Barefoot running and minimalist running shoes are all the rage—and a legitimate source of controversy. Much has been written in running books and articles, as well as enough in clinical research and the mainstream media to attract a lot of attention. Triathletes, pinched for time and always on the lookout for the latest research to improve their training, have latched onto the barefoot running movement with varying degrees of success.
Some who found running painful finally found relief. Others who tried to make the switch to minimalist shoes caused themselves injury.
The upshot from experts who work with triathletes is this: If your feet are strong and your body alignment is good, you can probably succeed in anything from a high-stability shoe with a built-up heel to no shoe at all. If your feet are weak, you can either compensate with orthotics and structured shoes, or you can undergo the long, slow job of building enough foot strength to be able to run in less structured shoes without injury.
“If you’re out there running and you lack either that stability or the mobility where you need it, then switching to a minimalist shoe is a fast track to injury,” says triathlon Coach Al Lyman, who is the co-owner of Pursuit Athletic Performance, a gait analysis lab located in Old Saybrook, CT.
“Now you’re taking whatever protective mechanisms the shoe might have provided and taking them away.”
As an average age-grouper balancing work, home and training, I never gave much thought to shoe selection. In fact, I usually went to a discount department store that sold Asics, because they knew nothing about shoes and would put them on sale for far less than running stores would.
The trade-off was, they knew nothing about shoes. And neither did I.
Over the years, I’ve moved from cushioned stability shoes (thick heel, lots of shiny plastic reinforcing the top, sides and heel to keep my foot from moving) to a very lightweight shoe that bends easily in all directions and has a small, flat layer of cushioning along the sole.
I haven’t had too much trouble, and now my feet are stronger, my hips are better aligned, and it’s easier for me to feel when I’m getting lazy and my form is bad.
In this article, we’ll hear from experts and triathletes just like you about the role of shoe selection, foot strength and gait in your triathlon running success.
After speaking with the experts, I learned that my success with minimalist shoes probably had more to do with my age, weight and willingness to listen to my body than with my shoe selection or training.
Read on to find out whether you are due for a change, flirting with disaster, or on the right track staying with your current running style.
Running is pretty much running, right?
Although it seems the more “pure” of the three sports, requiring neither equipment nor lessons, there is a lot to running. Especially running when you are tired and just dismounted from a bike.
Triathletes have some special advantages and disadvantages when it comes to thinking about running form, improving running speed, and considering different shoes.
Because triathletes don’t have enough time to train in each sport as much as a single-sport runner, swimmer or cyclist, they tend to focus on equipment that can help them get ahead, and they can be more susceptible to trends or fads.
“No one really wants to do the work – so the prevalent thinking is I can switch to a pair of shoes like Newtons and that’s going make me faster overnight,” says Lyman.
“If you have great form, you have a good margin of error with shoe selection,” says Lyman.
“For the average age grouper who sits at a desk all day, those athletes don’t have the same margin of error with respect to the shoes.”
On the other hand, triathletes tend to be well-read and study the details.
“The triathlon audience is a very unique audience,” says Mark Cucuzzella, M.D. "They don’t want things dumbed down. They’re actually very technical.”
“There are a lot of people who want to ditch the shoes but they don’t have the right stability and mobility,” says Cucuzzella, owner of Two Rivers Treads and the Center for Natural Running and Walking, in Sheperdstown, West Virginia.
Although it’s tempting to jump into something very different than what you have now, most people just don’t have the strength in their connective tissues.
Triathletes also frequently come to the sport later in life, and have a greater willingness to completely overhaul their approach to a sport, whether it’s a complete change in swim form, a drastic alteration to their bike fit, or a dramatic change in run form.
That’s a plus in running. Most of the experts we interviewed said the big advantage to minimalist shoes is that they reveal weaknesses in our feet, our stride, our posture or our form. It takes an athlete who is willing to make a change to do something with that information.
“Triathletes are actually the perfect audience to learn running form,” says Cucuzzella.
“Before you go swim 1,000 yards in the pool, you are going to learn form and will be doing drills, otherwise you’re wasting your time. You get the right bike and the correct form and fit. In triathlon, it’s won on the run.”
“And there is a proper way to run.”
Triathletes begin running, whether in a race or a brick workout, after being bent over a bike for an hour or two (or three or six).
Vince Vaccaro,Chi Runner instructor.
“Triathletes come off their bicycle and they are hunched over and they have no neck,” says Vince Vaccaro, a Certified Master Chi Running instructor.
“Their best course of action would be to stand up straight and tall and begin to relax their body.”
Although it might seem to be a good thing to have your hamstrings, glutes and back stretched out from being extended while on the bike, experts say the length of time they are stretched renders them practically useless – devoid of all the elasticity that puts a snap in your stride and holds your head up and your chest out.
Lyman describes the glutes as “shut down” because they are so stretched out from the bike portion of the race. The hip flexors are shortened. And the combination of the two causes the pelvis to tip forward, throwing everything out of alignment.
“The posture we’re in on the bike is a disaster for running,” Lyman says.
Triathletes who don’t notice this and head out on the run with the muscles on their frontside clenched tight and the muscles on their backside slack are bound to have poor form that can lead to injury or just plain slow running.
“I’ve run with [Ironman Champion] Craig Alexander,” says Cucuzzella. He knows to come off the bike and get into a running pattern, not flexed forward. He gets himself tall.”
Almost as bad as cycling is sitting around at a desk all day, which is routine for many amateur triathletes.
For whatever reason, many triathletes are drawn to the sport because it rewards suffering. We aim for longer and longer events, such as the Ironman, where it is a badge of honor just to complete the race, it is so long and awful. Most of us think that pushing ourselves farther and longer is as important or more important than speed or form.
We set ourselves up for suffering.
This attitude will backfire if you are moving to a less supportive shoe. Many experts and athletes will tell you that if you try a minimalist shoe and you don’t listen to your feet, legs and hips and aren’t mindful of your core, spine, neck and head, you are very likely to end up hurt.
“It takes a long time to develop the strength to compensate for the lack of support in a shoe,” says Kathy Coutinho, a chiropractor who was featured at the MultiWorld Expo in Washington D.C. this year.
Put another way, minimalist shoes force you to notice weaknesses in your running.
“It’s harder to run incorrectly with minimalist shoes than to run incorrectly with traditional shoes,” says Jeff Horowitz, a certified running coach and author. “But the reverse is not necessarily true. To run properly, you don't have to wear minimalist shoes."
In other words, you don’t buy Vibrams to fix your running form. You buy Vibrams so you can finally feel what is wrong with your running form and develop the strength and mindfulness to fix it.
Going into a run workout with a new pair of shoes and a suffer-through-it attitude is a recipe for failure.
Lyman advises going barefoot around the house when possible, and incorporating a few barefoot running drills in the grass into your workouts.
“It is a great strengthening process to integrate some barefooted running into your running if it’s done for an appropriate length of time,” he says.
Vaccaro advises changing shoes using the same gradual progression he advises for changes to one's running form.
“Use a gradual progression from whatever current running shoe they have, and they’ll be able to pay attention to their technique and their form.”
Vaccaro says you can test a shoe’s flexibility by twisting it as if you are wringing out a towel.
“Take your existing shoe and ask the sales person for a shoe that’s a little more flexible. At the same time you’re looking for less stability,” he says.
Over months and years, gradually work your way to something like a racing flat, he advises.
Coutinho, the chiropractor, advises the following exercises to strengthen your feet as you transition to a less restrictive shoe:
Running experts say barefoot running or minimalist shoes can be an easy transition for some, a long road for others, and a just plain bad idea for a few.
“A minimalist shoe or barefoot running is really appropriate for a certain percentage of the population and not appropriate for another percentage of the population,” says Lyman.
(Click the buttons below to skip to the relevant section for you, or scroll down to read in order.)
Triathletes who have been running the same way for a long time with few problems may have easy success switching to a floppier shoe, or they may be the most vulnerable to injury. It depends on the person.
“A 45-year-old man who has been running in a traditional shoe for 20 years has developed scar tissue and certain weaknesses,” says Lyman.
“That guy is going to have a different experience going to a minimalist shoe versus someone who is just beginning a running program,” he says.
Lyman says taking just a millimeter off the heel of a shoe causes the body to compensate or shift, especially after years of running in a certain way.
“A younger person may have a little bit more success.”
That’s not to say an experienced runner can’t make the transition.
If that runner has very good form in the first place, it doesn’t matter what shoes they wear. If they wear certain shoes to compensate for poor form, they may need to take the transition very slowly or not at all.
To my surprise, the vast majority of anecdotal success stories about barefoot running and the minimalist shoe revolution come from runners and triathletes with major foot problems. Some of these folks have been using extreme stability shoes stuffed with hard orthotics, or had given up running altogether.
Arsiyanti Ardie [BT username TriAya] of Indonesia has a dramatic story to tell.
An otherwise petite woman with long, wide feet (men’s size 9.5 and 6E width), she compensated for severe pronation with custom orthotics for years, but still suffered pain.
“When I moved to Indonesia, several things happened with respect to my feet: One, like most people here, I went barefoot or at the most in thin flip-flops almost all the time. Two, my sister's dog ate my orthotics. Three, I got a lovely young pup who was too young to run, but not too young to frolic on soft sand. So I did a lot of barefoot soft-sand running while she toddled along.”
After a year of unknowingly strengthening her feet, Ardie can run in shoes without orthotics; and video analysis of her gait shows a mid-foot landing and the normal amount of slight pronation that is natural as the weight moves across the toes from the outside to the inside.
Jeff Freer of Cary, N.C., says going barefoot around the house and running in flats was the cure for years of running pain.
“After four years of fighting plantar fasciitis with stability shoes, over-the-counter orthotics, custom orthotics, Strassburg socks, physical therapists, and orthopedic doctors, the cure for me was minimalist shoes,” Freer says.
“After trying everything else, I went against the conventional wisdom, and tried to be barefoot or as close to barefoot as possible all the time.”
Freer wears Vibram Five Fingers and Merrell barefoot shoes when not running, and lightweight flat shoes for running.
“It took a couple months, but am 100 percent pain free after four excruciating years,” says Freer. “On the rare occasion I have to wear a shoe with a raised heel, my feet kill me the next day.”
Running experts say these stories reveal one truth about orthotics and stability shoes: Their purpose is to compensate for weakness. If an athlete is willing and able to put in the time building strong feet at work and at play, they are likely to be able to slowly put those strong feet to good use in their training.
“Walking around barefoot is a great idea,” says Cucuzzella.
“Ideally, over months and months and months, you develop that strength and length.”
At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, David Wagar of Washington D.C. [BT member davidwagar] is not easy on his feet, and wouldn’t be the ideal candidate for a sudden shift to different shoes. Even when he was in great shape, he couldn’t run more than four or five miles without developing knee pain.
“Over the years I kept going to a bigger and bigger shoe to help cushion my stride - mostly at the direction of the local run shop,” says Wagar, all the while striking the ground with his heel, far in front of his center of gravity.
Wagar heard about Newtons from a friend, did some research, and decided to try them. He was disciplined about starting slow, and it paid off.
“At first my calves killed me, but my knees did not. I slowly was able to increase my miles and still without knee pain. By the end of the summer I did my first half marathon and I still have no pain,” he says.
Not everyone is so lucky. The friend who introduced him to Newtons ended up with stress fractures of the metatarsals.
In many ways, those just taking up running have a distinct advantage, because they haven’t developed bad habits. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have weaknesses of the foot and legs. In fact, athletic and non-athletic people alike walk around in boxy dress shoes most of the time, depriving their feet of exercise and numbing their ability to receive feedback about the ground they are stepping on.
Annika Shultz of Wauwatosa, WI, would occasionally attempt running and end up with shin splints and knee pain.
When she decided she wanted to do a triathlon, she was willing to learn how to run from scratch.
“At about the same time I decided I needed to learn to run properly, I fell headfirst into the ‘barefoot craze,’ which really isn't a craze at all, but a rediscovery of something that's been around forever and has been largely abandoned,” she says.
“In all my research on learning to run, I read for hours about form, foot strike, shoes, no shoes, everything. I couldn't believe how much sense it made to try running with minimal shoes or no shoes at all. As a lifelong fan of cushion, arch support and motion control, it went against everything I'd ever tried for my finicky feet. But I bought the VFFs, took the plunge, and here I am.”
Shultz is making good progress so far and hopes to complete an Olympic distance triathlon.
Others argue that the improvements new runners notice from switching to more neutral shoes after having problems can be attributed to simply developing as a runner at coincidentally the same time as the switch to different shoes.
“I'll suggest we see a similar phenomenon in cyclists with saddles in particular; that a new cyclist in their first two years of the sport has trouble with saddle comfort and switches saddles every few months to find the ‘right one,’” says Tom Demerly, an equipment expert at TriSports.com.
“When they settle on that magic saddle after a lot of trial and error it coincides with the amount of time it takes to acclimate to sitting on a saddle in a performance oriented position. Did they just find the ‘right saddle’ or the ‘right running shoe,’ or did they simply achieve a level of fitness and durability from years of training, then attribute it to some ‘magic bullet’ training philosophy or equipment?”
For Catherine Chandler of Hillsboro, Ore. [BT username GLC 1968],
This photo of Catherine Chandler as a zombie gives a peek at her minimalist shoe
the barefoot running movement is the reason she could take up triathlon.
“I would not be running at all had it not been for the recent barefoot movement,” she says.
Chandler has short feet that are very wide. Traditional shoes squeezed her toes and caused her injury, forcing her to give up on running and become a cyclist.
“Once this problem was properly diagnosed, the prescription was a lot of barefoot time or wearing only flat, soft shoes that allowed my toes to spread naturally,” she says. But as recently as 2010, running shoes that allowed her toes to spread out did not exist.
“When this whole 'barefoot craze' encouraged footwear manufacturers to create shoes that were more 'natural' (i.e. foot shaped), I finally had a footwear option,” she says. “I should probably send a thank you note to Christopher McDougal or to Vibram for getting this movement off the ground.”
I fall into this category. As a female runner, I don’t have quite as much bone-crushing weight pounding my feet into the ground as the average male runner. I’ve been running for a long time, and I know there are problems with my form I need to fix.
But I’ve noticed that I fix these problems naturally when I wear a shoe that doesn’t shelter me from the feeling of my foot hitting the ground.
Over the years, as I’ve moved away from shoes with high heels and lots of plastic stability parts, I can see from my race pictures that my posture has improved quite a bit. I used to have such poor posture it’s hard to believe I could breathe, and it was no surprise I had digestive issues. The bottom of my rib cage was practically resting on my pelvis, squishing everything in between.
Now that I tighten my core muscles naturally when I run, to keep my hips level and keep my pelvis straight, I feel better all over when I run, not just in my legs and feet.
It’s been easy to avoid injury as I move to a lighter shoe, but even I will admit going too long my first time out with my feathery light Mizuno Wave Ronins. I paid for it with foot pain. After a period of rest, I wore them only for the first 5 minutes of my run and circled back to change into my Zoots, and gradually worked up to longer distances.
Monica Cohen of Worcester, Mass. [BT member M73], had a similar experience using neutral shoes to keep her mind on her form. Cohen had some hip injuries and had a hard time avoiding previous bad habits.
“After some trial and error, I found that I could not remember to keep my hips in the right position when wearing any sort of heel - even the "low" heel of my motion control running shoes,” she says.
“I switched my work shoes to ballet flats, and my weekend shoes to VFF's [Vibram Five Fingers], and it greatly helped my ability to have a more neutral pelvis.”
She is now running successfully in minimalist running shoes.
Elite runners are most likely to have success with any shoe because if they are great runners, they probably have good form to begin with.
“You can put a big training shoe on a Kenyan and they’re still going to run like a Kenyan,” says Cucuzzella. But if you are trying to learn a new form, you need to be able to feel the ground.
Cucuzzella argues that speed can be enhanced if you feel the ground better with your foot, which sends the message to your core to tighten up and use the force of the ground to propel yourself forward instead of just absorbing the shock – an impossibility in a boxy, overly cushioned shoe.
“Proprioception [the ability to feel how your body is moving and where your body parts are in relation to one another] is important. If your core doesn’t time things correctly – if you hit the ground and it’s a big marshmallow cushion and your core doesn’t get the message – you don’t get that efficient pop. You’re leaking energy.”
Thus Cucuzzella believes running better means running faster. More of your power moves you forward, and less is lost in the cushioning of the shoe or the sponginess of your core.
Lyman says if you see a runner going fast in a minimalist shoe, it might not be the shoes.
“The top athletes in our sport are very, very good functionally,” he says. “Their superb form is the more likely driver of their success than their shoes.
There are no shortcuts.
And that warning cuts both ways.
Proponents of barefoot running say stability shoes and orthotics are shortcuts to rebuilding foot strength. They are a crutch we have become accustomed to, and it makes us even weaker.
“We are looking for the answer today for a problem that we’ve created all their lives,” says Vaccaro.
“Instead of fixing a fallen arch, you get a shoe with big arch support.”
But the same maxim holds true for those rushing to buy Vibrams.
You can’t get around the fact that you need to very slowly add them to your rotation of running shoes, running in them for just a few minutes at a time in the beginning.
Experts say triathletes tendency to glorify suffering and their superhuman endurance can really backfire when it comes to running.
Not only do triathletes not listen very well to the information pain is providing to them, they also have the capacity to completely take themselves out of the game with a relatively minor injury because of the sheer distance they put in. While the average runner might run in pain for three miles, an endurance athlete might keep going for 13, and then bike the next day.
Ryan Leone of northern Ohio [BT member ryanjleone] admits to being an example of this type. A year and a half ago, he tried a minimal shoe. He started slow with a one-mile run, and decided since it felt so great, he should add more miles to the shoes.
“The next week I was doing 20 miles in them, with my longest run at six miles. In theory I knew this was too fast, but I liked the way I ran so much I kept doing it!”
“I began to notice a bit of pain in my mid foot. No big deal. ‘I'm an Ironman; pain is good!’” says Leone.
He kept pushing despite the pain and stayed in the minimalist shoes, but ended up unable to walk and was diagnosed with stress fractures in his feet.
Experts say triathletes can hurt themselves worse than the average person because of their capacity to go farther.
“These people have fine engines. They could go out and cardiovascularly destroy every tissue,” says Cucuzzella. “But you’re only as strong as your weakest tissue.”
Most of all, listen to your body.
That’s the advantage of having shoes that can feel the road.
If you are going to suffer through, you’ve missed the point.
Special thanks to our experts:
Al Lyman of Pursuit Athletic Performance
Dr. Mark Cucuzzella of the Natural Running Center
Vince Vaccaro, Master Chi Running Instructor
Jeff Horowitz, running and triathlon coach and author of Smart Marathon Training
Kathy Coutinho, Chiropractor at Positively Chiropractic
Editor at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.