Are Barefoot Shoes Good for Running?

Barefoot running has become an increasingly popular trend over the past decade. Advocates claim it can strengthen feet and lower legs, improve running efficiency, and reduce injury risk compared to running in traditional padded running shoes.

But is it safe or advisable for most runners? And are barefoot running shoes a good compromise? This article takes an in-depth look at the pros and cons of barefoot shoes for running.

What are Barefoot Running Shoes?

Barefoot shoes, or minimalist shoes, are lightweight, thin-soled shoes that aim to mimic the experience of running barefoot while still providing some foot protection.

Unlike heavily cushioned running shoes, barefoot shoes have very thin, flexible soles to allow your feet to move and flex more naturally. Popular brands include Vibram FiveFingers, Merrell Barefoot, Vivobarefoot, and Xero Shoes.

Pros of Barefoot Running Shoes

Strengthen Feet and Lower Legs

Running without shoes gradually strengthens the small muscles, tendons and ligaments in your feet, ankles and lower leg through increased use. Over time this can improve stability, balance and agility. It may also reduce injury risk in those areas.

Encourages Better Form

Landing on your heel with each step (heel striking) causes an abrupt deceleration that sends shockwaves up your body. Barefoot shoes encourage you to transition to a forefoot or midfoot landing, eliminating that shock and encouraging better posture and a shorter, quicker stride.

Increases Sensory Feedback

With nothing between you and the ground, nerve endings in your feet can provide useful information about surface changes to make quick adjustments and avoid injury. This feedback is believed to trigger natural injury-prevention reflexes.

Allows Natural Foot Motion

Your feet have over 25 joints and 200,000 nerve endings. Constrictive footwear inhibits their ability to move, twist and expand naturally. Barefoot shoes provide ample room for toes to splay and feet to swell on long runs.

May Reduce Certain Injuries

Some research has found that running in barefoot shoes altered foot strike patterns and lowered impact forces in ways that could reduce repetitive stress injuries like shin splints and plantar fasciitis. More studies are needed.

Cons of Barefoot Running Shoes

Increased Risk of Cuts/Bruises

Without protective rubber and padding to shield them, feet are more vulnerable to stepping on sharp objects or uneven surfaces. Painful bruising can also occur from repetitive pounding on hard surfaces like concrete.

Lack Traction

Those super thin, flexible soles that encourage natural foot motion also provide little traction or grip on slick terrain like wet grass, mud trails, or packed snow and ice. Trying to run in those conditions substantially increases injury risk.

Less Cushioning and Shock Absorption

You give up a lot of plush cushioning and shock absorption running in barefoot shoes. Repeated hard impacts with the ground may overwhelm bone density reserves over time, increasing arthritis, stress fracture and plantar fasciitis risk.

Long Break-In Period

Your feet and lower legs need to gradually adapt to functioning without arch support, heel cushioning, and protective padding. Without a proper break-in period, pushing mileage too quickly can cause painful calf, ankle, Achilles and foot injuries.

Not Recommended for High Mileage

Most experts caution against training for marathons or running 40+ miles per week in barefoot shoes given the increased injury risks noted above. They are likely safer for low mileage runners focusing on good form.

The Verdict

Research on the injury risk and other long term effects of running in barefoot shoes vs traditional running shoes is still limited and inconclusive. As such, there is no consensus among running experts on who can safely train in barefoot shoes and to what extent. Like any running shoe technology, results seem to vary based on the individual.

That said, for newer runners still building mileage and running economy, or those rehabbing certain injuries, barefoot shoes do appear to offer some potential biomechanical and sensory feedback benefits when used judiciously. Just take it slow with your transition.

Start by wearing them only on soft surfaces like grass or dirt trails for short runs under 3-5 miles. Give your lower limbs ample time to adapt and strengthen before pushing things too far too fast.

Pay attention to feedback from your feet and focus on maintaining good light and balanced form rather than overstriding or heel striking harshly. And be ready to dial it back or revert to traditional cushioned running shoes if pain arises.

With a cautious approach focused on form and gradual adaptation, many runners can likely benefit from strategically incorporating barefoot shoes into their training. Just don’t make them your go-to for hard speed workouts or super long distances right away.


Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about barefoot running shoes:

What are the best barefoot shoes for running?

Some top-rated barefoot running shoe brands include Vibram FiveFingers, Vivobarefoot, Xero Shoes, Lems, and Merrell Barefoot. Focus on lightness, flexibility, wide toe boxes and thin, minimal cushioning or treads.

How long does it take to transition to barefoot shoes?

It takes the average runner about 6-10 weeks to fully adapt to barefoot shoes, but that can vary a lot by individual. Start with only 5-10 minutes of running in them every other day for a few weeks before gradually increasing your time and mileage wearing them week to week.

What is the difference between barefoot and minimalist running shoes?

Barefoot shoes provide virtually no cushioning or support so it feels similar to running barefoot. Minimalist shoes offer some cushioning and sole thickness but are still very flexible, lightweight and encourage natural foot motion. There is a lot of overlap between the two terms.

Can I run a marathon in barefoot shoes?

It is usually not advisable for most people to run marathons solely in barefoot shoes due to increased injury risk over such long distances. They may be fine for early training miles but consider mixing them with more protective shoes as your long runs exceed 10+ miles. Work closely with your coach to determine what’s best for your feet.

Will barefoot shoes help my flat feet or bunions?

There is no consensus here. Allowing your foot to move and flex naturally can theoretically strengthen arches over time. But those with very flat feet or foot deformities like bunions may do better with shoes providing arch support and motion control. It’s worth carefully experimenting under guidance of your podiatrist or orthotist.

I hope this article provided helpful and thorough information about the use of barefoot running shoes! Let me know if you have any other questions.

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