The Running Form Instructions that Killed the Barefoot Running Movement

Back in 2009-2010, as the barefoot running movement picked up steam, I was excited. I thought I was going to see a world full of healthier, happier runners with better running form. But that’s not what happened.

The reasons it should have happened are still solid: running without cushioned soles causes runners to reorganize their movement to reduce impact at foot strike, and having skin contact with the ground provides rich sensory information to the brain, improving coordination. Here’s how these effects play out.

As Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman was fond of saying, barefoot running is not a fad. From the perspective of human evolutionary history, running shoes are the fad. They’ve existed for the blink of an eye, whereas we as a species (or at least a genus) have been running been running for at least 200,000 years, either barefoot or with simple foot coverings that meet all the criteria for minimalist shoes these days.

So why did barefoot running seem like a fad, booming and then fading away in a squishy cloud of super-cushioned “maximalist” shoes?

The short answer is that a lot of people got hurt when they tried to transition to barefoot running. But the long answer is a lot more complicated, involving shoe companies who felt threatened by the boom.

Listening to a fabulous interview on this topic on The Movement Movement Podcast a few months ago inspired me to think about this question again. If you’re interested in what went on behind the scenes in the shoe industry as the barefoot running movement boomed, definitely give it a listen.

However as a person who regularly helps runners safely transition to more minimalist running shoes, include some foot-strengthening barefoot running in their training, and occasionally even switch altogether to barefoot running, I also observed a phenomenon during the barefoot boom that I feel really got a lot of runners hurt and killed the movement’s momentum.

Bad running form instruction.

And you know what? Even if you always run in shoes, that same bad advice can be just as much of a momentum-killer for you too.

That’s why even if you never tried to run barefoot or in Vibram Fivefingers and aren’t at all interested in the barefoot running movement, this issue is relevant for you. The barefoot movement caused the running form instruction industry (such as it is) to explode, and runners started taking the idea that they should learn better running form seriously.

Even though the barefoot boom seems to be over (though a handful of minimalist running shoe companies are actually doing very well indeed), running form instruction is now a mainstream part of being a runner.

That is the enduring legacy of that time.

So in late July I made my second appearance on The Movement Movement Podcast to talk about the running form advice that killed barefoot running. This advice isn’t just bad for barefoot runners, it’s bad for all runners. Unfortunately it’s advice you may actually be trying to follow, since it’s still around.

So I hope you’ll watch or listen to the episode and avoid these destructive running form mistakes.

Here’s the episode on YouTube, but if you’d prefer to just listen you can find the audio-only version on your favorite podcast platform or here.

To start learning how to run more safely and comfortably–either with or without footwear–try my free one-week Mind Your Running Challenge. You can sign up here.

1 thought on “The Running Form Instructions that Killed the Barefoot Running Movement”

  1. Amazing to listen to you two describe my journey and point by point struggles with barefoot and minimalist running so knowledgeably, almost as if you were speaking to me directly. I’ve been paying attention to your work for a few years and find it helpful. This is great content!

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