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Barefoot Shoes: More Than Just an Oxymoron

Posted on October 23 2012

VFF soleAwhile ago I read a great post by Jason Robillard on the relative merits of using the phrase “barefoot shoes” to describe minimalist footwear. Here’s how he opened it up:

“I’ve been trying to fight this trend for years now, but the masses have spoken.  In a battle that would rival BetaMax v. VHS, the term “barefoot shoes” has won out over “minimalist shoes.”  I concede.

Yeah, I know “barefoot shoes” is an oxymoron.  Yes, I know not all “barefoot shoes” give an experience that is remotely like being barefoot.  Yes, I know many of my purist friends will scoff my tossing of the towel.

The only people that use the term “minimalist shoes” are my ten barefoot friends.  The rest of the world calls them “barefoot shoes.”

I’ve long resisted the temptation to ever refer to a stripped-down minimalist shoe like a Vibram or a Merrell Trail Glove as a “barefoot shoe.” I’ve caved to the point of calling them barefoot-style shoes, but never straight-up barefoot (at least I hope I haven’t).

Quite frankly, I don’t even like to use the word “minimalist” to describe a specific category of footwear since there is so much variation within it. As I’ve written before, I view minimalist more as a relative term to describe shoes along a spectrum from the Brooks Beast to the bare foot (i.e., one shoe can be more or less minimal than another).

The reality is that Jason is right. The average person is far more likely to know what a “barefoot shoe” is than a “minimalist shoe.” Only serious runners and shoe geeks (and their poor spouses, children, friends, neighbors, etc.) are familiar with the minimalist terminology. Ask a random non-runner what a barefoot shoe is and the likely response will be “aren’t they those ugly things with the toes?” Ask the same person what a minimalist shoe is and you might get a blank stare.

If you don’t believe me, let me provide some evidence. I popped over to the Google Adwords Keyword tool last night for a bit of research. If you’re not familiar with the tool (and if you are a blogger, you should be!), it allows you to see how often particular term combinations are searched for via Google in a given month. Thus, it helps to determine what people call things when they are looking for information on-line. I plugged in the following three phrases: “running shoes,” “barefoot shoes,” and “minimalist shoes.” Here are the number of global monthly searches for each:

running shoes: 1,830,000

barefoot shoes: 135,000

minimalist shoes: 49,500

Barefoot shoe searches nearly triple minimalist shoe searches. What’s more, the phrase “barefoot running” beats out “minimalist running” 110,000 to 33,100.

What’s the big deal? The problem as I see it is that barefoot running and minimalist running are two truly different things. Not only is “barefoot shoe” and oxymoron, putting on a “barefoot shoe” creates an expectation that one will run as if they were barefoot. Sometimes this will be the case, but quite often it’s not, and this can create problems and increase injury risk.

For example, I was at the track last week and a guy and his wife/girlfriend showed up in his and hers Fivefingers (it was very sweet!). They had a metronome and were obviously working on “barefoot” form. However, he was heel-striking away as if he was wearing a traditional shoe. (Ironically, I was there attempting to get a high-school runner with injury problems who barely pronates when barefoot out of a pair of motion control shoes that had been “prescribed” to her by a local shoe store.) I have plenty of video of people continuing to run with a heel-striking gait in “barefoot shoes,” even on asphalt. Their form may change in other ways, but heel striking when barefoot causes a dramatic increase in the impact loading rate applied to the body, and a person heel striking in a minimally cushioned shoe like a Vibram is probably experiencing much more impact than someone in a regular running shoe – I suppose this defeats the purpose of making the switch.

I will concede that “barefoot shoes” as a category description is not going away. Although Vibram sales are declining, they will likely always fill a niche, just as other ulraminimal shoes do. But, I do think it is important to maintain a distinction: barefoot is barefoot, shoes are shoes, and the moment you put one on the other things change. Though I agree with the sentiment of Jason’s post, I just can’t bring myself to refer to a shoe as a barefoot shoe. I’ll continue to say “barefoot-style,” or perhaps “ultraminimal,” but that’s as far as I can go.

And now that I’ve addressed this most pressing of controversies, time to go for a run in my sort-of-barefoot-end-of-the-minimal-spectrum-trail-shoes

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