Barefoot, Minimalist, Traditional- a Quick Guide to Different Running Styles

Back in the days of yore, running was simply running. You bought your standard trainers from the local shoe store in town, and then ran your daily route. However decades of scientific research and studies have produced a myriad of running shoes ranging from super-chunky high-tops to little more than strappy leather sandals. To help those new to running understand the mires of terminology out there, here is a quick guide to the three most popular types  and shoe styles of running out there today.

Barefoot Running

Made popular by Chris McDougall’s Born to Run, this running style rests its basis on the fact that people were originally intended to run barefoot, landing on the ball of their foot or forefoot instead of their heel. According to the barefoot hypothesis, the heel is not ergonomically constructed to absorb the shock of concrete that modern running shoes cause today, and as a result is now the main cause of injuries amongst runners.

Modern shoes are filled with lots of cushioning and thick, heavy soles which, instead of absorbing the shock on your heels and knees and supporting your arch, instead weakens the muscles in your feet. In the end, this causes an unhealthy running stride where runners put greater force and shock on their joints and muscles than they can take, and consequentially causes injuries. Instead, barefoot running shoes feature a thin sole that encourages the user to ‘feel’ the ground beneath their feet more, and contain no support or cushioning for the foot.

Does it Work?

Born to Run lists endless studies and statistics that prove barefoot running is better for runners, however the benefits of barefoot running are still being researched and verified by scientists. What makes it more difficult to ascertain the benefits is that barefoot running strides are different to each person- some people prefer the ball of their foot, others the forefoot, and even some continue to land lightly on their heel, but put greater shock and force on their forefoot. However a myriad of runners like ultramarathoner Scott Jurek have claimed to see improvement from barefoot running, and others who claim it alleviates joint pain.

If You’re Interested:

Make sure you speak to a specialist in-store about barefoot shoes beforehand, and mention any injuries you might have or have had in the past. This, along with the type of terrain you usually run on, will affect your shoe selection. After purchasing a pair, the key to successfully becoming a barefoot runner relies on patience and the gradual build-up of mileage. Run your usual six-mile route in your brand-new barefoot trainers and your feet will be sore for days; instead, start the mileage low, i.e. one kilometre, and gradually build it up. Also, remember you will need to change your running stride- land with your feet beneath, not in front, of you, knee slightly bent, to allow greater absorption of the shock impact on your legs. Most importantly however, remember that barefoot running isn’t simply changing the shoes you wear; it involves changing your entire stride, and can sometimes take years to transition fully. For more information, REI have produced several handy sheets on barefoot running.

Where to Buy:

Before you throw away your trainers and head outdoors au natural, if you live in an urban environment or typically run on rocky terrain, you might want to consider purchasing some light sole protection. Five Fingers are the most popular brand for barefoot trainers, but if you can’t fit your toes through the individual holes (or can’t face wearing them in public) most running brands offer some form of a barefoot trainer nowadays, just head to any specialist running store to see the selection.

Minimalist Running

This type of running can be the most confusing to define, mostly because runners cannot agree on what defines as ‘minimalist’. Purist barefoot runners argue anything that covers your foot is not true ‘barefoot running’ while the sports brands interchange the terms ‘barefoot’ and ‘minimalist’ to tout anything that is smaller than their own definition of a shod running trainer. Generally though, for the ease of definition, a minimalist shoe is anything that measures between four to eight millimetres of width in the heel of the shoe. Minimalist shoes are intended to help people gradually transition from traditional running trainers to barefoot running by lessening the dramatic difference in running style and feel between the two.

Does it Work?

Again, this is another source of contention between runners and manufacturers. Some people like barefoot running coach Lee Saxby argue minimalist shoes do not encourage people to change their running form, while others argue it gives people the support their feet need when they are gradually strengthening the muscles needed for barefoot running. Much like barefoot running, it differs from runner to runner- if you are looking for a slimmed-down shoe, or think you need the support for transition to the barefoot style, then minimalist shoes might be for you.

 If You’re Interested:

Minimalist shoes were designed to help runners transition from shod running to traditional running. While these shoes are designed to encourage runners to run on the forefoot or the ball of your foot in these shoes, it also offers minimal arch and heel support when the muscles tire. If you are serious about transitioning to barefoot however, make sure you do gradually choose shoes with a lower gradient in the heel each time you replace them- otherwise you could be risking injury by running in your traditional stride in shoes with less cushioning and support.

Where to Buy:

Merrell’s Trail Glove offers a good balance between shod running trainer and barefoot shoe, while Innov-8‘s running shoe range have a handy arrow system that allows runners to know what heel gradient measurement they are buying. One arrow equals three millimetres, and a mixture of road and trail running options are on offer.

Traditional Running (Shod Running)

Little explanation is needed for shod running; you land on your heel first, often with your knee stretched in front of you, with a shoe that is higher in the heel than the rest of the shoe to absorb the impact shock when your foot hits the ground. Most shod trainers provide arch support and cushioning around the ankle to support it in place too.

Does it Work?

Although there has been a lot of media attention recently about the benefits and detriments of barefoot running versus shod running, it is important to remember that not only is there a difference in the shoes, but more importantly the running form. Barefoot runners typically take shorter, yet more frequent strides with them feet landing beneath their bodies, while shod runners take longer, but less frequent strides, with their feet landing just in front of them. Many researchers argue humans have worn shoes as much as 10,000 years ago, and that shod running isn’t as damaging as current theories make out.

If You’re Interested:

If you tend to pronate or need extra support due to injuries, or run on hazardous terrain, shod trainers offer the support and protection needed. Preferences for barefoot or shod depends on the individual runner, and it is important for any runner to remember that most of the time, injuries result from a bad running stride, and no shoe will magically cure that.

Where to Buy:

Pay a visit to any specialist running store that can measure your running gait and accurately prescribe the correct style of shod trainer.  Sweatshop is the UK’s largest running retailer, but many smaller independent running retailers will offer a similar service and selection if there is not a Sweatshop close to you.


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