Finally, a post about one of my favorite topics…barefoot shoes! I’m excited to finally get around to writing about my journey with barefoot/minimalist footwear. Sometime in 2015 I came upon Christopher McDougall’s popular book Born To Run about the astonishing story of the Tarahumara in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. The Tarahumara wear huarache style sandals that provide minimal contact with the ground, which combined with their diet and where they live, make them extraordinary long distance runners. This book, in whole or in part, inspired an entire movement of barefoot running and then came the footwear. I’m not entirely sure if this really was the start of it all, but it has often been credited with such. I highly recommend reading the book, as the writing, story, and underlying principles are great.
After understanding the benefits and doing some experimentation, I have been wearing minimalist footwear ever since. I have noticed a plethora of rewards from doing so. In fact, I can’t wear “regular” shoes anymore, which I consider to be any shoe that is not zero drop (flat from heel to toe) and less than say 9mm stack height (sole plus insole combined thickness). No longer are my feet’s senses dulled, toes scrunched, movement restricted, nor stability reduced.
Just before reading this book, I had purchased some insoles to increase comfort which I inevitably threw away. I’m not a runner, but am an avid hiker, so I purchased two pairs at first, one for everyday around town (thinner) and one for hiking (thicker). There are also shoes that are zero drop with thicker soles/cushioning to be used for transitioning to minimalist footwear, which may be good for some that are concerned about injury, running on rough terrain, or just prefer a little more cushion in general. The primary feature is the zero drop, the secondary is the amount of material between your feet and the ground. We’re told thicker, more comfortable shoes are superior, but they’re really not, and may even be harmful. There are studies for those of you that want to understand the science and data behind various claims. I encourage you to find your local shoe/running/outdoor store to try on a pair and see what you think!
Have you ever walked on a hardwood floor, carpet, grass, or sand in your bare feet? Do you love the feel of walking around in socks or slippers? That’s essentially what minimalist footwear feels like. Sometimes I forget to take off my shoes since they’re so light and comfortable. It’s quite remarkable how many senses and nerve endings exist in the foot which allow us to walk, run, balance, and simply connect with Mother Earth. All terrain is not equal, but I have the most minimalist, as close to barefoot as I can get, footwear for everyday around town to experience the ground more fully and is less harsh on my feet, ankles, and knees. I wear slightly thicker, more rugged shoes for hiking, often on rocky terrain, which offer better protection. Walking on pavement never feels great for long periods, but I still prefer the feeling to typical shoes.
One of my favorite things is walking on plush grass, soft ground (though I’d rather bare feet) or stones, you get a wonderful foot massage out of it on your arches. I also have noticed a connection with the ground that, while not as powerful as being truly barefoot, is noticeable. They say walking around in bare feet on the ground is good for your soul and connects you with the Earth. I think there’s some truth to that. You can judge for yourself.
Less Pain, Better Posture
One of the core problems with modern footwear is the gap between heel and toe in addition to the cushioning, particularly in the heel. This not only tilts you forward, throwing off your posture which can result in back, neck, knee, hip, and ankle pain, but also cushions the heel. This cushioning dulls feedback (pain) from walking on your heel, which you’re not really supposed to walk on constantly, but more the middle and front of the foot. The heel is more for stability when standing. The effects are exacerbated and made worse when running. Heel striking, which essentially bypasses the natural shock absorption provided by your calves can cause various pain throughout your body, either immediately or over time. Now imagine doing that over and over again on pavement! More feeling in contact with the ground forces the feedback loop to adjust how you walk, jog, or run and ultimately corrects your posture and movement, reducing pain. This was the main reason I decided to give this a shot. With minimalist footwear designed for hiking, I noticed pretty soon out of the gate less pain, better posture, and the ability to hike longer (eventually). I also very rarely get blisters, which I attribute to the wider toe box and ability to splay my toes.
Increased Movement, Agility, & Strength
Speaking of the toe box, another benefit of most barefoot shoes, you can better splay your toes, flex your feet, and move your foot/ankle around. This leads to better performance, agility, movement, and ultimately builds up foot and ankle strength. You’re less likely to trip and fall, not to mention see improvements in walking, hiking, running, climbing, and jumping. At least this has been my experience. If you combine this with yoga, namely balance postures, you’ll notice tremendous benefits in overall balance and stability. This is especially important as you get older, but really applies to all age groups.
A really cool side benefit of minimalist footwear is they have less material, are more flexible, thinner, and lightweight making them really easy to travel with and the option to take multiple pairs. For example, I typically travel with a pair of sandals, everyday/hiking shoes, and a pair of waterproof/weatherproof boots (for colder climates), all of which take up the same amount of space and weigh as much or less as an old pair of regular hiking boots!
I still have my old Merrell Moab waterproof hiking boots which previously had been my favorite, most comfortable hiking boots ever for instances of really rough terrain, the need for insulation or waterproofing, or interestingly any ice activity requiring crampons. While glacier hiking in Iceland, I decided to wear these. Turns out this was a great idea because crampons would not have fit otherwise since my minimalist boots are much thinner and don’t have the front “hook” many hiking boots have. A small nuance, but worth noting. Many tours that have this type of activity, at least in Iceland, offer rental boots though.
What To Look For
The key things you should look for when purchasing minimalist footwear are:
- zero drop (flat from heel to toe)
- minimal outsole (say ~3-6mm)
- minimal or no insole (say ~3mm)
- wide toe box
The “stack height” which is the total height or thickness of the shoe include the soul and cushion may vary by activity and your comfort level. As noted, I have multiple pairs of different shoes for different activities. You’ll need to experiment to find which feels best for you and this may change over time as your feet get stronger and more accustomed to the footwear.
Favorite Brands & Styles
There are a growing number of minimalist footwear brands on the market, but they are still small in comparison and really difficult to find in stores, unless you go to running or outdoor stores. Here are some of my favorites, listed by activity. I would encourage you to search the web for other brands that may appeal to you more if these don’t do it for you.
Sandals: Xero Shoes Z-Trail
These are awesome! Comfortable, protective, and stay on my feet. I can’t wear huarache style sandals, but those would be great alternatives. These are made for the trail (hiking), though they also offer a more minimal version in the Z-Trek.
Everyday: Merrell Vapor Glove or Xero Shoes HFS
For years I’ve worn the Vapor Glove 2 and Vapor Glove 3. The newer ones look pretty good, though Merrell has a tendency to “fix” things that aren’t broken (more on that below), so I would advise trying them out for feel. Just know that each version may be different and could be better or worse. The vapor gloves are so minimal they’re usually a sure bet though.
Hiking: Merrell Trail Glove or Xero Shoes HFS
I’ve worn the Trail Glove 3 and Trail Glove 4 which are both outstanding, though no longer in production. Incredibly comfortable, flexible, sticky for traction, and breathable. The only problem is after a while the soles wear down otherwise I’d keep them forever. Unfortunately, Merrell has decided to ruin these once amazing shoes with the newer 5 and 6 that have become stiff and narrow, the complete opposite direction of minimalist footwear. I’m hoping they bring back the old styles, otherwise for now I have shifted to Xero Shoes, specifically the HFS which look great, feel great, and seem to offer decent traction, though not as good as Merrell’s Vibram soles. These are perfect for travel because the black ones at least don’t look like hiking shoes and thus are very versatile for multiple occasions. They offer many other styles though and have come a long way in options with much improved styling. You’ll no doubt find something that meets your function and style. Another brand I like is Vivoebarefoot (more on them below for those I own).
Boots: Xero Shoes Denver or Vivobarefoot Magna Trail
I love boots, mainly motorcycle boots, which I can’t really wear anymore because of everything mentioned above, but both of these companies offer some pretty ok alternatives. Furthermore, this section is more geared towards hiking, but I don’t really wear hiking boots anymore, only in cold climates, but these styles work great for both around town or hiking. The Denver’s are so comfortable and warm, you’ll never want to take them off. Xero Shoes also offers many other styles depending on what you’re looking for. I bought these more for casual wear with the option to hike. For something more rugged and weatherproof, look no further than the Magna. These have iterated over the years, I have the first incarnation, but the newer ones look great. They’re surprisingly flexible and essentially wearing a neoprene sock, the same material wetsuits are made from, with a protective outer layer. My only two gripes with this boot is they are tough to get on and off due to the neoprene material, especially when wet. The other is the rigid finger loop on the back heel which gives me blisters if I wear them for an extended period. Maybe the company has resolved this or you may not experience this issue, but I can still get by if I wear thicker socks, which is usually the case in cold climates. Another great company is Lems, which I may look towards in the future. They even have a waterproof boot.
All Weather: Vivobarefoot Magna Trail
Caution: Do NOT go running your normal routine and/or long distances in your newly minted barefoot shoes right off the bat, you need to ease into it! Just like you wouldn’t go to the gym and start benching 200 lbs without ever having been to the gym before. Our feet have been conditioned by modern footwear to feel less, and have become weaker due to all of the support and padding. As a result, your feet need to adapt to new footwear and rediscover themselves. There are plenty of stories about people complaining how switching to barefoot shoes resulted in injury. Well yea duh if you’re not mindful about it! There was even a huge lawsuit again Vibram which I feared would almost take down the movement. Needless to say, I would chalk this up to user error. Also, you will need to adjust your running style to avoid heel striking, with shorter strides, leading with your torso.