Are barefoot shoes good for you? As is the case with many topics in the health and fitness industry, this remains a hotly contested question. The research is not definitive, and there are a lot of factors to consider when answering this question. When I simply think about what makes sense to me as an experienced health and fitness professional, minimalist shoes are an important part of the jigsaw. Suffice to say, I’m a fan. This post delves into the many potential benefits of barefoot shoes.
I’ll start by explaining some of the essential features of a barefoot shoe. Then we’ll take a look at why these features could be important for your physical health. I’ll share my thoughts on a few considerations if you’re making the switch to barefoot shoes. Finally, I’ll offer some recommendations of barefoot shoes for walking, and shoes specific to barefoot running.
And yes, I walk the talk. I have been exclusively wearing barefoot shoes for over four years now. For a few years prior to that, I wore a combination of barefoot-style and traditional shoes. And before that…well I was in the most expensive and highly built-up running shoes that my podiatrist had recommended for me!
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Barefoot shoes fit into the minimalist footwear category. They may also be called minimal shoes, or even shoeless shoes! There are many barefoot shoes, boots, and sandal styles on the market. Many cater specifically to runners and hikers. Others are designed to be everyday minimalist shoes. You can also find specialized barefoot-style footwear such as minimalist work boots, or shoes designed for the water.
- Zero toe drop. This means that the shoe or sandal is flat, with no drop between the heel and the front of the shoe
- Plenty of flexibility in the sole. You’ll easily be able to bend, twist and scrunch up a truly minimal shoe
- A thin sole. Barefoot shoes vary in exactly how thin they are. Essentially, they’re designed to help you feel the ground underfoot
- No arch support. Before you click the “back” button because you think you need arch support, stay open-minded. A meta-analysis of 150 studies showed that arch support in a shoe is unlikely to be necessary unless it’s recommended by a podiatrist for a specific foot-related problem or injury.
- A wide toe box. Barefoot shoes are generally made wider than traditional shoes. (Bear with me – you’ll find out why features like this are important soon).
- Lightweight. The weight of different barefoot shoes will vary but there shouldn’t be anything “heavy” about them
- Secure on your feet. You’ll find several barefoot sandal styles with a very minimalist design. It may appear like there’s not much to them at all. However, they’ll ensure that your feet are secure. So flip flops, or “jandals” as we call them in New Zealand, don’t pass the test.
Overall, barefoot shoes and other types of minimalist footwear have an anatomical design. Basically, that means that they’re made with happy, healthy feet in mind. Let’s now dive into some of the benefits of barefoot shoes and how they’re related to the important features I’ve mentioned.
Wearing barefoot shoes isn’t the same as going barefoot. However, if you’re going to walk or run shod (with shoes), wearing shoes that have been designed with the barefoot features listed above can offer you the next best thing to going completely barefoot.
Walking barefoot or running barefoot can offer several benefits. However, it’s not always appropriate or safe to do so. When you need to wear shoes, consider the following potential benefits of barefoot shoes to help you choose whether a minimal shoe might be right for you.
In my opinion, this is one of the biggest health benefits of minimalist shoes. It’s kind of an over-arching benefit, like a combination of some of the more specific benefits that are highlighted below.
Minimalist footwear allows your feet to move naturally like they were designed to. This is due to the combination of all the wonderful features I mentioned above.
The thin soles allow you to feel the ground and have more connection with the earth. Whilst you won’t get the same level of connection as you would if you were totally barefoot, you’re certainly going to get a lot more than you would with three inches of a thick rubber sole between you and the ground.
So how exactly do barefoot shoes relate to natural movement?
Your feet have a huge number of sensory receptors in them. These include mechanoreceptors, which detect changes in pressure and tension. Sensory receptors offer feedback to your brain, which then tells your body how to move properly. Thick shoes can make this sensory feedback mechanism less effective.
Basically, barefoot shoes are designed with your body’s natural movement capabilities in mind. At the same time, they offer the support and protection your feet need when it’s not ok to be totally barefoot.
If you’ve been wondering “what are the benefits of minimalist shoes?”, for me, better natural movement is probably the biggest key concept.
Promote better posture
Wearing built-up shoes all day every day, year after year can have negative consequences. These may include issues with posture and muscle balance. Certain muscles might become overly tight and/or weak. This can be especially so with high-heeled shoes (hello tight calves and Achilles!).
The flat zero-drop design of barefoot shoes helps you to maintain a natural posture, just like you’d have without shoes. In turn, this may help you to experience less pain, stiffness, and associated problems. And when you’re in a comfortable, natural alignment, you should be able to move more easily (see above – natural movement)
Help feet to splay naturally
Many traditional shoes were designed to look nice. However, they weren’t necessarily designed to be foot-shaped. As a result, the 26 bones that make up your foot can get rather jammed up.
Many ligaments and muscles also connect to these bones. There’s a lot going on in your feet. Armed with a bit of knowledge about the interconnectedness of everything in the body, you may begin to understand how problems with your feet can cause issues in other areas of your body.
The wide toe box characteristic of barefoot shoes gives your toes the space they need to splay naturally. When your bones aren’t being squashed together in a tight-fitting or strangely-shaped shoe it helps them to maintain their optimal, natural structure and alignment. Basically, going barefoot, and wearing barefoot shoes when shoes are necessary may help you to get your feet “unstuck”.
When your feet have enough space in a shoe or sandal, this helps your big toe to be able to function as it needs to. The big toe plays an important role in natural movement. When your feet can splay naturally and your big toe is happy, it can help you achieve better stability and balance on your feet.
Helps feet to be stronger and more flexible
When you see the flexibility in a barefoot shoe you may start to realize how this feature helps to promote the strength and flexibility of your own feet. I’ve noticed that some people comment on the flexibility of barefoot shoes and say that they’re not good for you because they don’t keep your feet stable enough.
The barefoot philosophy focuses on the opposite approach. Instead of relying on the stability and support of a rigid shoe, the focus is on the foot. One foot alone contains over 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments. Just like other muscles in the body, they need to be engaged and worked. This helps them stay strong and flexible so they can offer your body a good base of support.
As I mentioned, a barefoot-style shoe can help you to get your feet “unstuck”. The flexibility in a barefoot shoe allows the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your foot to develop the flexibility, strength, and overall mobility they need so that you don’t have to rely on your shoe to provide this. If you choose a rigid shoe, you’re basically handing over some of the tasks of your feet, to your shoes. You’re saying “it’s ok muscles and tendons, we don’t need you to do as much anymore”.
Let’s take the Achilles tendon, for example. Traditional shoes may contribute to a shortened Achilles tendon if they have a raised heel. Flat and flexible barefoot-style shoes can assist with stretching and strengthening the Achilles tendon. In turn, this may help reduce the potential for injuries like Achilles tendinitis. If you’re switching to a barefoot-inspired shoe you may benefit from some additional stretches to assist your transition.
Benefits of minimalist running shoes
Perhaps you want to get a bit more specific about the benefits of barefoot shoes because you’re a runner. There are plenty of potential barefoot running shoes benefits. It’s important to recognize that studies are still limited. As I mentioned earlier, this is a multi-faceted topic with many variables to consider.
Before we explore some of the potential benefits of barefoot shoes for runners let’s first take a look at what first inspired many people to take the barefoot approach seriously.
The best-selling book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall influenced many people to seriously consider the benefits of barefoot shoes. The book is about the Tarahumara people; a tribe of people in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. The Tarahumara people are renowned for their incredible long-distance running abilities. And this is despite the fact that they don’t train for running races in any sort of conventional manner.
The Tarahumara people traditionally ran in a DIY-style minimalist sandal made from a car tire or rawhide sole. Many modern-day barefoot-inspired shoe companies have considered this concept in their own shoe designs.
I first listened to “Born to Run” in audio format on a long road trip. (Back then, we had a bunch of CD’s to play in the car!) It certainly got me thinking about my highly built-up sports shoes at the time. However, I didn’t begin making the switch until maybe a couple of years later.
Click on the Amazon ad below to check out the book.
A study on the Tarahumara Indians showed that a higher percentage of minimally shod runners used mid-foot or forefoot strikes. This was in comparison with the percentages of those who wore conventional shoes. The latter group mostly used a rearfoot strike.
The heel-to-toe strike is more common when you run in traditional shoes due to the raised heel in the shoe. Barefoot shoes may help you walk and run with better posture by adjusting to more of a mid-foot or forefoot strike. This type of foot-strike can also make you less likely to over-stride.
The postural change to more of a forefoot or mid-foot strike can adjust the stress load to different areas further up the kinetic chain. In turn, this may have a positive impact on niggles and injuries you have been experiencing.
Consider adjusting your footwear if you’re experiencing ongoing issues from runNing
It’s important to recognize that a particular type of foot strike doesn’t mean you’re going to get injured. If you don’t have injuries or niggles, then you might not want to change anything at all! But if you’re getting recurrent injuries from running, your foot strike and footwear choice is an important avenue to explore.
Rear-foot strikers may be more likely to experience injuries such as tibial stress injuries and plantar fasciitis. However, it’s crucial to recognize that there are many factors at play when it comes to injury prevention. The best foot-strike position is the one that’s right for the individual.
A survey of over 500 barefoot runners showed that the majority of runners who had previous injuries found that these were resolved after they started a barefoot running program. The survey has several limitations. However, it’s the type of anecdotal evidence that you’ll hear from many runners who have successfully made the switch to barefoot shoes.
Minimalist shoes may improve running efficiency
One study showed that running barefoot or in minimalist running shoes (as compared to running in a traditional shoe) has the potential to improve running efficiency from a biomechanical standpoint. The study size was small and was carried out on experienced adolescent cross country runners.
So is running in barefeet or minimal footwear healthy? Well, it can be. Overall, more studies are needed, and there are many factors to consider. Take a sensible approach to making the switch and see how your body responds over time.
My personal opinion is that the benefits of barefoot shoes can be enjoyed by many people. I’m glad I embraced the barefoot philosophy as part of my holistic approach to health and fitness. It took me many years to open my eyes to it and I continue to make ongoing adjustments to my lifestyle and movement choices.
Ultimately, I just want to continue making progress with better movement patterns and decreased pain levels so that I can enjoy all the physical activities I want to for many years to come!
Personally, my feet have gradually increased an entire size since I’ve been wearing barefoot shoes exclusively. I know that some women report their feet increasing in size during pregnancy. I believe that mine increased as a result of wearing barefoot shoes over a few years.
That’s me below, rather pregnant, wearing the Jessie lifestyle sandal.
It will be interesting to see if and how they continue to change over time. I still have bunions, which I believe are largely hereditary. They may have been made worse by wearing shoes that were too narrow for my bunions. Note that I’ve never worn high heels except for special occasions like weddings or nights on the town when I was in my 20’s.!
I used to get shooting pains through my bunions, which I have not had in recent years. And although I have plenty of mechanical and alignment issues that I’m still working through with my body, I never get sore feet or feel like I need to put them up at the end of the day!
A few considerations when you’re making the switch to a minimalist shoe
By now you’ve hopefully got a few insights to the question “What are the benefits of minimalist shoes?” Without going into an entirely new post, I just want to recommend a few things to consider when you’re switching from traditional to barefoot shoes.
- Make gradual adjustments. There are many ways to do this. For example, you could start wearing minimalist shoes for short walks and everyday activities. Build up to longer walks later. If you’re a runner, start with the tiniest distance in your minimal shoes. Progress very slowly. Note how your body responds, listen to it, and tweak your approach accordingly
- Go completely barefoot more often, when it’s appropriate. This may simply begin with taking your shoes off indoors if you often wear them inside
- Speak with a podiatrist about trying less built-up shoes if you think your problems might be related to your choice of shoes
- Give it time, and be patient. If your niggles get worse, adjust your approach. Do what’s right for you!
- Some complementary stretches and/or mobility exercises can be really helpful during your transition. Self-massage using techniques such as trigger point therapy may also be useful
As an ambassador for Xero Shoes, I highly recommend their wide range of awesome minimalist footwear. They have both performance-based and everyday lifestyle shoes. Their trail running and hiking collection includes barefoot trekking shoes such as the Terraflex and bare feet boots like the Daylight Hiker. A super-cute casual option is the Jessie sandal, and they even have barefoot options for kids such as the prio.
You can jump straight to a few of my Xero Shoes reviews below:
Have you been wearing highly built-up sports shoes your whole life? Do you suffer from foot, knee, and back problems that you suspect could be exacerbated by your choice of footwear? If so, minimalist shoes are worth considering.
So what do you think? Are minimalist shoes good for you? Please feel free to join the conversation and leave any questions or comments below. I’d love to hear from you:-)
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