Barefoot: Is it Form or Footwear?

by Editor on June 29, 2011

“You run barefoot?  What’s that you say? What do you mean you wear ‘shoes’? But I thought you said…So what you are telling me is barefoot runners wear shoes? Are you talking about those funny looking things with the individual toes? I’ve heard about those. That’s weird. Doesn’t it hurt? That can’t be good for your knees.”

Does this conversation sound familiar? Why do we use the term “barefoot” if it causes so much confusion? Should we give up and settle on “minimalist” as a more appropriate alternative? Why not invent a new term that is a more accurate depiction of minimalist running without sounding so technical?

Five points to the person with the best new descriptor.

The question stands. Why do we call minimalist running “barefoot”? I’ve done it. Some big-name runners still do it. Check out Barefoot Ted. I don’t see anyone asking him to change his name to Sandals Ted just because he wears sandals.

Barefoot Ted? Or Sandals Ted?

Saying you barefoot run is a lot like making a Xerox or Googling something. It’s a commonly accepted term applied to a category.

In my opinion, “barefoot” describes a style and form just as much as it describes naked soles. Light feet, forefoot strike, quick cadence, and bent knees. These are as much a part of barefoot running as going shoeless. If you saw a man running down the street with no shoes, crashing heel first into the pavement with long, bounding strides, would you call him a barefoot runner? Not likely. He may have the footwear correct, but the form is lacking.


Barehand boxing, bareback horse riding, barefoot skiing… All of these “bare” sports are commonly performed with a wrap, a riding pad, a mini-ski. These aids are always optional, but they provide some safety and comfort while allowing the athlete to train and perfect their technique. For me, barefoot running shoes offer the same benefits. I may never be labeled as a barefoot purist, but I’ve never really been much for labels anyway.

The best ways to learn is to educate yourself. Grab a copy of the barefoot running book, which suggests one start out completely barefoot first, then add minimalist shoes later. It helps to ensure that your technique is efficient and solid. That said, I like to run far. I know that I’d be getting myself into trouble if I tried to go 15 miles without shoes on city streets (especially on my first run). That creates a few options:

  1. Run barefoot for a short distance and call it a day.
  2. Run barefoot and switch to my big, cushy running shoes after about a mile.
  3. Run barefoot and then toss on some minimalist shoes to finish my run after my feet have been roughed up by the pavement.

For me, this is a no-brainer. If I want to go far, I’ll use my minimalist shoes to help get me there.

So, what to do? Reserve the term “barefoot” solely for those who run with proper form and put skin on the ground? We could – and some do. I’d like to propose a new idea. Barefoot runners are often called crazy, so let’s get a little crazy. Let’s call ourselves…are you ready? RUNNERS. Catchy, isn’t it? Sure, that term has already been claimed, but bear with me for a moment.

Remember when runners all ran barefoot? That’s the way we started out. Shoes are a human invention. I bet the first runner to put on pair of shoes was considered a radical. Eventually, a whole clan of runners started putting on these funny looking shoes and referring to themselves as “shod” runners. As the trend continued and shod running became the norm, it became simpler just to drop “shod” from the expression and refer to themselves as “runners”. And there you have it…those shod runners stole our term. It’s time we take it back.

It might not be easy, but we can do it. Educate other runners on the benefits of barefoot running. Show the world you can run without injury and throw away the knee braces. Encourage fellow runners to give the barefoot style a try. As more and more runners join the ranks, we can once again set a new norm. We can show the running world that our passion for health and sport are the ties that bind us together. We can take join the countless throngs of fleet-footed commuters who traverse the earth under a single, unified banner.

Whether male or female, young or old, barefoot or shod…let’s throw off our labels (and maybe even our shoes) and run in harmony. Together, we can be RUNNERS.

Jordan Flowers

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

misszippy1 June 30, 2011 at 12:26 am

Agreed on this one. Somehow, though, I think you’ve opened a can of worms!

uncladlad June 30, 2011 at 1:12 am

I prefer the term “minimalist runner”. I believe “barefoot” should only be reserved for those who choose to run sans footwear of any kind.

I personally run barefoot, but wear minimalist footwear when I feel the occasion calls for it.

Jeremy June 30, 2011 at 3:50 am

When discussing natural running or running technique there are many ideas of footwear. We should look at it as it is. Barefoot is barefoot, pure ground feel, completely natural. Minimalist is a little bit of protection, still maintaining barefoot principles (foot shape, zero drop, little cushion if any). Zero Drop Cushion with no heel elevation whatsoever – maintain traditional cushion without the technology, still allowing for improved running technique, but not minimal. Then there is everything else as I would lump it and that includes elevated heels, gels, airs, shocks, and anything that causes us to catch early. It is important to choose the footwear for your activity and interest level. Many are catching on to minimal or barefoot, but there are those that want better technique without completely going there. Technique is critical to our running success regardless of the options that we choose.

Christoffer June 30, 2011 at 4:29 am

What I have understood so far from reading various blogs, sites and forums and from watching countless YouTube and videos; when most people talk about barefoot running they are essentially referring to the forefoot running technique rather than skin against pavement. As you pointed out though almost every site, article and video suggest running without any kind of shoe or protection to start with and once you start to really understand what the forefoot running technique is all about you can run with what ever kind of protection you’d like.

micah true June 30, 2011 at 12:34 pm

I’m a lightfooted runner

Scooter aka Lavarunner June 30, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Great article and clarity of the real meaning of barefoot / Minimalist. I too get tired of arguing semantics when it really comes down to good form and correct mechanics. If I run barefoot, it is in the 1-10 mile range. anything more is minimalist and on trails, I go even more padding. I am in this to enjoy myself, not self abuse.

Angie Bee June 30, 2011 at 5:06 pm

I think that starting out barefoot is essential to learning the form. The proprioceptive feedback guides you and then you can transfer that form to shoes that don’t inhibit that new form. Doing regular barefoot running will keep you in touch with that form. I don’t think one can learn that form in shoes but it can be transferred to shoes. Shoes are tools but people don’t seem to want to learn the skill before applying the tools.

micah true June 30, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Sandal tycoon Ted-:]

Barefoot_Greg July 1, 2011 at 1:47 am

I’ve recently changed my mind on this and arrived at the conclusion that “barefoot running” means without any protection underfoot. Even minimalist shoes mask some biofeedback, which is irreplaceable.
“Barefoot” and “minimalist” describe the footwear (or lack thereof), rather than the form, in my opinion.
I like terms like “natural” or “paleo” to describe the form. But I propose using the term “human running” – running the way humans evolved to run. It can be shod or barefoot; Pose, Chi or “natural” are part of it; and it connotes running as part of being human.

Any votes for “human running”?

Jordan Flowers July 1, 2011 at 5:22 am

Human running…I like that, except that it seems to imply that there might be some other way to run. Will others get offended if we call them “non-human” runners?

Eeq July 2, 2011 at 9:34 pm

We can be slaves..or we can be LYCANS

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