How can you be ‘barefoot’, if you’re wearing shoes?
Well, the answer is obviously you can’t really! It was a term coined to mean shoes designed to work with (not against) the natural movements of the foot - as though you were actually walking barefoot.
To reduce confusion the term minimalist shoes is also used which describes their lightweight material and flexibility, but this doesn’t cover all the features.
Another name is zero drop shoes which describes another key element of barefoot shoes, but again doesn’t describe the full set of characteristics.
In case you don’t know what all the fuss is about (and yes, there is more and more fuss as more and more people realise the benefits for them), I’d like to describe why these shoes make your whole body work well.
What’s the overall aim?
It’s all about enabling the foot to move in shoes as it does without shoes - just like when you kick off your shoes & socks, your feet feel free as you wander around your home or outside (usually for most only when they’re on holiday!).
How do barefoot shoes differ from ‘normal’ shoes? The key features
A wider ‘toe-box’!
Firstly, as you bear weight through your foot and it travels behind you as your body moves forward past it, your feet need to spread through the forefoot - the wider part from the big toe joint to the pinky side.
If you wear shoes that are either just as wide as this part of your foot or in fact often narrower (like pointed evening shoes), the foot can’t spread properly and therefore the toes are squashed together. The result is a smaller base of a support, i.e. less area on which to balance and as the big toe is also often pulled towards the other toes a likelihood of bunions, hammer toes or basically toes bunching in towards each other and even overlapping over time rather than all pointing straight ahead as they did when you were a child. Remember our tissues adapt constantly to the environment or position we put them in.
Flexibility of both the sole & the upper material
Secondly, the foot works by best, i.e. has the most movement through all its joints (remember there are 33 joints in the foot, a quarter of the whole body!) when it can flex well at the base of the toes and the ankles can also flex fully. It needs to do this to balance well on whatever terrain it finds itself; sharp, hot, sloped, slippy etc, to avoid the rest of the body falling. The foot also needs to be able to push off with a flexed toe behind you.
For these reasons barefoot shoes have malleable soles, usually made up of tiny shapes with cut outs between them allowing flexibility in all directions. You can test how flexible they are by being able to roll them up into a tight circle. This aids the foot changing shape as it moves.
Heelless (my made-up word!)
Thirdly, there is literally no change between the height of the soles from the front to the back end of the foot; no heel at all. Heels make your body permanently tipped forward which means you are having to resist this slight forward lean caused by your shoes to enable you to stay upright. As a result the bones can’t be stacked properly on top of each other and then other tissues are overworking to resist gravity. Over time this can create poor posture and poor movement patterns. Even worse, when these poor patterns are put under impact, i.e. running, jumping etc, you are asking for injury. An example of the effects of even the slightest heel (there are very few shoes that are truly zero rise from front to back - including most trainers) is a shortening of the calf muscle that then puts strain on the Achilles‘ tendon.
Finally, to make the shoe more malleable, the sole is usually thinner. The benefit is that this helps your brain ‘read’ the terrain better to be able to make adjustments in your gait, allowing you to compensate safely for variability in the terrain.
With double the nerve endings in the foot than elsewhere, this brain to foot connection tells the rest of your body how to move well and also helps maintain brain function in connection to whole-body movement & just increased brain activity full stop.
Wearing thicker or more rigid soles shoes reduces these signals and even stops the nerves working over time and they then reduce in number. The effects of this reduction are that balance can become even more challenging and also the soles of the feet can become over-sensitive leading them to start wearing more and more cushioned shoes or slippers all the time and feeling unable to walk in barefoot at all.
Wearing barefoot shoes means your feet and ankles are not ‘supported’ (in a good way) and therefore they are constantly being strengthened as you walk...it’s like them working out just by walking, instead of the muscles being switched off, as they move much freely than in a normal shoe.
So why wear shoes at all then?
Shoes obviously protect you from cutting or burning/freezing(!) your feet and quite frankly you get more weird looks in the UK (not so many in Oz I noticed!). The key aim is that they compliment your feet by letting them and therefore the rest of the body, move far more freely, naturally & therefore healthily.
At the moment, many of them are still quite expensive, but they really last well and manufacturers like Vivo Barefoot offer a 100-day money-back guarantee to allow you time to transition carefully to wearing them. They also now offer a service called ‘Revivo’ where you can pay to have them brought back to life once they’re a bit trashed!
If you’re still not convinced - I’ll use an exaggeration example for effect, which might help make you think what rigid & restricted shoes do to your movement.
It may be an exaggeration, but I think it’s useful to think about if you’ve ever experienced it seen someone walking in ski boots on dry land; almost like wearing a cast on your feet and walking in it, which then makes you walk weirdly. This then contributes to knee, back & hip issues as your body has to compensate. It may not be the same as wearing ski boots, but there are plenty of very sturdy walking boots out there that are seriously compromising the natural movements of foot, ankle, knee, hip & spine, as your walking pattern creates movement right up to your neck.
Is there evidence that it's beneficial for you?
When we look at the barefoot populations of our world, we find there are very low levels of back issues. There is now a large amount of research that links the movement health (i.e. mobility) and strength of the structures of the feet to the movement health and strength of the rest of the body.
My barefoot journey
I’m don’t spend much money on clothes really, but I do spend on barefoot shoes as I see this as an investment in my physical health and comfort!
I switched when I was having lower back/hip treatment when suffering chronic pain for 4 years. I had to change lots of things about how I moved and this one felt like a big contributor to my recovery. I have gradually got to the point where I don’t want to wear anything else as it just feels wrong. In fact my walking boots are like comfy (muddy!) slippers now!
I am actually now at the point that I can’t stand the feeling of my feet being restrained in normal shoes and the way the rest of my body then reacts negatively. I just can’t feel the lovely movement from toe joint right up to arm swing in the same effortless way I can in barefoot shoes.
Final note of caution - transitioning is important!
If you have been a heel wearer all your life, tend not to walk around your house barefoot and prefer thicker soles...but are also suffering from issues of the Achilles tendon, plantar fasciitis, ankle instability, bunions or even knee, hip or back pain, I would urge you to give barefoot shoes a try.
I would caution that this be done very slowly as your feet need to adapt to their new, more challenging environments. An hour or two a day, at home initially and then venture out. Let your body slowly get used to them. I would also recommend doing foot massage, calf stretches and more whilst you do so. Also, if you go out on a walk, at first, take another pair of shoes with you just in case you struggle with the increased sensitivity.
Don’t let this transition period cause you to think barefoot shoes are not for you (although it’s not even needed for some people). You wouldn’t expect to be able to walk perfectly in high heels immediately if you’d never worn them before either!
If you want to talk about my experience with barefoot shoes, then please do get in touch by emailing me firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on social media @reclaim.movement and I’d love to talk barefoot with you.
‘Whole body barefoot’ by Katy Bowman
Some Barefoot Brands...
Vivo Barefoot, Merrell, Xero Shoes, Vibram, Groundies, Softstar
The most extensive directory of barefoot shoes I’ve found (but many are not international yet)
@anyasreviews @theurbanbarefoot @basedbarefoot @gaithappens @healthyfeetalliance @myfootfunction @thefootcollective
Vivo barefoot webpage about the science & running in particular...