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The Truth About Barefoot Shoes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…

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So what’s the deal with barefoot shoes?  The concept has gained significant attention in the world of footwear over the past few years. The minimum requirements for shoes to be considered barefoot shoes are a thin and flexible sole, a wide toe box that allows complete toe spread, no support, no cushioning, and a zero drop heel.  The purpose is, of course, to mimic the feeling of walking and running barefoot.  Proponents argue that they offer numerous benefits for foot health and overall well-being, while critics express concerns about potential drawbacks. Let’s dive into the good, the bad and the ugly.  First the good…

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1. Muscle and tendon strength 

One of the claimed advantages of barefoot shoes is their ability to strengthen the muscles and tendons in your feet. Conventional shoes with cushioning and arch support along with narrow toe boxes which limit foot movement can cause these muscles to weaken over time. Our bodies are strengthened by movement whereas we become weaker when we stop moving for prolonged periods, the feet are no exception. Barefoot shoes encourage your feet to work naturally due to the ultra thin and flexible soles that allow the feet to move unhindered.  Thus when we wear them the extra freedom of movement causes the intrinsic foot muscles to be exercised fully, helping them to remain strong or regain their strength.  


2. Posture

Barefoot shoes can lead to better posture as they encourage a more natural gait. This can reduce the risk of developing posture-related issues such as lower back pain and hip problems. When you walk in barefoot shoes, your body aligns itself in a way that minimizes stress on your joints and muscles.  A heel wedge, found in most footwear, causes all the joints in the body to compensate by changing position in an attempt to maintain balance in the system, resulting in a misalignment in the upper structures of the body. Properly designed barefoot shoes are zero drop, which means that they are totally flat and do not have a raised heel.  This enables the body to maintain its natural alignment even when just standing.  


3. Biomechanics

Proponents of barefoot shoes argue that they encourage more natural foot movement and biomechanics. Traditional shoes often force feet into unnatural positions, potentially leading to issues like bunions, plantar fasciitis, and hammertoes. Barefoot shoes, on the other hand, promote a more natural alignment of the foot because instead of narrowing to a point like most shoes, they widen at the end allowing all the toes to remain in their proper alignment.  It would be ideal to wear barefoot shoes from childhood or simply to walk barefoot to prevent developing misalignment issues.  However, an adult whose feet are already misaligned can still gain much benefit from barefoot shoes because they allow enough space for the toes to realign themselves.   Although some additional remedial intervention may be required.


4. Foot Arch Development

Foot arches behave like springs during load bearing tasks such as walking and running which absorb impact forces and recoil them back into the next step.  It is for this reason that most barefoot shoes don’t have inner arch support but rather flat and minimal interiors thus enabling the arch to do what it is supposed to do.  By contrast the arch support in most shoes fills the gap between the ground and the arch thus preventing proper movement through the arch.  This not only causes us to move less efficiently, but also weakens the foot arch over time. 



5. Proprioception and Sensory Feedback

Proprioception refers to your body’s ability to sense its position in space.  Any type of cushion between our feet and the ground blocks our ability to directly feel the floor beneath us. Barefoot shoes enhance proprioception by allowing your feet to feel the ground beneath them. This can lead to better control of your movements, improved balance and coordination, and improved athletic performance. When your feet have a better understanding of the terrain, you are less likely to stumble or roll an ankle.   This limited sensory feedback has been shown to reduce our movement efficiency. 

To conclude the good, there are now a number of scientific studies supporting some of these claims.  But even without them, it certainly makes sense that being as close to barefoot as possible is best for us.  After all, that is how we were designed.  You can also find countless Youtube videos of all kinds of peoples’ experiences with barefoot shoes. I didn’t come across anyone who completely reverted back to traditional shoes after having tried barefoot shoes for any extended period of time.  


6. Now for the bad…

Critics claim that barefoot shoes pose a risk of overuse injuries such as stress fractures, tendonitis and muscle strains.  While this is certainly true, the culprit seems to be the damage caused by years of literally binding our feet into shoes that are not made for the shape of human feet.  Simply put, it seems that barefoot shoes expose the problem rather than create it.  So actually, not bad at all.

However, transitioning to barefoot shoes can be challenging. If you’re accustomed to traditional footwear with cushioning and support, you’ll likely experience an adaptation period where your feet and lower leg muscles need time to adjust. During this period, you may experience discomfort, soreness, and even injuries if you do too much too quickly. You need to be especially careful if you have pre-existing foot conditions as this is in most cases when injuries occur.  Depending on the current level of the health and strength of your foot, you may need to transition very slowly and incorporate some foot strengthening and rehabilitation exercises.

Another significant criticism of barefoot shoes is their limited protection.  Every little stone and slope and texture can be felt.  You may feel discomfort or pain when walking on rocky surfaces or on gravel paths because your feet are not used to dealing with all that stimulation. Again, this just requires some adaptation. 


7. And now the ugly…literally…

I would say that out of all the potential drawbacks, this is probably the biggest one.  At least for me.  Vibram did not do the barefoot shoe industry any favors with their weird five fingers shoes.  Probably the ugliest shoes on the planet. Current barefoot shoes are definitely an improvement on this but still far less aesthetically appealing compared to traditional footwear.  Thus making it challenging for individuals who want both style and foot health. BUT most of the reviews I’ve watched and read tend to quite enthusiastically favor barefoot shoes and very few if any go back to conventional shoes. So it seems that the benefits out way the fashion considerations for most who have tried them.  There have also been some advancements in design and they are looking better and better as they gain in popularity. They’ve even started designing shoes for rougher terrain and cold weather conditions.

So are they worth it? I think so.  I have experienced enough damage to feet and toes from being squeezed into conventional shoes to throw fashion out the window for now.  The prospect of having healthy pain free feet is one that I look forward to even if the transition might be uncomfortable and even painful.  I will definitely be giving them a try and I’ll keep you posted. 

Ultimately, the decision to wear barefoot shoes should be based on your specific needs, preferences, and activities. If you are interested in transitioning to barefoot shoes, it is advisable to do so gradually, allowing your feet to adapt and strengthen over time. Additionally, consult with a healthcare professional or podiatrist if you have pre-existing foot conditions to ensure that barefoot shoes are a suitable choice for your individual circumstances.


11. FAQ’s

  1. Are there any specific activities for which barefoot shoes are most suitable?

Answer: Barefoot shoes are versatile, but they are often recommended for activities like walking, running, hiking, and strength training. They may not be the best choice for activities that require extensive foot protection, such as heavy-duty construction work.


  1. How can I transition from traditional shoes to barefoot shoes safely?

Answer: Transitioning to barefoot shoes should be gradual. Start by wearing them for short periods, allowing your feet to adapt. Incorporate foot-strengthening exercises to help with the transition. Consult a podiatrist or physical therapist for personalized guidance.


  1. Can children wear barefoot shoes?

Answer: Yes, children can wear barefoot shoes, and they may benefit from them as their feet develop. However, it’s crucial to ensure that the shoes fit properly and provide adequate protection for the child’s age and activities.


  1. Do barefoot shoes provide enough protection against sharp objects or extreme weather conditions?

Answer: Barefoot shoes have thin soles designed to provide a barefoot-like experience. While they offer some protection, they may not be suitable for extremely rugged terrain or very cold weather. It’s essential to choose appropriate footwear for specific conditions.


  1. Are there any situations where barefoot shoes are not recommended?

Answer: Barefoot shoes may not be suitable for individuals with severe foot conditions or injuries that require specialized support or protection. Always consult with a healthcare professional if you have concerns about wearing barefoot shoes.


  1. Can I use orthotic insoles with barefoot shoes?

Answer: Some barefoot shoe brands design models that accommodate removable insoles or orthotics. However, it’s essential to choose carefully to ensure that the insoles do not interfere with the natural feel and function of the shoes.


  1. How do I clean and maintain barefoot shoes?

Answer: Cleaning and maintenance instructions can vary by brand and shoe material. Generally, most barefoot shoes can be cleaned with a damp cloth or brush and left to air dry. Refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines for specific care instructions.


  1. Are barefoot shoes suitable for people with wide feet or foot deformities?

Answer: Barefoot shoes are often recommended for individuals with wide feet or foot deformities because they typically offer a roomy toe box. However, it’s essential to choose shoes that fit your specific foot shape comfortably.


  1. Do barefoot shoes have a lifespan similar to traditional shoes?

Answer: The lifespan of barefoot shoes can vary based on factors like usage and shoe quality. Typically, they may not last as long as traditional shoes due to their minimal design. Regularly inspect your shoes for signs of wear and consider replacing them as needed.


  1. Can I use barefoot shoes for formal occasions or work settings?

Answer: While barefoot shoes are primarily designed for casual and athletic use, some brands offer more formal or work-appropriate styles. However, they may not always meet strict dress code requirements, so it’s essential to check with your employer or event organizers.


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