Even if you are convinced of the many benefits of barefoot running, and want to see if barefoot running will improve your pace and technique, you may still be a bit concerned about making the transition. Maybe you normally run on rough terrain, like rocky trails, or in urban settings where you can’t be sure of avoiding hazards like broken glass.
Luckily, there is an alternative.
In order to meet the needs of runners like you, there are many ‘transition shoes’ available on the market today, that aren’t really shoes at all but are really more like ‘foot gloves’. They allow your foot to move freely, and do not include layers of supportive or cushioning structures like a traditional running shoe. What they do offer is a protective ‘second skin’ for the soles of your feet.
If you do opt for one of the transition shoes however, remember to think about your feet. Many of the benefits of barefoot running come from the increased sensitivity and awareness you develop of where and how you are placing your feet; transition shoes do reduce that sensation somewhat.
Vibrams are probably the most well known and widely available transition shoe. Made of a lightweight synthetic material, with a thin rubber base for traction, the five fingers are a useful addition for even seasoned barefoot runners. For those just starting out, the five fingers can help you through the early stages of barefoot running, but if you intend to progress to ‘real’ barefoot running eventually, you still need to spend time toughening your soles even if it just by walking. You can use the five fingers for a couple of run sessions, and go truly barefoot for walks a couple times a week as well.
If you run in hot or cold conditions, Vibrams can give you more options to get out and run. They’ll offer some protection against very cold or hot surfaces, but still don’t run in ice and snow, because you won’t get enough traction.
They are also popular with barefoot triathletes and aquathon competitors – you can wear them in water, and will offer a bit of protection against shells and rocks in open water swims too.
With many models and styles, you can be sure to find a pair to meet your needs. Other minimalist footwear is available and it is a good idea to assess any models before you purchase them. Some criteria or methods of critiquing such gear is outlined in the running barefoot book published this year.
Specially designed for running, a variation on these traditional Mexican leather sandals is available. They consist of a smooth flat leather or rubber pad underfoot, held to the foot by a network of leather lacing. They don’t fit your foot as neatly as the five fingers, so it’s important to get them custom made just for your feet to ensure a good fit. Most suppliers will make the sandals to fit an outline of your foot, or you can by a kit to make the sandals yourself.
Sandals do protect your feet from rough surfaces, or hot and cold conditions, but they aren’t as stable as five fingers. They need to be laced snugly to prevent slipping, especially if your feet sweat and become slippery on the sole. The laces can be constricting, and can be uncomfortable if you are prone to blisters.
You can also run in neoprene slippers, similar to those kayakers and divers wear. Do choose a slipper designed specifically for running, because the soles of diving shoes will be much thicker than you want for running. Feelmax is a major supplier of running versions. These slippers do begin to reduce the benefits of barefoot running – you are losing a lot of the sensations that make barefoot running work and influence improvements in your form, and the structure of the slipper limits the freedom of the bones and structures of your foot.
That said, if you want to run in very cold or wet conditions, then a set of Feelmax slippers may be good for you. Feelmax slippers, and the slightly taller booties they make, are also a good choice of the terrain is thorny or has high grasses and brambles that could damage the tops of your feet.