Just a few years ago, the sight of someone jogging barefoot was considered bizarre. But the minimalist running movement has steadily gained momentum, with several companies offering specialized shoes that strip away the countless layers of padding that they claim corrupt a runner’s natural stride. Today, it’s not uncommon to see casual joggers and marathoners alike trading in their high-tech running sneakers in favor of thin, slipper-like shoes designed to make runners move and step the way nature intended.
But is there truth to these barefooted claims? Licensed physical therapist, personal trainer and minimalist training enthusiast Martin Rooney tells Men’s Fitness what you need to know about ditching the padding before you go throwing out all your sneakers.
Cushioning may be ironically bad for your feet
“Impact and natural mobility of the foot is essential to foot health,” Rooney says. He believes that sneakers, with their thick, impact-absorbing soles, have turned us all into “tenderfoots,” as well as altered the body’s natural inclination to land on the ball of the foot instead of the heel. “I do all of my training barefooted," he adds, "and I have never had to go to the drugstore to utilize the aisle that is devoted to all the problems you have with your feet.”
This isn’t a new concept
“People have been training barefoot since the dawn of man!” Rooney exclaims. But in its modern incarnation, the barefoot or minimalist movement has been around for over 15 years with some early research in favor of it dating back to the early/mid-‘80s.
You have to transition slowly
Like kicking most bad habits, you have to wean your feet off their cushion dependency. “If you’ve never bench pressed, you don’t jump in the first day and see how much you can do,” Rooney explains. “You would have to work up over time.” But unlike some who claim that it could take years to make the change, Rooney suggests “three or four weeks of gradually getting into training to get your body used to a new stimulus without hurting yourself.”
There are pitfalls
“Without a doubt, you’ll see an increase in speed,” Rooney claims. But marathoners need to proceed with caution. “I would have their form looked at to make sure they don’t cause more problems for themselves.” The real issue? “People who run with minimalist shoes still run as if they have padding… If they continue to have heel landing and bad form and really take a tremendous amount of impact that the old shoes used to absorb, that could be [an injury risk].”
Minimalist shoes aren’t just for runners
Rooney insists on training all of his athlete and MMA fighter clients—which includes warm-ups, lifting and running—barefoot or in minimalist shoes. “The more you can get your shoe off during the day, the better,” he says. “Get your feet moving again.”
Going barefoot isn’t necessary
“The ultimate in minimalist technology would be going barefoot,” Rooney admits, but that’s not always feasible. “Not only is hygiene an issue, [there’s] safety, and then temperature becomes an issue—which is where I think these minimalist shoes come in.”
Not all minimalist running shoes are created equal
Rooney emphasizes that “it’s not just about the shoe on the foot—it’s about the foot in the shoe,” but you still have to choose that shoe wisely. “Now the world is ready for the concept and every shoe company is jumping on board and creating a smaller shoe or a shoe that looks like a foot and now they’re part of the minimalist movement.” Rooney suggests the oldest scientific method in the book: trial and error. “Try them all on and see which one really feels optimally the best instead of which one looks the best or is the coolest or what everybody says you should get.”