A Runners Guide to Barefoot Freedom

Springs, air cushions, air bladders, arch support, toe support, anti pronation technology and  more have been loaded into your $150 running shoes in the name of performance. Well what if I told you that you don’t need those so called “safety” features? What if I told you that your foot is the best shoe money can’t buy and running barefoot is the best running school.

In 2008 I noticed a student at one of my seminars wearing some very strange shoes that had individual toes. After talking to him about them I learned that he was wearing Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) a minimalist shoe popular with barefoot runners. Instead of being loaded with features like most running shoes the VFF were stripped down and offered very little other than a thin sole that would protect the wearer from possible scrapes from running on a rough surface. I became fascinated with these shoes and the idea that somehow less was more. Could it be that we actually run better with less between our feet and the ground? I bought a pair and immediately put them to the test. What I discovered was shocking, I didn’t know how to run.

I was heel striking and it hurt. I stopped running and started to consider how I ran. I had never really given it any thought. Its running after all. We can all do it, right? One foot in front of the other, pick up pace and continue. It never seemed like something I had to learn. I, like most people thought I knew all I needed to know about running. Running with the Vibram five finger shoes changed that. I could feel my lack of technique and that inspired me to read about running techniques and about barefoot runners. The more I read the more I came to discover what many runners already knew. Our feet are brilliantly designed however our shoes on the other hand, are not! Running shoe companies have built up shoes with all sorts of gadgets. They promise everything from reducing injury and improving performance. They release new ones every year that make new and exciting claims however they never seem to solve the problems runners face. These shoes are part of the cause not the cure. Our shoes let us run with poor form. Poor form causes injury. So whats the answer? Take off your shoes.

After running in the VFF shoes I experimented with barefoot running and over the years I have explored a variety of footwear not only ideally suited for running but also other forms of training. Moving involves mastery of self. The more equipment you have on the more removed you are from your own body and how you control it. As such, I want footwear that can protect my foot from the surface I am working on without getting in the way of my practice.

In the last few years a lot of interest has grown around barefoot running and minimalist shoes. Major running shoe companies as well as small independents are offering a wide variety of options. As the market becomes filled with these new models it can be hard to choose the right one for you. I have had the pleasure of working with trainers from around the world who have exposed me to some of the best equipment out there. Through our training we have logged countless hours testing ourselves and our equipment.

In the land of minimalist shoes I have found three companies that I recommend to all of my students and their clients. Vibram Five Fingers, Inov8 and Zem Gear all make exceptional products. From running to gym training all have various makes and models that allow freedom of movement as well as protection. Naturally everyone asks me which I prefer.

Vibram Five Fingers wearing these during courses and runs around the world has caused quite a few raised eyebrows over the years. I was even stopped in Hong Kong and asked by a couple if they could take a picture with my toe shoes. Vibram makes an array of excellent shoes for runners seeking that barefoot experience while still wearing some form of shoe. The pros to VFF are their minimalist design, feel and variety. From indoor to outdoor, trail or street you can find a pair of Five Fingers to suit your needs. These have for years been my go to shoes for travel and running. Super light they are easy to pack in my carry on and great to wear at seminars and afterwards during training. Many of my students have adopted them for sprinting and gym training with overwhelming positive feedback. If they have any real short comings it can be found in the multi toe design. Not everyone enjoys the feel of the shoes between their toes. Learning the put them on takes some people a little getting used to and depending on the size of your foot you may have trouble getting that perfect fit. For a guy with small but wide feet I have found VFF a little hit and miss when it comes to sizing. If I do get ones with a decent fit they still tend to be tight on the big toe and often mine break at the seams there.

Last year one of my students introduced me to Inov8 running shoes. I picked up a pair and found these stripped down runners were light and flexible. As easy as the typical running shoe to fit but way lighter. They offered a similar feel to my beloved Five Fingers . I’ve put quite a few miles on my Inov8’s and enjoyed every minute in them. While they are light and flexible they don’t quite have the same feel as VFF’s which are closer to a barefoot experience.

I recently spotted a strange new shoe being worn by one of my students at a seminar in Toronto, Ontario Canada. She was wearing what looked like split toe Tabbi shoes. Ninja shoes! I hadn’t seen anything like that since I was a kid and certainly not in a running shoe. I asked her about them immediately and she informed me that they were from a company named Zem Gear. Minutes after the course ended I was on my smartphone looking them up. I saw that they had a host of different models of their minimalist footwear including split toe and non split toe designs. I was eager to try them since they looked like they could provide me the minimalist experience of my Five Finger shoes with the fit of my Inov8’s.

After weeks of sprints, short runs, long runs and seminars I have found my favorite minimalist shoes. I tested out the Zem Gear O2 and 360. Both models fit like socks and feel great. They are ideal for running and gym training.  In my first run in the O2 I logged my fastest kilometer pace. Both the O2 and 360 offer nice traction on the street and are incredibly light. My only concern with these models would be on a trail run. I would like a little more grip if I were hustling down the side of a hill and as of yet I haven’t seen a model like that form Zem Gear. I am sure however that one is in the works.


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