What Are the Benefits of Barefoot Shoes?

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Barefoot shoes have a reputation for being “weird.” I remember the first time I saw a pair of Vibram 5-Fingers. They were so bizarre looking that I couldn’t hear the benefits of them. Even when my best friend told me she ran in minimalist sandals my eyes glazed over, it was in one ear and out the other. The whole idea of flimsy, unsupportive shoes as GOOD for your feet flew in the face of everything I had been taught. It was just too different.

But the way we’ve been dealing with foot pain isn’t working. Stiff supportive shoes and corrective surgeries are not giving people the relief they need. So maybe different is exactly what we need.

In this post we’re going to break down the idea of barefoot shoes to show that 1. they’re actually not weird, 2. they’re a viable solution to common foot ailments, and 3. there are things you can do today to have healthier feet.

Why Don’t I Wear Normal Shoes?

You see, I’ve run the whole gamut of supportive shoes and orthotics. A nasty case of tendinitis at the age of 9 landed me in my first pair of orthotics and after that it was supportive shoes year round. I noticed I had discomfort if I ever strayed too far, so I didn’t question it.

When I saw my podiatrist as an adult after months of intense foot pain, she reaffirmed this to me and put me in even stiffer, MORE supportive shoes. In some ways I’m grateful to her and my injury, because when this advice turned out to be TERRIBLE for me I was finally ready to accept new knowledge into my life.

*Want to hear more about this saga? Read my full barefoot journey here.*

Fortunately, my sweet friend reminded me about minimalist shoes and sent me a copy of Whole Body Barefoot by Katy Bowman. The rest is history. Today I wear absolutely nothing but minimalist or no shoes and my entire body is stronger, more stable, and functioning better than it ever has in my life.

In fact this experience was so life-changing that I now spend my time breaking down barriers to healthy footwear. This website is all about showing you how awesome minimalist footwear can be and making it easy for you to find what you love. One choice (your shoes) can impact your life in countless ways.

So what do you think? Are you ready to think about feet and shoes in a new way?

What Is A Barefoot Shoe?

“Barefoot” shoes are so-called because they let your feet move as if barefoot. Most shoes inhibit our foot function, to our detriment. So in order to keep our feet strong and mobile our shoes must have the following characteristics:

Completely Flat

A completely flat shoe keeps the center of gravity over the heels, where we are most stable. Heeled shoes (even small heels like the ones found on tennis shoes or the flats shown above) push us forward and force compensations throughout the spine to stay balanced. This causes some parts to be over worked and others to be under worked, aka IMBALANCE. Being in shoes that are zero drop is critical for whole body alignment.

Foot-Shaped

We entered this world with beautiful fan-shaped feet and toes. Choosing shoes that follow the natural curves of the foot allow them to keep looking this way! But more importantly, it allows them to continue to function. Our feet take the shape of the shoes they are in. So if you spend most of your time in squished pointy shoes your feet are going to start looking the same way, which can eventually lead to bunions and other toe deformities.

Flexible

Feet are flexible; shoes should be too. Stiff shoes effectively bind the intricate muscles of the foot, muscles that will waste away if not used. Shoes that move with the foot allow those muscles to stay strong and supple, paving the way for a lifetime of stability. When the range of motion in your feet doesn’t get used regularly, the result is limited mobility followed by pain.

No Arch Support

Flat feet can cause a lot of problems in your body, but sticking a support under there completely takes away the opportunity for your muscles to work. It also locks the foot into a single position, when it actually should be flattening out a little bit with each step. Weaning off arch support can take time, but in the end it’s much better for your long-term foot health.

Secure to the Foot

In order for your feet to do their job they can’t be worrying about a shoe falling off. Flip flops and ill-fitting shoes cause you to grip your toes and slam your heel to prevent them from going flying. Feet simply can’t move effectively in a shoe that’s sliding around, which has ripple effects throughout your body.

Thin

The ability to balance is a hugely important skill for a human, and our feet are a key part of it. Thin soles allow you to maintain a connection with the ground, making it easier for you to move confidently and strongly. Thick soles prevent your nerves from sensing where you are in space, which leads to sloppy movement.

Why Should I Wear Them?

Most people will benefit from wearing barefoot or minimalist shoes*. And this is why.

1. It’s Natural

Feet have carried humans through life without additional support for thousands of years. The need for constant foot support in the form of orthotics and stiff shoes is a modern plague, and one that largely affects the developed world. But we know (‘cuz science) that feet aren’t fundamentally flawed. Rather our modern lifestyles are. Excessive sitting combined with restrictive shoes from an early age put a real damper on our ability to move freely. So if you think of “foot pain” as a symptom of a larger problem, then an orthotic starts to sound more like a Tylenol than an actual solution. Yes it’s easy and quick, but it does nothing to fix the reason for your pain. Free feet are natural feet, so let’s figure out a way to REGAIN that function, rather than mask our problems.

2. Feet Are The Foundation

Foot function has a HUGE impact on our bodies. There is a kinetic chain running from our big toes, through our arch, up our legs and into the hips and spine that affects everything we do as humans. If your feet can’t move well enough to engage the rest of the chain, you get a whole host of issues you probably didn’t realize were connected to your feet. Like knee pain, back pain, etc. Sometimes you get the reverse too: An issue with your pelvis could be the reason for your throbbing big toe. If you are here because you have foot pain, you’ve probably become acutely aware of how much it can impact your life. Feet are a seriously underestimated part of our bodies, and turning our attention to them will come back in dividends throughout our lives.

3. They’re Cool

woman sitting on rocks outside smiling and looking to the side with obsidian vivobarefoot geo court sneakers on her feet and a black dress and tan leather jacket.

Ok, some barefoot shoes look weird. But thanks to a change in the tides, there are so many that look great! I have watched the market increase rapidly over the last few years, and today there is a shoe for everyone and every occasion. We’re talking weddings, work, date night, even the military, for men, women, kids, and tweens. You DON’T have to stick out like a sore thumb to have happy feet. In fact, I am adamant about NOT looking weird in my shoes. If you stick around you’ll see that you don’t have to compromise on your style to wear healthy shoes.

4. Small Change, Big Results

The simple act of choosing better footwear is one choice, but it impacts your body over and over. For me, barefoot shoes are a one way street: once I experienced the freedom there was no going back. Being out of pain has made me a happier, better person and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But especially now that there are so many barefoot shoe options to choose from, there is no need to accept foot pain as just a fact of life. You don’t even have to be an obsessive foot nerd (like I am) to enjoy better quality of life from your stronger feet. The small change of better shoes is a gift to yourself that keeps on giving.

But What About Foot Support?

Because I grew up with foot issues I have heard this refrain over and over. What about the support? Don’t our feet NEED to be supported? We’ve all heard it. And the truth is, some feet do need to be supported, at least for a time*. But currently we are binding and restricting perfectly healthy feet without even considering why they are hurting in the first place.

Unnecessary support leads to weakened tissues, because who needs muscles when you can just rely on your shoe! Carefully and mindfully learning to use your feet the way they were born to often eliminates the need for support. Take myself for example. Reliant on orthotics for 2 decades, I now go completely without support 100% of the time. It took me a couple years to build up the strength to get there, but flat feet are in my past. So it’s time to put away the notion that all feet need to be supported. There are things we all can do to have stronger, healthier feet, and it doesn’t take odd-looking shoes to get there.

Now you know all the hype about barefoot shoes, watcha gonna do about it??

How Do I Get Started?

For detailed information on who should wear barefoot shoes, how to transition your body, and how to find your perfect pair refer to The Ultimate Barefoot Shoes FAQ.

Here are some other great resources to start with!

1. Wake Up Your Feet

Before grabbing yourself a pair barefoot shoes, here are some simple exercises to help regain foot function. Changing your footwear changes a lot of things about your body, so it’s a really good idea to pair it with restorative exercises.

2. Pick Out Your First Pair of Shoes

My general philosophy is to err on the side of caution and transition slowly. Beginning with exercises and being barefoot as much as possible is an excellent way to start, but if you want to take it to the next level you’ll need new shoes. Here are some recommendations to get you started. If you’re looking for shoes in a specific category, like work, be sure to check out my other shoe lists and subscribe to see all my new reviews. And if you want a taste but are nervous to invest, read my Affordable Barefoot Shoes post for options as cheap as a few dollars.

3. Dig Deeper

Meaningful change takes time, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach here. If you’re committed to feeling better in your body then consider this the first step of a lifelong journey. It’s worth it. Go slow. Be patient. And love your feet!

Want more? Here are some additional resources to sink your teeth into, then follow me on Instagram and subscribe below to stay in the loop!


Glossary of Terms

Here are some terms you’re likely to hear in the world of barefoot shoes!

Minimalist ShoesIn general minimalist shoes = barefoot shoes.
Zero DropUniform thickness throughout the entire shoes. Heel-to-toe drop refers to the difference in thickness between the heel and the toe of the shoe. So zero drop means there is no difference.
Toe SpringWhen the sole of a shoe curves upward at the toes. This is a common feature of conventional shoes but puts excess pressure on the tissues underneath your feet.
Toe BoxThe part of the shoe that goes around the toes. The shape of the toe box is an important feature in a shoe.
Heel RiseAnother way to describe the drop of a shoe, or the difference between the thickness of the sole at the heel and the toe. No heel rise is the same as zero drop.
Foot VolumeHow much space your foot takes up. See this post for a more detailed explanation.

*This is not a substitute for medical advice. If you have persistent pain, chronic health issues, or a diagnosed musculoskeletal disorder please consult a professional. This information can still have an impact on how you approach footwear, but you may need to modify your approach to make it safe and effective for you.

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Comments

37 thoughts on “What Are the Benefits of Barefoot Shoes?”

  1. Hi Anya,
    I was really looking forward to lems boots and primal 2. Though they fit very well lenthwise, both shoes were snug in width. Based off lems advertising i thought i finally found a shoe to fit my feet. I loved the look of the boulder boot, but it seemed a little narrow in metatarsal and didn’t allow my toes to move much. They are better fit than my windriver hiking boot, but not sure if they will break in or make my foot sore after use feels like they’re halfway to a good fitting boot if they were just a little wider at toe and metatarsal. The primal 2 fit better in width, but felt stretched out sideways (also felt like something stuck to bottom of sole).
    Hopefully Be Lenka will suit me better. Any guidance to type of footwear? My foot is 27.5cm long 11cm wide at metatarsal and toes like 12.5cm width.

  2. Hi Anya,

    I commented a while back about a Morton’s Neuroma. I’ve had it for a year and I finally had it surgically removed. I’m conflicted as to what my footwear should look like after I’ve healed from the procedure. My podiatrist agrees with choosing shoes with wide toe boxes, however, he said unless you’re walking on dirt, sand, or another forgiving material that we’ve been adapted to, there’s opportunity for further damage to feet without any cushion/support. What is your opinion on walking on concrete/asphalt considering our feet have only encountered these hard materials in the last ~100 years? I’d love your perspective, thanks!

    1. While I partly agree, hard smooth surfaces very much exist in nature and a fully functional foot is adapted to such an environment. But the problem is when it’s never-ending, the same thing over and over. That’s why I put a lot of floor texture to walk on all over my house. Specifically for you, I would opt for something with a little more cushion given your history with the neuroma. The professionals I work with usually advise their patients to wear something like Altra or Lems shoes when there’s a neuroma involved. You can find some cushioned zero drop, wide toe box shoes here: https://anyasreviews.com/best-barefoot-minimalist-shoe-brands-beginners/
      (but of course, I am in no position to give medical advice, just sharing what I have heard)

      1. Thank you for replying so quickly! I’ve learned much from your site and reviews in the past year. I appreciate you sharing what you’ve learned from your experience. I’m 7 days out from surgery and looking forward to taking wonderful care of my feet πŸ™‚

  3. Where did you buy the tank top and shorts you are wearing in the picture at the beginning of this article? Organic cotton, bamboo, …? Thank you for writing about this topic!

    1. Oh my, I wish it was made of those materials! The tank is from American Eagle, the shorts were from a thrift store (American Eagle brand I believe too). I prefer to buy second hand, but I also hope to find a high quality sustainable clothing brand that fits petites to replace some of the fast fashion brands I indulge in.

  4. Hi Anya! Your website has been absolutely life-changing. I made the switch to barefoot shoes 3 weeks ago, and I’ve already seen about a 90% decrease in my back pain! I have much more stamina when walking now, and I can see the shape of my feet changing already! I had suspicions that a good bit of my back pain started with my feet, but I had no idea what an incredible difference it would make!
    If you have the time, I have a question for you. I have 3 pairs of barefoot shoes so far, and I wear nothing else. I recently bought the Feelgrounds Patrol Lite boots, and I am noticing that there is less wiggle room for my left pinky toe than in my other barefoot shoes. I really don’t want to return them, but I am worried it will ruin my toe splay. Do you have any thoughts on this? Thank you for all you do!

    1. Hi Marley! Wow, what an awesome experience. I’m glad you’re experiencing so many benefits already. If you feel comfortable and your pinkie toe is not smooshed but just has a little less wiggle room you don’t need to be alarmed. If these are boots you plan to wear a LOT and you want to make sure you have full toe splay, then it might be worth returning them. I don’t expect they will ruin your progress, unless you’re really uncomfortable in them (and even then, ruin is a strong word!).

  5. Hi,
    I’m interested in getting into barefoot shoes; I’m offering the Sa-Me from Fugu as safety boots, I already own Chinese Feiyue’s but want a shoe for general wear and in the office.

    I’ve on a bit of a budget, what casual and office shoe would you recommended for a combined ~Β£100 or so?

  6. Thanks for all the info you share on this website! I became interested in this topic in January after experiencing some foot pain after a lot of hill walking, and my personal trainer recommended walking barefoot at home (which I already was doing most of the time, I’m Scandinavian, it’s the norm!). Shortly after, my husband started looking at barefoot shoes after having read “Born to run” and he’s 100% using barefoot shoes now, and Altra for running.
    Fast forward to March, I bought a pair of cheap Saguaro to try them out, but thought they were so odd-looking that later instead I bought a pair of Xero.
    My ugliest foot saga yet started in late March with a metatarsal stress fracture (from running, using standard supportive, ultra-cushioned running shoes). Before I got help I really struggled with shoes and although barefoot shoes would probably not be recommended in that situation, my Xero were the ONLY shoes I could wear because of my swollen foot. I started realising that basically all my shoes (except my running shoes and maybe some Doc Martens) I’ve bought in the past are too small around the toes. Even on my good foot, all my old shoes seemed generally too small! What was I thinking when I bought them??!
    Now, 5+ months later (it was a much longer lasting injury than it should have been), my foot is healed but still in rehab. The only shoes I wear now are Altra Lone Peak, and I will use these for the foreseeable future but will start easing into the Xero when my physio thinks it’s safe to do so. Most of my old shoes will go to a second hand shop!

  7. Commenting on WHITIN Women’s Transitional Barefoot Shoes.I have only worn them for a week (daily for a 5 mile walk) and I find my foot pain is almost gone. I walk daily (15 years) and was a long distance runner for 30 years and always wore traditional running shoes. I was never able to find a shoe with a wide enough toe box so my feet always hurt (45 years..ouch!). After my first walk wearing these shoes I didn’t notice any foot pain that evening or the next day…and it continues. I am a convert! The shoe is lightweight, true to size (7.5 women’s). An unexpected result was also noticing my back pain (I am 75 and chalked this up to my age) was lessened . I attribute this to the lengthening of the spine as the hips drop due to the zero rise and, for the feet, the stretching of long held contracted fascia. Another plus? Ankle strengthening because there is more movement. I also appreciate the feel of the heel strike for encouraging stronger bones (mild impact).

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Hi. I'm Anya.

Hi. I'm Anya.

I first discovered barefoot shoes after a long history of foot issues. By changing my footwear and strengthening my body I was able to completely transform my life. Anya’s Reviews is my way of sharing with the world that healthy feet are happy feet!

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