Barefoot and Minimalist Running: The Ultimate Guide

Ever since Chris McDougall’s Born To Run book burst onto the scene just over 10 years ago, there’s been a huge amount of interest – and hype – in barefoot-style, or minimalist running.

The central premise of the book was simple: that humans didn’t evolve to run with an inch of padded rubber beneath their soles, but that we ran barefoot – which promotes a completely different way of running.

Less padding on your shoe tends to make you automatically run gentler – instead of lunging forward with each stride and striking with your heel (trusting that your padded shoe will absorb the impact force); with minimalist footwear you’re more likely to step gingerly, landing on the middle or front of the foot and allow the foot and leg to act as a shock absorber.

The book – and many barefoot runners – point out that this style of running is more natural, and claim it can be very effective in preventing and healing injuries, especially ones caused by your traditional running shoes.

Born To Run was a smash hit, and led to a barefoot running revolution.

Every major shoe brand brought out their version of a minimalist shoe, designed to replicate running barefoot. Barefoot running groups sprung up in cities across the world, with over 50 million people in 2014 calling themselves minimalist or barefoot runners.

Barefoot running caused such an impact, the backlash was perhaps inevitable.

Many runners who rushed out to convert to barefoot-style running tried to switch overnight rather than gradually introduce the style to their training, and ended up with injuries.

Some minimalist shoe companies – including Vibram, who produce the glove-like FiveFingers – were sued for claims that their shoes could prevent injuries.

And over 10 years on, other than the initial breakthrough studies, the sports science community are still reticent to recognise the potential benefits of barefoot-style running.

The minimalist running movement is decidedly more niche than it was 10 years ago, but there still remains a strong contingent of dedicated barefoot runners.

More importantly, many runners choose to incorporate minimalist running in their training plan as an effective means of cross-training.

This is where I sit with it – I go for occasional easy barefoot-style runs to check in on my form and give my calves and other leg muscles a deeper workout.

Interested in adding some barefoot running to your schedule?

Let’s look at how to do it.

minimalist and barefoot running how to

What Are Barefoot Running Shoes?

These minimalist shoes are designed to closely represent how humans would naturally run…if they weren’t wearing shoes all the time. 

Still, our feet aren’t prepared for the hazards of weather and sharp objects in the outdoors. So barefoot running shoes are made as a barrier of protection for the feet. 

The difference between your typical running shoe and a barefoot running shoe is the drop length of the arch. 

Where typical shoes usually drop the arch at 10-12 millimeters, most barefoot shoes drop at about 4-8 millimeters, with some ‘zero drop’ shoes available. That makes less padding all over the shoe, especially at the heels and the forefoot. 

If you’re looking to start barefoot running, I’d recommend picking up a pair of minimalist shoes with a 4-8mm drop – don’t start off too extreme.

The Benefits of Running Barefoot

By taking away that extra cushion and arch support, runners automatically change their running gait.

Instead of landing heel-to-toe like most running shoes encourage, you’re likely to make the shift to midfoot-to-toe. 

Try taking off your shoes and run truly barefoot in a park or in your garden. You’ll notice you naturally land more cautiously, letting your fore-foot gently touch down first to absorb some of the impact.

Now imagine running barefoot but intentionally driving forward and landing on your heels, like most traditional runners do.

Hitting the ground that way while barefoot strains your calf muscles and puts heavy pressure on the heel bones. It also creates an impact force that travels all the way up your leg.

It makes a lot more sense to land on your forefoot. Studies have shown that puts less impact on your bone structure in the long run. 

What we now know as the modern running shoe has only been around for about 50 years. Prior to that, everyone worked out in ‘minimalist’ style shoes. Ask your parents what their gym shoes looked like when they were kids – they’ll tell you it featured a flat sole with minimal cushioning.

Going back to barefoot running brings running back to the way humans used to run – wearing no shoes at all. Minimalist running shoes combine respect for historical running while appreciating modern technologies available to us. 

Many people love barefoot running for one simple reason: it connects you to nature while you run. Instead of crashing carelessly over the tucks and folds of the running path, you feel the rocks, leaves, and twigs as you step. 

You become more aware of your sense of touch, bringing you into a mindful state as you run

Since running is a form of therapy for so many people, that connectedness is an essential part of the running experience. 

barefoot running shoes - how to start running barefoot

3 Myths About Going Barefoot

If you’re considering giving minimalist running a try, you might have some doubts standing in your way. Here are the 3 most common myths about barefoot running. 

1. It’s bad for my knees 

Osteotharsis (or bad knees, as some people call it) is a serious concern when it comes to running. If you’re relying on that extra arch support, you might be nervous about going barefoot. 

But the British Journal of Sports Medicine did a study on 12 patients, all suffering from bad knees. After monitoring them for 12 months, they saw that the patients wearing sneakers actually had more pain in their knees than those who walked barefoot. 

The key thing to bear in mind is gradual adoption of barefoot running. If you’re already an established runner, don’t buy a pair of minimalist shoes and think you can convert every night. Your body – and gait – needs to adapt to the different running style.

2. I can’t run barefoot because I need orthotics.

If you’ve dealt with a lot of pain in your arches or tendons, you may have come to rely on orthotics or running insoles and additional arch supports for all your footwear. 

But some podiatrists have found that orthotics get overprescribed and overused. Adding additional arch support is not always the answer for plantar fascitis. 

If you’ve been wearing orthotics and are still dealing with pain in your feet, it may be time to see a new podiatrist for a second opinion. 

3. I’ll get calluses.

Since barefoot running shoes offer less ‘armor’ than other traditional shoes, you might be worried you’ll get calluses and damage your feet. 

But calluses develop through friction. So the only time you’d get calluses with barefoot running shoes is if they’re the wrong size. 

And that’s a real problem to watch out for! Always get properly fitted by a professional when you buy your first pair. 

How to Start Barefoot Running

You might be a ‘strap on your running shoes and go’ kind of person. That’s admirable.

But you should know that most people stop barefoot running as soon as they start.

They jump in too quickly, get frustrated at how hard it is or that they get injured, and give up.

Barefoot running takes time – and you’ll definitely find you’re slower than your regular runs (no more springy cushioning to propel you forward!)

Here’s what you need to know to adjust to barefoot running. 

Give it Time

You’ve been running with shoes and wearing shoes your whole life – it will absolutely feel uncomfortable at first. Go slowly at first, just running a little at a time.

Start with a 10 minute light jog 2 or 3 times a week, and gradually extend it by 5 minutes.

Listen to your feet, legs, and body.

Barefoot Running Changes Your Biomechanics

When you run differently, you use different leg muscles. Of course, you always activate the same essential muscle groups, but when you shift to varying positions, certain muscles strengthen and grow…others don’t.  

When you run midfoot-to-toe, your calf muscles alter in size and strength. Even your foot muscles get stronger. 

The Pain Is Worth the Gain

Since you’re shifting the muscles you regularly use for running, you’ll also feel sore as you adjust your running form. 

Remember to never push it too far, or too fast, with your minimalist shoes.

Practice Your Running Mechanics Without the Barefoot Shoes

You can adjust your running form, even when you’re wearing old running sneakers. Maybe you haven’t given the mechanics much thought in the past. Maybe you’ve never noticed what part of your foot hits the ground first. 

Just take extra notice the next time you go running and pay attention to where your foot hits the ground. If you typically land on the heel, practice landing on your midfoot or even forefoot to feel the difference. 

As you get used to changing form, you’ll find the adjustment to barefoot running so much easier. 

Land Gently

Another aspect of your landing is your impact. Since you have less protection, you need to compensate for that when you hit the ground. 

Don’t risk bruising the ball of your foot by landing roughly when you come down. 

Practice move your legs faster so that you’re already pushing up with the next foot as you soon as you land with the first one. The more quickly you step, the less weight lands on one side. 

Small, Fast, Gentle Footsteps – Stroke The Ground

Practice move your legs faster so that you’re already pushing up with the next foot as you soon as you land with the first one. The more quickly you step, the less weight lands on one side. 

Another way to protect the padding is to watch your stride. Taking smaller steps reduces the amount of weight that comes crashing down on one foot. 

Instead, the weight distributes more evenly across the body, allowing you to shift gracefully and enjoy the new footwear. 

Don’t Overdo It

Not everyone has a hard time with barefoot running shoes right away. You might take them for a spin and just keep on running. But even if you feel good in the moment, don’t run too far when you’re just starting out. 

If you’re used to running 3 miles every day, just run a 1 mile for the first week. As your feet and body get more accustomed to the new shoes, increase your distance and speed up to your typical level. 

Then, exceed your goals and go farther. 

Can I Do a Barefoot Marathon?

As long as you progress your barefoot running with reasonable milestones along the way, a barefoot marathon can be more enjoyable and beneficial to your health than traditional sneakers. 

There are just a few guidelines to keep in mind. 

Run a 10K or a half marathon first. Make sure you like it. Going from a half marathon to marathon can be excruciating if your shoes are uncomfortable. Give them a test ride before you commit to the whole thing to be sure it’s what you want to do. 

Try out your barefoot shoes with all your other gear to make sure it all jives. If you’re not used to running with a vest or a water belt, that can throw off your barefoot running game pretty fast. 

But once you’ve given the barefoot running a try, download a half marathon training plan, customize it to your schedule and fitness level, then get going and enjoy the new freedom for your feet.

minimalist and barefoot running shoes buyers guide

The Best Minimalist and Barefoot Style Running Shoes – Our Recommendations

Here is my pick of the best minimalist running shoes currently on the market to get you started on your barefoot running adventure!

[amazon bestseller=”minimalist running shoes” items=”5″]


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Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of His work has been featured in Runner's World,, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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