For the last few weeks I’ve been writing about my research and experimentation with minimalist or barefoot shoe and ambulation. I feel that there are some benefits to spending at least some time each day on our feet without heavy supportive shoes or orthodics. There will be at least one more post in this series that I’ll devote to a summary of the various benefits.
For some of us, myself included, a minimalist approach to footwear on a full-time basis may be beneficial. Since it’s not practical to go barefoot all the time (we may want to go to a restaurant sometime) a look at footwear that gives some or all of the barefoot benefits would be a good idea.
Within the context of this post I’m going to make a distinction between footwear that mimics the barefoot experience vs minimalist. In order to fit the “minimalist” definition, the shoe must be flexible throughout the sole and have a “rise” of no more than 7mm (about 1/4″). This seems to give many of the neurological benefits such as not interfering in normal gait muscle coordination.
I’m going to add some conditions to meet my definition of a “barefoot” shoe (please ignore the apparent contradiction of a “barefoot” shoe!). This is a shoe that will, basically, feel as much like walking barefoot as possible while still protecting your feet from stones, glass etc and win you admission to restaurants and other public places that require shoes.
A barefoot shoe has a heel that is on the same level as the ball of the foot without the small rise mentioned above. The sole is thin enough to allow you to feel the ground under your feet, all the nooks and crannies, almost as if you were barefoot. Most importantly, it has no cushioning in the heel. If you walk on a hard surface barefoot and land hard on your heel, it hurts! You should have the same experience in a “barefoot” shoe.
A barefoot shoe causes major changes in the way we walk and especially in the way we run. We’re forced to hit the ground with the mid-foot, take shorter steps and just brush the heel to the ground when walking. This engages your calf, abdominal and buttock muscles much more strongly than with “regular” shoes that allow you to land on your heels. One of the reasons that “barefoot” runners suffer fewer injuries is that they are running the way nature intended, engaging a whole series of shock absorber mechanisms that are bypassed with the modern athletic shoe and a heel-strike running style.
As you may remember, my first experiment with long-term use of minimalist footwear was with a martial art shoe (tiger claw shoes about $60) that I already had. These are sort of half way between minimalist and barefoot with a slight, 4mm rise, great flexibility and an uncomfortable heel strike on hard surfaces. They also have no arch support which forced my foot muscles to really work for the first time in decades. See my earlier post for the agonizing transition and my recommendation for starting with minimalist shoes.
My Tiger Claws are not really meant for outside wear and the sole was wearing down quickly on pavement. I also discovered that my left foot, which is a little bigger, was feeling cramped in the toe box especially when I walked very far using the increased flexion and toe push-off that’s needed for one type of barefoot gait.
After some checking around I found that most of the major athletic shoe companies were producing some kind of minimalist shoe. Since I’ve worn New Balance for years, I started with their “Minimus” line (around $100). There was no one locally who carried them so I ordered some online. I got two styles to try. Unfortunately, they were both too tight across the mid-foot. Many of these shoes are made to be worn without socks and that may have been the problem. Since I was looking for a shoe I could wear with socks, back they went.
The Vibram Five Finger shoe ($45-90) looks like a glove for your foot with a separate space for each toe. I’m not ready to wear something like this to the office but several of my patients think they’re great. This would probably be the ultimate “barefoot” shoe. They are available at several locations locally and on the internet. There have been some injuries reported, especially to the achilles tendon, from runners who didn’t go slow enough in their transition.
I found one place that sells the Merrel Trail Glove ($100 women, $110-120 men), a shoe that fits my definition of a barefoot shoe. Trade Home at Northpark Mall sells it and it should probably be called a foot mitten rather than a “glove”. It does “fit like a glove” though and is a bit snug if you’re not wearing thin socks. It can also be worn without socks. This is the shoe many of you have seen me wearing in the office for the past two weeks. It’s very comfortable, with plenty of room in the toe box. Of course the same transition period is needed no matter how comfortable the shoe is. The Trail Glove is very close to going barefoot. If you’re going to be walking over a lot of rocks, it may not give enough protection. The New Balance Minimus series has a somewhat thicker sole and a 4mm rise at the heel and may be more comfortable for some people.
Merrel also makes a “Mary Jane” style of minimalist/barefoot shoe for women ($99 at Trade Home). The women’s version of of the Trail Glove is called the Road Glove. Karen got one of each style and loves them as does Valerie (we got her a pair for mother’s day).
Terra Plana has a variety of minimalist and barefoot shoes from $110 to $175. Their barefoot models have a thinner sole than the Merrel Trail Glove so the same considerations when traveling over rocky terrain.
Nike has an interesting twist with their Nike Free line of running and walking shoes ($65-95). They have a much thicker sole than any of the other shoes I’ve talked about and achieve the needed flexibility by a series of grooves in the sole. I don’t think they qualify as “barefoot” because there’s too much padding in the sole but one of my colleagues likes them a lot.
So far I’ve talked about the medium to high end of the minimalist shoe line. There is also a low end that many of us are familiar with. Remember the old canvas “tennis” or “basketball” shoes we has as kids (speaking especially to “boomers” now)? Shoes like “Keds ($30-60), “Converse” (about $40) and
“PF Flyers” (about $50) are still around and qualify as minimalist. In fact several women patients have come in wearing Keds and I’ve complimented them on their “minimalist” shoes! There are several stores in the area that sell Keds for women but men will probably have to go online to find them. The official Keds site is the most expensive place to buy them and you can find Keds for about $20 less through other online retailers.
My daughter-in-law’s (that’s Valerie!) father introduced me to what may be the real low-end minimalist shoe. There’s a martial art shoe called the “Feyue” that is a lot like a canvas sneaker with a sole that’s good for wearing outside. I got a pair on Amazon for $15 plus shipping. They have a rounded sole that takes some getting used to and which, according to a review I read at: http://www.americanparkour.com/smf/index.php?topic=19437.0, should wear in pretty quickly. They have more room in the toe box that the converse shoes I tried. They’re not as comfortable as my Trail Gloves but I don’t want to wear the Trail Gloves for cutting grass and other yard work since the Trail Gloves are, for the moment, my “dress shoes”. For the price, you can’t really beat them but I suggest reading the above review before you buy.
This post has gone a bit longer than the previous ones. Can you tell I’ve been writing it in my head for the last two weeks? Hopefully this will give your some idea of where to look for minimalist/barefoot footwear across a good range of prices.