Both daily barefoot (or minimalist) shoes and running shoes are becoming more popular amongst a growing group of health-conscious people. Social media makes it easy for new manufacturers and brands to find a market. As a term it may suggest shoes that compliment your ‘natural’ foot form, physical structure and gait, but in reality not every pair may fit your personal needs. What’s considered a natural form of feet may not apply to your feet if you’ve always worn regular shoes instead of foot-shaped shoes.

Your feet may be shoe-shaped not foot-shaped

Shoes shaped of foot shapedA life long of wearing shoes restricting your natural foot-form and gait, have probably lead to shoe-shaped feet instead of foot-shaped. Majority of shoes have considerable heel drop, this causes an imbalance where your center of gravity shifts towards the ball of the foot. It prohibits you to move naturally.

On top of that shoe designers favor a slim or pointy toe-box that restricts your toes in natural movement and function. Friction plus heat lead to blisters, callouses and it increases the risk of developing athlete’s foot. Most modern shoes are clearly not meant for freedom of movement but for fashionable looks, no matter the cost.

Added pressure on the forefoot also puts extra stress on the metatarsal heads, with toes that ‘claw’ for grip. This tension can lead to compensation patterns that have their effect all the way up the kinetic chain, from feet, ankles, knees to hips. The current state (or shape) of your feet should be the starting point for every pair of shoes, including barefoot-style ones.

Next time you shop for fivefinger shoes with funky toe separation consider the current state of your foot. Is your big toe for example able to function like it should? Will your foot actually benefit from a thin sole?

Barefoot shoes are for fairly healthy feet

Without proper assessment of your feet, barefoot-style shoes may wreck havoc on an already compromised foot structure. Shoe-shaped feet need time to reverse the damage done. If you’ve worn heels and pointy shoes for decades, then ‘just going barefoot’ won’t fix your foot pain or problems. Your intrinsic foot muscles need training in balance and strength to regain lost foot function.

Also consider the fact your fat pads (underneath the ball of the foot) may have diminished due to age or wrong footwear. In that case a barefoot-style shoe with a thin and flexible sole is most likely to give your feet a sensory overload. Too much sensory input is far from helpful. We’re looking for just the right amount, which is different for everybody.

Barefoot shoes are only a good option for reasonably healthy feet.

Healthy foot function

A fully functional foot moves properly from heel, ankle to forefoot when walking. The forefoot structure should be flat with all metatarsal heads touching the floor.

Together with correct (spread) toe-alignment healthy feet easily transfer weight moving you forward without any pain.

A sedentary lifestyle combined with mostly wearing heeled shoes shortens the calf muscles. As people transition to minimalist shoes it shouldn’t come as a surprise they experience calf and achilles pain.

If you want to stay injury free, it’s key to take things slow. Activate the intrinsic foot muscles with foam rolling (black roll or tennis ball) and let them perform their task naturally, from a neutral, flat position. From there add stretching exercises and consider using toe spacers to re-allign all toes again.

Choose functional instead of barefoot shoes

When it comes down to functional shoes we talk about ‘negotiable’ and ‘non-negotiable’ aspects of the shoe.

Functional shoes have a wide toe-box that provides wiggle room for your toes to splay and expand while moving. A wide, flat toe-box is a must, it’s non-negotiable. But when we look at heel drop and thickness of the sole we should look at individual needs. Both are negotiable.

If someone has very limited ankle mobility, a little heel-drop might be very helpful during transition and training towards foot health. For people in their 40s, chances are the fat pads in the forefoot have slowly diminished. Walking or running on rough or hard surfaces may then lead to extra stress in the metatarsal heads (especially in a compromised rigid foot). Once the feet are overloaded with stressful input, tiny fractures or imbalance may result in pain that won’t go away by adding more load.

Biology vs. belief

A healthy foot has the ability to relax during movement. Pushed too far, the benefits of going barefoot will quickly disappear.

So instead of believing barefoot-style footwear is best for everyone, look into biology first. Look at your hardware (structure, feet, toe-function, alignment) then add footwear that compliments a software update (proper training, lifestyle changes). Your structural or foot problems won’t magically disappear after wearing barefoot-style footwear.

While you’re updating your footwear, you might want to take a closer look at a hard- and software update too. When you consider buying new shoes, always look at shoes that won’t constrict the natural shape of the foot and find exactly the right amount of cushioning suitable for you.

Final tips

  • If you’re looking to buy minimal, barefoot style shoes, check out Xero Shoes.
  • With shoe-shaped feet, find footwear that doesn’t restrict your foot-shape and add protection such as Luna Sandals.
  • In case you’re an avid runner check out zero-drop shoes with a wide toe-box like Joe Nimble or Altra’s.