While one may think "barefoot running" would mean running without any shoes, it doesn't. Barefoot running actually means running with a very specific kind of shoe. This shoe has zero drop, is anatomically correct, has no padding/cushion/or arch support, has a thin sole that provides ground feel, has plenty of room for the toes to splay, and is lightweight.
What do some of these criteria mean?
Zero drop means that the shoe doesn't have a raised heel or raised toes. Most conventional shoes have a raised heel. Take a look at your nike sneakers and you'll notice that they heel is HUGE! This encourages us to heel strike, which is not natural. One can also have raised toes. This may seem an odd concept at first, but there are some shoes, especially new shoes claiming to be "barefoot" or "minimalist" that raise the toes so they can achieve "zero drop". In this way, the heel remains raised but the toes and heel are still at the same height. To see an example of this horrific marketing scam go to a store like Sports Authority or Dick's Sporting Goods and look at the "fancy" running shoes. This is where I had my first encounter with raised toes. Creator of Invisible Shoes, Steven Sashen discusses this in a podcast interview on the Living Barefoot Show (http://www.livingbarefoot.info/2011/07/we-interview-steven-sashan-owner-of-invisible-shoes/). Having a shoe be zero drop allows for your foot to fall more naturally, on the toe or midfoot, instead of the heel. This directs the initial and secondary shock to contacting the ground in the way nature intended. Instead of the shock traveling up your achilles tendon to your knee, the majority of the shock is absorbed in the outside of your foot and then there is secondary shock that is absorbed in the rear of your foot and then up the leg.
No Padding or Support
This may seem self explanitory, but why is it important? Most conventional shoe companies market that arch support or padding helps protect your feet from the shock when you step or land on the ground. It is also supposed to protect your arches by holding them in place, etc. Even to write this now is hard because nothing could be farther from the truth when it comes to benefitting your feet! Our feet are designed to absorb and handle the shock from stepping/landing in a completely natural and healthy way. Individuals who have flat feet have actually redeveloped arches with barefoot shoes! This is because when you run barefoot you exercise your arch and so it is strengthened. Shoes with a lot of padding and "support" insulate our feet from the real world and prevent them from being used how nature intended.
Most conventional shoes have a very thick sole (about an inch or more!), this is supposed to protect our feet from sharp and pointy objects on the ground or rough terrain. Intuitively, this makes sense, but our feet can do the same thing! While we may not be able to walk everywhere without any protection, we can walk on most surface (with some conditioning) 100% barefoot. To allow us to walk absolutely anywhere, barefoot shoes have a very thin sole. This sole is thin enough to let us feel the ground but still protects us from the sharpest objects and the roughest terrain. Ground feel is important because it influences how we step. When you don't have an inch sole on your heel, it physically hurts to heel strike. Barefoot runners either land on their toes, their midfoot, or land on the outside of their foot and roll in. These are all natural ways to run, I usually do the last of the three and I believe that is the most common and supported by barefooters. A thick sole prevents your foot from getting any feedback from the earth, which makes your step unnnatural.
Roomy Toe Box
Some barefoot shoes still have a unified toe box. A toe box is the front part of a shoe that houses the toes. Most shoes have a one toe box that holds all the toes together. Barefoot shoes do their best to either ditch the singular toe box or provide a toe box that is as roomy as possible without being cumbersome. A roomy toe box is important because it allows your toes to splay how they would if you were 100% barefoot. This allows your toes to support your step/landing and also improves your balance. Barefoot runners also find that their toes straighten out over time (as little as two months!) because they aren't being squished together in a tighter toe box. Some barefoot shoes like Vibram Five Fingers and Huaraches eliminate the toe box and give your toe splay maximum freedom. Other options, such as moccasins, still have a closed toe box but are open enough for your toes to fully splay.
Finally, barefoot shoes should be lightweight. Most barefoot shoes only weigh a few ounces, comparable to the lightest running shoes such as track spikes. Weight makes a difference because in nature we don't have shoes, so making shoes as light as possible is more natural. Some barefoot shoes are so light and fastened to one's foot in such a way that people forget they are wearing them!
So running barefoot means running in a shoe that meets these criteria. Barefoot shoes should not be confused with "minimalist" shoes, which may meet some of these requirements but not all. The barefoot community really stresses the separation between the two because they are largely posers and do not provide a barefoot experience. Some of these shoes are the Nike Free, NB Minimus, and the Saucony Hattori. Nearly every major shoe company makes a "minimalist" shoe. These are not bad per se, but they are certainly not barefoot. Some of them have enough padding or thick enough sole that one can still heel strike and not immediately notice any difference. This is the worst possible outcome because minimalist shoes are not constructed like conventional shoes so you can cause injury to yourself if you don't exercise proper form (more on this in later posts).
To conclude, in the barefoot community there are four types of running (and shoe to along with them): 100% barefoot (no shoes!), barefoot running, minimalist running, and conventional or shod running. Shod just means that your land on your heel first. I hope that you take up barefoot running and walking for that matter, but wearing a minimalist shoe properly is better than a conventional shoe. So I certainly encourage you to try something in the right direction. Barefoot running is beleived to have many health benefits, which I will explain later, but actually neither barefoot running or shod running are scientifically proven to be better than the other. For most of us who run barefoot, we don't need hard data, we know from personal experience that barefoot running feels better and has improved our lives in many ways. As always, take off your socks and shoes and go barefoot!
For more information on what qualifies as a barefoot running shoe, see: