Barefoot running 101

We’ve all heard of barefoot running. But how do you actually do it? Coach Andrew Allden explains.

How can you safely transition to a more minimalist shoe? USATF Level 1 Coaching Educator Andrew Allden explains:

I do believe runners should choose a shoe with the least amount of cushioning and support possible. For some that means literally jogging barefoot on the beach; for others, it's hitting the city streets in one of many new minimalist models out there. To find out what works for you and successfully make the transition, you need to do two things: Gradually decrease the amount of "shoe" you're running in and gradually increase the amount of time you spend in those shoes.

Although they may share general characteristics (lightweight and low on support, motion control and cushioning) all minimalist shoes are not created equal. They fall into three distinct categories: cushioned low-drop, cushioned zero-drop, and barefoot zero drop.

The cushioned low-drop shoe, such as the Nike Free or Asics 33, offers significantly less cushioning and heel lift than the traditional two-to-one front-to-back ratio (meaning the cushioning under the heel is twice the height of that under the forefoot). The cushioned zero-drop family, like the New Balance Minumus Zero Road, offers some degree of cushioning via the traditional mid-sole, but has no heel lift. The barefoot zero-drop shoe, which is completely flat with no heel lift, like the omnipresent Virbram Fivefingers or the new Saucony Hattori, has little more than a rubber sole designed to protect the skin from the ground. For those in an urban environment, this is as close to barefoot as you should get for obvious reasons.

Gradually begin working your way down the lineup – and back up if the thinner model isn’t feeling right: Start out by jogging in the new pair for just 3 to 5 minutes at a time on alternate days, gradually increasing the minimal-to-maximal shoe ratio by no more than 5 minutes per run. Once you’re up to your full mileage, repeat the process again on the alternate days until the shift to the cushioned low-drop shoe is complete. You can also use your new slim sneakers for cross training drills, such as skipping and high knees, to improve your lower leg strength, balance and agility, which can make the transition easier.

Success? Repeat the program with a cushioned zero-drop shoe, then move onto the barefoot zero-drop if you so choose. Don’t ever be afraid to go back to the previous level. When it comes to minimalist running, you want to take the minimalist approach.

What's all the fuss about minimalism? Read more.

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  • Nike


    The Nike Free hit the scene back in 2005, promising a stride that mimicked running barefoot. Naturally, it elicits comparisons. Meet the latest generation: Free Run +2. "This is not a true minimalist shoe, as it has some heel lift and cushioning," says Allden, "but it is exactly those qualities that make it attractive to the typical runner." ($90, available in men's and women's at nikerunning.com)
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  • New Balance

    New Balance

    "These have a slightly lower heel than competitors like the Nike Free, so I'd recommend them for someone seeking a more minimalist experience, who still wants some cushioning," says Allden of the Minimus Road. The model also features an upward curve in the heel to help you strike the ground with your forefoot. ($99, available in men's and women's at newbalance.com)

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  • Vibram


    "If you're seeking a pure minimalist experience, the FiveFingers Bilka is the way to go," says Allden. "This latest version from the line has a more rugged sole and a slight heel raise." Plus they have a tear-resistant toe in case you're taking on tough terrain. ($90, available in men's and women's at vibramfivefingers.com)


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  • Saucony


    The Hattori's stretchy, glove-like upper fits like a second skin. "These are a tiny bit more cushioned than the Vibram FiveFingers, but the biggest difference is that your toes aren't separated, which may make it easier for some runners to grip and push off," Allden says. ($80 for men's; $90 for women's, available at Saucony.com)

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  • Asics


    Consider the Rush 33 a minimalist ride with training wheels. "These have more cushioning than some of the other models out there," says Allden, "and I'd definitely keep them on the road and off the trail." ($70, available in men's and women's at asicsamerica.com)
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  • Fila


    Bearing a striking resemblance to the FiveFingers, Skeletoes 2.0, the originator's less expensive cousin, may be worth a shot. According to Allden, "You'll get a similar 'barefoot' feeling, but sometimes it's nice to have a different brand option to compare subtle differences between the shoes." ($50, available in men's and women's at Fila.com)

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  • Mizuno


    The Wave Universe 4 is built for speed: it reduces and redirects impact when you land — much like your car's suspension. "These are essentially a racing flat," says Allden, "so they're inherently light, but they also have some cushioning, so you're not going to feel every pebble in the road." ($119, unisex in men's sizing, available at Mizunousa.com)
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  • Reebok


    76 strategically placed plush sensors on the Real Flex's soles help you feel the road without literally feeling the road. "I'd recommend these for someone who likes running in the Nike Free," says Allden, "it's a similar ride."  ($89, available in men's and women's at reebok.com)
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  • Saucony


    It may be feather-weight, but the ProGrid Kinvara is made with a special carbon-rubber outsole, so it's tough enough to last through multiple miles. "I found these extremely comfortable," says Allden, "and a little firmer than the Nike Free if that's your preference." ($68, available in men's and women's at Saucony.com)

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