Heard the hype about barefoot shoes? I wore them for three months and here is what I really think.
Over the last few years I've heard and seen a lot about the apparent benefits of barefoot or minimalist footwear but until recently been reluctant to give it a go.
Honestly, it was probably an aesthetic thing that held me back.
8 or 9 years ago I worked in an office where a colleague regularly turned up in those Vibram 5 finger things (the ones with separate toe compartments, they look a bit like foot gloves) and at the time I felt I wouldn't want to be seen dead in something like that. I find something very satisfying about the neat, pointed look of regular training shoes and the enormous variety of colour combinations they come in.
More recent additions to the barefoot/minimalist shoe market didn't do much to change my mind. Since they're more essentially foot-shaped,
they always seem to come across a bit awkward and remind me of historical footwear (viking shoes anyone?)- although I guess this should make total sense on the basis that our ancestors also needed ergonomic design.
Why Barefoot Shoes?
Practicing a lot of yoga asana I have long understood the stability benefits of being barefoot, or at least not having a big foamy wedge or stiletto heel between your foot and the ground. In standing and balancing poses, being able to control how I spread the pressure out across the whole foot (or feet) has a major impact on how the rest of the body can be brought into the posture. The level of control available changes dramatically when conventional trainers are involved as the foot is at an angle and more pressure moves into the ball of the foot. Try it and see for yourself.
As someone with hypermobile joints in my lower body, I'm particularly aware that traditional trainers don't help my stability (in fact, I sustained my worst injury whilst wearing them during a zumba class) and that my stability really isn't great in the first place.
I used to do a circuit class at the local gym, and after a while I awkwardly asked the instructor if he minded me taking my shoes off because then I would fall over less!
Through strength training I found that my propensity to wobble and outright topple over during exercises such as lunges and split squats could be significantly reduced by removing my trainers.
Wearing completely flat shoes (also known as 'zero lift' footwear) allows the foot to spread out and engages the muscles of the foot and the lower leg in a different (potentially more efficient) way in comparison to shoes that have any kind of heel. Some people have cottoned onto this and sometimes you will see them wearing flat shoes such as baseball boots in the gym (yes, that's why!) in order to train their leg muscles more effectively. Unfortunately baseball boots have never really fit me well because I have particularly wide feet. So I decided to test out the potential benefits of zero lift by buying a branded pair of barefoot shoes.
The Barefoot Shoe Choice
Criteria for buying the shoes were that they had to be highly durable and suitable for a variety of activities and situations, including everyday walking, gym, dancing for several hours at a time and wearing to the office. I also had to not hate the way they looked. Fairly tall order!
I decided to go for one of the higher end barefoot brands (vivobarefoot) who are quite transparent about how they source durable materials sustainably and even have a service to repair damaged or worn shoes in order to keep them usable for as long as possible.
I chose a pair that were reportedly based on a tennis shoe design, but I felt were the closest I could get to a skateboard shoe type- which I've always preferred, probably because they're so wide and comfortable! White soles and black uppers made me feel a bit better about the asymmetrical shape of the shoe.
I waited for them to arrive with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Would they really revolutionise my stability? Would they help to stretch and engage my troublesome inner calf muscles? Would they assist my ongoing knee rehab?
Or would I just plain hate them, end up with plantar fasciitis or shin and/or calf pain? Would I even be able to run in them?
Testing the Barefoot Shoes
They arrived mid week when I was working from home so I put them on straight away. And I kid you not, I've barely taken them off since. I've actually bought a second pair of vivos so that I don't wear them out too fast. Yes, it was love at first try.
GYM: I immediately tested them in the gym and was ecstatic to no longer need to remove my shoes for deadlifts, squats, mobility work, lunges, split squats and so on- I realised that before this I basically used to run round the gym in my socks! I also gleefully found that I could take on my knee support on and off without needing to remove my shoes first, saving me precious minutes during tightly timed morning workouts. The flexibility of the soles, level of grip and amount of sensation you can get through them made them ideal for cardio work and floor exercises such as plank.
WALKING: I can do 4-5 miles of walking most days, usually on city streets and pavements, so I was wary of warnings about developing plantar fasciitis by switching wholesale to barefoot shoes from traditionally shaped soles. But they were just so comfortable I couldn't resist diving right in. I've worn them for almost all my walking, some hiking excepted (I still have oldskool walking boots, although I now know you can get barefoot walking boots too...) and they've performed amazingly well. Over the months, they've continued to be comfortable, they've not rubbed me at all and they've been very versatile on different surfaces (gravel, sand, soil, stone, tarmac etc) in both wet and dry conditions. The soles have worn a bit but, crucially, they're not worn out- which a pair of standard trainers would have been by now.
I have experienced some challenges. Due to the shape of the front of the shoe (not being what I'm used to) I did initially find myself tripping over a lot to begin with! Sub-optimal stability and proprioception (thanks, hypermobility!!) probably had a part to play but I did feel like an idiot randomly tripping over for the first few weeks. Pleased to report that it hardly happens now!
I did experience more lower leg aches and pains than usual when walking in the barefoot shoes a great deal for the first few weeks. These were noticeable but not terrible and eased off at around a month or so of consistent wear.
I had a taste of the plantar fasciitis at one point. I was rushing a lot that week and my walking pace was faster and more furious than usual. I think I was stomping my heels into the ground with extra force and began to experience a dull ache in my left heel when at rest. So I decided to wear conventional trainers for a couple of days and it went away and hasn't bothered me since.
DANCING: It was a risk, but within the first month of getting barefoot shoes I decided to wear them to a festival where I would dance for three days straight.
Once again, I was delighted by how good they felt. I could jump higher and bounce lighter, my footwork was on fire as I challenged the Europeans at their x-outing style. They were also easy to clean (a festival must!) and went with all my outfits. Definitely a win there.
RUNNING: I didn't try running in barefoot shoes until much later on, but can confirm I found it VERY different to running in standard trainers, to an almost disturbing extent in the beginning. I'm not a big runner, but I do enjoy frequent short treadmill runs in the gym and a bit of outdoor running in my local area. Not having a big foamy wedge under my heels was weirder than expected- it made me run differently.
In the barefoot shoes, I want to run faster. More of the force seems to land in the ball of the foot, as the heel is further away from making contact- since there is less height of sole underneath it. This seems to give me more of a springy and lighter step which makes comfortable speeds effortless and faster speeds more comfortable.
It also works/stretches out my tight inner calf (soleus) muscles A LOT. In the beginning, 10 minutes of running would leave me hobbling out of bed two days later as the DOMS set in. I'm still working up to longer runs as I'm keen to be kind on my calves.
Despite some challenges, I have to say that overall I DO feel more stable on my feet after three solid months of wearing barefoot shoes. I wobble less when walking, running, lifting and practicing yoga asana (for which I don't wear any shoes, so it's clearly benefitted my innate stability not just my stability when wearing the shoes).
Being less wobbly when teaching a yoga class is a big bonus as it means I can put more effort into explaining the poses and assisting the students rather than simply staying upright. Wobbles will always happen though!
I think that wearing barefoot shoes has also helped me to improve the integrity and stability in my right leg (where I have a dislocating knee- thanks again hypermobility!) which I notice most when lunging with that straight leg behind me. It used to feel like I'd dislocate the knee with any slight wobble, but now it feels stable and OK. For years I have done reahab/maintenance work but recently I can tell it has improved tremendously so I feel some credit is due to the barefoot shoes.
I walk more comfortably, run quicker and bounce higher (for hours on end) than I did in conventional trainers. Tangible benefits for sure.
Pros and cons
If you're thinking about trying barefoot shoes but just haven't got round to it yet, I'd urge you to just go for it!
Here is my quick reference list of pros and cons that I've uncovered from three months of use.
VERY wide- almost unknown levels of comfort for anyone with wide feet (and probably everyone else too)
Good for days when you're on your feet a lot
Don't have to take them off for weightlifting
Easily transition from the gym to the street and even the office if 'dress down'
I run faster in them
I bounce higher in them
I feel more stable when wearing them
After 3 months of consistent wear I believe they've contributed to improving my innate stability too
Not a stylish as conventional shoes
Took me a while to get used to the shape
Running felt very, very odd in them at first
Temporary foot and lower leg pain may be inevitable when transitioning from activities previously done in conventional trainers
It may take a LONG time to transition to wearing barefoot shoes comfortably for some activities (for me, running) depending upon your body
The Barefoot Shoe Verdict
I love them and I'll probably continue wearing them for many years to come, despite the fact that the styling is still not quite what I'd really like.
After a three month test I feel like I've really got to grips with them- and as far as I'm concerned the pros win out. I've tested the shoes in a variety of conditions and situations and really put them through their paces. I think they've made a positive contribution to my yoga asana practice too.
If you're wondering if they're worth, I'd say they are- give them a go, and let me know what you think in the comments.
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