Chi Running response to: Should I run barefoot or not? - Chi Running

Chi Running response to: Should I run barefoot or not?

Posted by Danny Dreyer on Fri Aug 13th, 2010, 11 comments

If you’ve been following the boom in barefoot running over the past couple of years, you might have suspected (and rightly so) that it has been at least partially responsible for the current shift in running shoe design. What I’d like to say about that is that it’s not about the shoes…or lack thereof. Some of the major running shoe manufacturers and a growing number of younger, smaller shoe companies are joining the revolution and cranking out “minimalist” shoes at an astounding rate. These shoes are all designed around the idea that running without the traditional built-in heel lift is better for your body, which I wholeheartedly agree with and, which I have to say, has been a looooong time coming. That being said, I’d like to add in my own words of caution for those of you who might be led to believe that running barefoot or in minimal shoes, will automatically make you a better runner. Running in flatter, more minimal shoes will allow your feet, ankle and leg muscles to strengthen, readjust, and move with better structural alignment. All of these can help you become a better runner, but the onus to really become a better runner is really on you… not on whether you’re running barefoot or in shoes. It’s what Chi Running has been talking about for the better part of eleven years now.

I have been a proponent of good running form, as the primary way to run more efficiently and injury-free, since I began teaching Chi Running in 1999. For the better part of eleven years now I’ve felt a lot like a salmon swimming upstream. And, because of the recent media interest in running technique, I no longer feel like the voice in the dark.

I believe that the shift in the paradigm started in 2004 when Dr. Dan Lieberman (Harvard) published a study which showed that we humans were designed to not only spend most of our time on our hind legs, but to run (either after game or away from predators). Lieberman also recently published another study, which received wide recognition, showing the difference in impact between habitually shod and unshod runners. The recent upsurge in the popularity of minimalist running has also been partly spawned by barefoot convert Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run.

I totally agree with recent studies showing that over-built running shoes are a big contributor to the 65% annual injury rate. But the Chi Running book sets out to put the responsibility for injury-prevention on the runner, not on the shoes. If you’re running in a way that creates impact and injury to your feet, ankles, knees or hips you’ll need to look farther than a change in footwear to get to the source of your problem or you could be just as much at risk for getting injured as the next runner. It always comes down to running technique.

Running barefoot or in minimal shoes allows your feet to accurately sense the ground and allows your body to find its own natural balance and alignment. This works wonders towards helping runners and walkers avoid many of the more common impact injuries. The best way to consistently guarantee that you avoid running injuries is to adopt a “barefoot-like” running style. This means that, no matter what shoes you’re wearing, or whether or not your even wearing shoes, you’re always trying to run in a way that creates the least amount of impact, imbalance and extraneous effort in your body.

Here are some of what I would call the barefoot-like characteristics of Chi Running:
• Allow your feet to land under your center of mass in a soft, midfoot/forefoot strike with your lower legs completely relaxed
• Lean forward from your ankles
• Allow your upper body to gently fall forward with each stride while your legs swing rearward
• Take shorter strides (which allows for a midfoot strike under your center of mass)
• Run with a quicker, steady cadence (170-180 strides/minute) at all speeds

These are only a few of the Chi Running focuses, but they are each crucial components to effortless, injury-free running. And, most importantly, they can all be done with or without shoes. For a complete list of the Chi Running focuses please refer to the end of Chapter Four in the Chi Running Book.

Happy Trails,



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11 CommentsLeave a comment below

Amen, Danny.  Well said.  Its nice to finally see proper running technique, in particular Chi Running, getting its proper recognition.  Imagine how healthy we all could be if we learned to run like we were designed to run.  Keep up the good work.

The reason I started running barefoot was not because I wanted to run barefoot but because I had been trying to learn the chi running form from reading your books and I thought that going barefoot would help me.  I wasn’t able to get to workshops, and somehow was not succeeding to learn how to do it on my own, so I thought being in bare feet would force me to give up landing on my heel so I could undo all the years of muscle memory running a different way.

In a way it could be said that without chi running I would never have tried barefoot and I am trying barefoot for the same reason.  Because I want to learn how to use my body efficiently and well.

Much like Frances, I “barefoot run” (actually using VFF) because I wanted to make sure I had the elements of Chi Running working properly.  Outside of a few muscle aches early on (conditioning issue), it has been pain-free running.  Thanks for getting the word out, clarifying a technique I was told was wrong as a youth (I am 50+ now), and helping many of us get back into running.  It is fun now, whereas before it was a lot of work and pounding.  Thanks again

I’ve been chi running for about 7 years.  I have been slowly experimenting with barefoot (VFF).  I find they compliment each other.  However,  I have experienced some sore feet in the morning.  I have noticed that I am incorporating my barefoot style into my shod runs.  You are right, Danny.  Barefoot running is not the panecea.  Running form, advanced by the barefoot experience is the focus.

Just as I was getting back to running I started to hear about barefoot running which made sense to me because I always felt running with any sort of heel changed your natural gait.  But I really didn’t want to be barefoot. I thought it would be too hard to relax while worrying what you might step on.  Coincidentally I discovered I live in the Converse capital of North America.  That’s right, the old Chuck Taylor Converse all star basketball shoe made of canvas (or leather) with a rubber sole. The rubber sole is so flexible you can bend and twist it in all directions like, well, er rubber.  And the sole is totally flat.  So for all those trying to run barefoot, I really recommend you try a pair of these puppies. And they’re so economical too!  I automatically adopted the chi running form before even hearing of chi running! So I see what it means that the foot can educate the body to run properly and effortlessly in comfort.

Hey, Wendy,
It’s amazing how little Chucks have changed since I was in high school. Well, since Nike bought the company, the price has gone up and the colors are cool…but the flatness is still there.  Minimal footwear? I’d say so.

Happy running,

Mary Anne Silvestri Sep 21st, 2010 06:22am

Well said Danny.  I am a slow learner for physical things and Chi running was a perfectly laid out running technique. Except that I wasn’t completely avoiding the heel strike and didn’t know it.  “Born to Run” inspired me to try barefoot and all of a sudden all of the subtleties of Chi Running that I had read about made sense.  I am glad I learned body sensing and relaxed muscles with chi running so that when I started barefoot I came to it with the heel strike as my main problem- which was erased. Barefoot Chi running and it is freedom.

Great post Danny.  I completely agree that barefoot running will reinforce what you have been teaching since day one.  For someone who has already adopted ChiRunning form, running barefoot or with VFF will be a relatively easy transition.  However I do believe a person should attempt to go barefoot as much possible before making the jump (pun intended) to barefoot running.  For example I never wear shoes in the house, which is probably a good idea anyway, and go barefoot as much as possible otherwise.  Growing up as kid in California and spending the majority of my summers at the beach, shoes were something that came off the feet in early June did not go back on until early September.  Going barefoot at the age 65 seems natural to me so I might have an advantage over a lot of people. Fortunately the “barefoot boom” is initiating a number of minimalist shoes which will definitely help strengthen the foot and lower legs.  My thanks to you Danny for bringing ChiRunning to life and keeping all of us “focused” on good running form and a healthy life style.

Danny, I Chi ran many years ago and wanted to get back into it. I have a question: how do you pick the correct running shoes?

thank you,

Danny Dreyer Nov 4th, 2011 08:59am

Hi Julie-

This is an article I wrote on minimal running shoes and how to transition to and choose the right pair:

Here is another one:

And here are some recommended pairs:

Basically, you want a shoe that is flexible, lightweight, and comfortable. You want to feel like you’re wearing your bedtime slippers. This is all dependent on whether you have the Chi Running form already in your body. You never want to just jump into a minimal pair of shoes… it has to be a gradual transition.  Your local running shoe store should be able to help.

Thanks, Julie!

Marshall Wood May 27th, 2013 05:52pm

Hello Danny,

I have been running in VFF for 4 years this July. I love them and they changed my entire attitude about running(I cant say exactly why) but I just felt better/more energy running in them. In september of 2012, I ran my hometown 10 mile race in VA, something I had put off for, say, 20 years:)It was great.

Having breezed thru the comments above, I wanted to pass along the great advice I got from my running store in Brooklyn when purchasing my VFF’s that I feel does not get mentioned near enough.

TAKE IT SLOW AND EASY when getting into the barefoot movement. it’s a whole different experience for your feet and legs, and they need time to adjust. I literally started out walking 3 blocks up from my house and lightly jogging back, increasing that distance minimally (ha) every week until week 7 I finally jogged 4 miles. Conversely, my great friend ran 5 miles out his first time in VFF’s and he has never been the same. He finally gave up VFF’s and is in a hybrid trail shoe.

I am sure this has been covered in many places along the way, I just wanted to mention it again as it’s most important.

Yes, Marshall, you’re very right. Gradual Progress is extremely important when transitioning to minimal shoes or to barefoot running. And, running with proper technique should be your first priority no matter what shoes (or no shoes) you’re wearing. Good technique, along with strengthening your feet gradually, is what will make the transition to minimal shoes or barefoot running safe and injury-free.

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