Ask Coach Julia: Minimalist shoes

One of the best features of the Up & Running Alumni forum is that our runners can post about anything.  They mostly ask about running and I’m always happy to oblige. I love love love to talk about running. Running, running, running!

So one of our lovelies asked a question that I thought I’d share with you.

Julia – I’m interested in your thoughts on the minimalist shoe trend. I’ve been reading lots of running books… and certainly some of them talk a lot about the benefits of barefoot / minimalist shoes. Out of curiosity and to see what they meant, I did some barefoot running in the back garden and I can totally see how naturally we don’t land on our heels. And you can really feel yourself pushing off much more naturally.

So obviously, there are a million other variables that make up good running form besides the shoes, but are they worth considering maybe for shorter distances? Or are you just as well off to get a neutral shoe and focus on strengthening your feet?

When you look at the barefoot/minimalist movement you need to take a step back into the not very distant past to see the linear history of running shoes. Through the 60’s, 70’s and even the early part of the 80’s running shoes were very basic.

Onitsuka Tiger model from  1964
Onitsuka Tiger model from 1964

Flat rubber soles and nylon upper mesh with leather on the toes to reinforce them. Basic and functional.

Then something went awry in the 90’s. It was probably a mix of a growing runner population desiring new products and shoe manufacturers ever so willing to make more cash. They came up with the idea that in order prevent injury from running’s high impact on our bodies they needed to super cushion the shoes. It’s be softer. It’d be like landing on pillows…

Like running on clouds?
Like running on clouds?
Ouch! They hurt my feet just looking at them...
Ouch! They hurt my feet just looking at them…

It’s horrific but true: I remember going to my local running store and purchasing these shoes. Not to pinpoint anybody (because all the shoe manufacturer were making these models) but I was quite fond of the Nike model that featured that air bubble. The talk amongst my runner friends was how much air was still in there and how long it would still last. If you heard a “squish” noise you knew it was time for a new pair.

In my first few years of running I had a knee injury just below the cap, both knees. In retrospect I can now see exactly what was causing it!

Most runners cite Christopher McDougall and his book Born to Run as the instigator to the barefoot running movement. I think he really pushed not only runners but also running shoe manufacturers to change their whole game.

But… I’d like to point out that Nike was already onto the whole “back to basics” thing with their the “Free” shoe model which came out in 2004, five years before McDougall’s book publication.

For a few years after McDougall’s book came out people went crazy with the idea of  barefoot running. Vibram Five Fingers sold out everywhere. I bought a pair and had to settle on an unattractive green color because that’s all they had and didn’t expect any more shipments in for months!

Yep, that's the green color!
Yep, that’s the green color!

In the meantime, running shoe manufacturers warmed up to the idea of making a shoe that fit more naturally. Quite frankly I think they saw the opportunity to change everything, thus making runners shell out more cash for shoes. It’s all good in the end.

So, where do I weigh in on this…

Neutral or Minimalist shoes are absolutely the way to go, though what model you purchase will be determined by what shape your feet, ankles and body are in.

Unfortunately I know too many experienced runners that jumped on the Vibram Five Finger bandwagon only to be injured instantly. You absolutely need to condition your feet before you even think about running in minimalist shoes. Here at Up & Running we are strong advocates of feet conditioning at all levels, even in our 5k Course (Hey! Spring session starts in March!) .

So feet conditioning would be Step One. Storking, heel lifts and self foot massage are all great ways to start the process. Going barefoot around the house is another habit we’ve lost over the years. If your feet get cold put on some socks but retire your slippers to the back of the closet.

When you purchase your first pair of minimalist shoes start by using them on short runs once a week. Alternate with your regular neutral running shoes or use them when you have short intervals or drills on your training plan.

For recommendations you’re on your own! There are just too many models to even attempt a round up. Personally I’ve been running in Brooks Pure Flow for about a year now.



I love them. I’ve ran with them in all my half marathons this year, so they do take distance. I’ll soon be shoe shopping for my marathon in March (did I tell you I’m running in Barcelona?) and I’m leaning towards the Brooks Cadence. I’ll have to try them on to know for sure.


Full Disclosure:  I’m not affiliated with Brooks or any other shoe manufacturer. Happy shopping!  

  1. alessia
    After years of medium-strong support shoes, I switched to Brooks cadence and I was SUPER happy. My stride improved. Lighter shoes, but you still can go long distance with them. I trained for my IM last year, and ran the IM marathon, with no injuries. Strongly recommended. Regarding barefoot running, I attended a seminar, last year, about this topic, and honestly there is no "scientific" proof about the benefits. They do say though that it would be a good exercise to practice on grass or sand to improve the "foot motion", but watch out if you live in the city and you run on asphalt ... it can be worse... This is my 2-cents.