Traditional shoe vs barefoot shoe

Why wear minimal or barefoot shoes?

You’ve probably heard of, and perhaps been horrified by, the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding. The binding of feet during development to change their size and shape. Perhaps for fashion. Perhaps for sexual appeal. Perhaps as a form of abuse and control.

While differing in motive, and not as extreme in effect, wearing modern shoes may have some parallels with foot binding. Squashing feet into shoes that are not the same shape as a naturally developed foot is bound to impact the development and shape of the foot and the ability of the wearer to move freely and optimally.

How often have you kicked your shoes off at the end of the day exclaiming “my feet are killing me!”? 

Features of barefoot shoes

Wide toe box (say no to bunions!)

Shoes are generally made on a last, which is a mould used to determine the shape of the shoe. And most lasts are made with the look of the shoe, not necessarily the actual shape of the human foot, in mind. Many shoes taper in at the toe. When you wear such shoes, your toes are squashed together. At a minimum this restricts toe movement and over time it can change the position of bones in your feet. This may result in problems such as bunions and hammer toes. 

A cut open toe box shows how tapered shoes can squash the toes together.

Flat (you’ve been wearing high heels. ALL THE TIME. Yes even you, Mr)

Take 7 inch stiletto high heels as an extreme case. Wearing a high heel puts the foot into a plantar flexed (pointed) position, kind of like you’re walking permanently downhill. This forces more weight onto the ball of the foot and limits the range of movement of the ankle that would normally occur when walking. The altered position of the ankle and change in the wearer’s centre of gravity will likely alter the position and movement of the knees, pelvis and spine. Muscles, tendons and ligamants will find themselves in shortened or lengthened position for extended periods, reducing their elastic potential. Muscles are made to sequentially lengthen and contract, lengthen and contract as joints go through their normal range of motion. If the joint range of motion is limited, the ability of the muscles and other soft tissue to fully lengthen and contract is also restricted. The more you wear the shoes, the more your body will make adjustments to fit your posture and movement around the shoe. Consequences can include lower back, hip and knee pain. You may say ‘yeah but actually I don’t wear high heels’…. Don’t you? Are you sure? Have a look at your shoe. If the heel or the shoe is raised at all compared with the toe, your foot will be pointing down in the plantar flexed position when you wear them, resulting in some degree to the above effects. 

Furthermore, to compensate for lack of flexibility of the sole (see below), many shoes have a 'toe-spring' where the front of the shoe is curved up away from the ground, creating a shape like the rocker on a rocking horse. The idea is the shoe then moves like a rocker because your feet are unable to move the way they need to to propel you forward. 

Thin, flexible sole: better sensory input = better motor output

Your foot has 26 bones, 30 joints, more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments and more than 200 000 nerve endings. Your foot is designed to sense the ground and adjust all these little components in order for you to travel safely over different terrain while keeping your balance.

What do you think happens when you put the sensitive, constantly adjusting foot into a rigid, thick soled shoe? It’s like putting an elite athlete/dancer in a straight jacket and asking them to perform. If you’ve ever tried to open a padlock while wearing ski gloves you’ll know how fine motor function can be inhibited by thick hand-wear. Your feet also need a degree of fine motor function to operate optimally and this is inhibited by thick, stiff soles. Add to this the inability of the foot to move (thanks to the squishy shape of the toe box) and any added arch support, and the feet start to weaken. They are unable to do their job. Shoe manufacturers then add more and more 'features' to their shoes to allow you to keep moving. This becomes a downwards spiral: shoes causing weak feet, that then require more 'support' from shoes, that then causes the feet to weaken further, and so on.

Very stiff sole (top) vs very flexible sole (bottom)


Heavy shoes can impact the efficiency of your movement. Have you ever walked around with ankle weights on? Adding even a little extra (unnecessary) weight at your extremities can put extra strain on tendons and ligaments and may change your natural gait in an unproductive way.

So what's the solution?

1. Spend more time barefoot

Get your feet used to being unshod. Let them stretch out and expose them to a variety of textures. Start with soft surfaces (eg grass, sand) and then start to experiment with harder and sharper surfaces (rocks, pebbles etc). WARNING: this becomes addictive :)

2. Wear minimal or barefoot shoes when you need to wear footwear

You may find you need to transition slowly to barefoot shoes, particularly if you have been wearing stiff, squashy shoes for some time. Use barefoot shoes in a casual context and for walking before starting to use them for running and HIIT classes. Use cushioned inserts until your steps become lighter. Walk on softer surfaces like grass whenever possible. Be aware of how your feet are adjusting and don't push yourself into full time barefootwear too quickly.

3. Strengthen and mobilise your feet, but not just your feet

Strengthening your feet involves strengthening and mobilising, well, not just your feet. You know the old song Dem bones:

Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone etc etc.....

Dysfunctions in the feet are likely connected to dysfunctions elsewhere. Find a good movement trainer/therapist who recognises that foot function is part of whole body function, and that whole body function includes adequate foot function.

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