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Step by Step - The Scoop on Barefoot Shoes


Natural, minimalist, and barefoot footwear all are terms that refer to the same thing – a zero drop shoe with a wide toe box and little to no support. The toe box of the shoe is the area where the toes sit. You’ll notice how most shoes are shaped like Figure 1., whereas minimalist shoes are wider and shaped like Figure 2. Zero-drop refers to a shoe that positions the heel and forefoot at the same level and some shoes have a zero drop but are not barefoot shoes because of the amount of support they offer.

Figure 1. Brooks Launch GTS 9 running shoe.

Believe it or not, our toes should be the widest part of our feet! That’s not the case for many of us, though, because of the footwear we have worn all of our lives (1). Research has found that the toes are in contact with the ground for about ¾ of the walking cycle, and that the big toe takes about 60-70% of force and has the highest peak of pressure of all of the toes. Hallux valgus (when the big toe is angled inwards towards the other toes, also referred to as a bunion) shifts that force into the forefoot (2,3). Another study found that without shoes, the big toe dorsiflexes to roughly 60º without shoes. Shoes with a flexible sole allowed the big toe to flex to 45-50º and stiff shoes 25-30º (4). This means that our feet adapt when we have toe dysfunction like bunions – but ideally, the big toe flexes when we walk. And second, stiffer shoes limit the natural movements that our feet want and need to do. Further, cushioned soles also limit the sensory input and perception during walking and even decrease demand of foot muscles, leading to weaker feet (5).

Figure 2. Xero Nexus Knit athletic shoe.

In addition to using footwear that allows the feet to move and feel more, we also need to strengthen and mobilize our feet and ankles more as we transition to less supportive footwear. Studies have found that weakness in the foot can contribute to an increased fall risk factor in older adults (6,7) so exercises to increase strength and mobility of the foot and ankle are extremely important. Transitioning to barefoot shoes can also increase size and strength of foot muscles with just progressive walking due to the increase demand on these muscles(8). All in all, transitioning to minimalist foot wear promotes a healthier musculoskeletal system through improved strength and mobility, balance, reduced impact forces on feet, and improved sensory proception.


Where do you start? More and more brands are starting to offer barefoot shoes. My favorite brands include Xero, Vivobarefoot, and Feelgrounds. Other brands include Merrell, Lems, Be Lenka, Saguaro, Barebarics, Origo, Whitin, Splay Freestyle, Unshoes Terra Vida, Everleigh Meadow, and PaperKrane Boots. Some brands also offer a wide toe box but with extra support and can be a good way to transition. If you have any questions, please don’t be afraid to reach out!



Are barefoot shoes something you'd be willing to try out?

  • Absolutely!

  • I have some questions before I try them.

  • Yes but they're expensive so I need to wait.

  • Not for me.



References


1. Thompson, Francesca M.; Coughlin, Michael J. The High Price of High-Fashion Footwear. The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery 76(10):p 1586-1593, October 1994.

2. Hughes J, Kriss S, Klenerman L. A clinician’s view of foot pressure : a comparison of three different methods of measurement. Foot Ankle 1987; 7:277-84.

3. Hughes J, Clark P, Klenerman L. The importance of the toes in walking. J Bone Joint Surg Br. 1990 Mar;72(2):245-51.

4. Finn Bojsen-Møller & Larry Lamoreux (1979) Significance of Free Dorsiflexion of the Toes in Walking, Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica, 50:4, 471-479.

5. Davis, I. S., Hollander, K., Lieberman, D. E., Ridge, S. T., Sacco, I. C. N., & Wearing, S. C. (2021). Stepping Back to Minimal Footwear: Applications Across the Lifespan. Exerc. Sport Sci. Rev, 49(4), 228–243.

6. Matias AB, Taddei UT, Duarte M, Sacco IC. Protocol for evaluating the effects of a therapeutic foot exercise program on injury incidence, foot functionality and biomechanics in long-distance runners: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2016 Apr 14;17:160.

7. Mickle KJ, Munro BJ, Lord SR, Menz HB, Steele JR. ISB Clinical Biomechanics Award 2009. Toe weakness and deformity increase the risk of falls in older people. Clinical Biomechanics. 2009;24:787–91.

8. Ridge ST, Olsen MT, Bruening DA, et al. Walking in minimalist shoes is effective for strengthening foot muscles. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2019; 51(1):104–13.



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