You’ve seen them on guys and girls at the gym. Perhaps you even own a pair yourself. Barefoot running shoes (like those from Fila and Vibram) are meant to enhance the natural gait, balance and pressure of the body and feet. The craze is based on research from a century ago that showed naturally barefoot tribes of Africa and South America suffered from fewer injuries to the lower back, knees and hips due largely in part to the proper alignment of the body when standing or walking. The science is sound, and so many health and fitness experts jumped on the bandwagon encouraging barefoot-style walking and running. This started with recommendations like beach running, but over the past decade or so has evolved to the barefoot running shoe boom.
The science, however, is not the whole story. Though barefoot-style shoes (even those without the individualized toe pockets) can help improve balance, blood flow, and agility, it assumes you’re able to replicate the barefoot running motion of those native tribes (all of whom learned to walk and run without shoes). In most cases, we aren’t able to change that familiar heel-toe running motion that we’ve been told is the best way to avoid injury while wearing running shoes. Other fans of the shoes tout their light weight, which allows runners to go longer, farther, and even faster than with conventional running shoes. Amazingly enough, when the University of Colorado at Boulder evaluated a dozen experienced male runners as they ran wearing sunning shoes, barefoot shoes, and going actually barefoot (study participants wore thin socks for hygienic purposes), they observed that these experienced runners spent more energy without running shoes than with them. Researchers hypothesized that the contours of the running shoe sole complemented natural running motion while also absorbing shock. Without the shock absorption, muscles in the legs had to compensate for the impact, meaning runners were working harder (though incrementally).
Bottom line: if barefoot running shoes make you feel better, go for it. The effect may be purely in your head, but it is still a reasonable benefit. If, however, you are convinced that there’s some magical health benefit in these shoes, try actually running on the beach. You’ll get the barefoot benefits, plus the shock absorption of soft sand (which also adds muscle-building resistance to your workout).