now than ever before. Why? Because there’s really no point.
Many barefoot purists have felt the glow of enlightenment as they shunned those who choose to wear shoes in their daily life. Many shod runners have felt smart in their cushioned shoes while they shook their heads at those weird barefoot hippies. But I have never felt more enlightened than I did the day I realized that I don’t have to make a choice. I can have the whole toolbox for myself, and I can be ready for anything.