There have been numerous articles such as You Walk Wrong, Your shoes are killing you, and an excellent podcast by Peter Attia with Irene Davis from the Harvard/Spaulding Running Center which promote the benefits of going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes. Our feet are well engineered and actually do a better job at removing stress from knees and hips than cushioned shoes. Traditional shoes with heels forces you into an unnatural position which is more likely to result in injury. There are a number of experienced long distance hikers and ultra-runners who use minimalist sandals or trail running shoes, logging thousands of miles without injuries. If you have been using traditional shoes and want to give minimalist shoes a try, don’t rush it. Learn about proper form and transition slowly as you build the muscles to move in a new way.
I was born with deformed feet. I was in casts for the first couple years of my life and then custom orthotics until my 20s. I had significant problems finding shoes that were comfortable. When I ran more than a mile or walked more than 10 miles I would have knee and/or hip pain. In 2005 a coworker who was trained in the Alexander Technique encouraged me change how I walked and use minimalist shoes. The transition produced some soreness because I was using new muscles, but once I made the shift I found that my knee pain disappeared. As my strength and fitness improved I was able to carry my backpack for 45 miles on a long summer day and run a marathon without pain. Well, at least no pain in my knees or hip… my legs were sore for a couple of days after the marathon :). Since 2012 I yearly log around 1500 miles running, and 2500-4000 miles walking, hiking, backpacking. All of that with minimalist shoes or sandals. Other than some stubbed toes while wearing sandals or 5fingers, I have just one foot injury since I switched to minimalist shoes in 2005. That was a case of plantar fasciitis after a four month period of time that I was daily alternating between a sprint intervals and tempo runs of at least an hour with no rest days, and switching from a shoe that I had been wearing for more than a year (Merrill Vapor Glove) to a new shoe (Xeno Mesa).
The Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab has a lot of information about foot strikes and biomechanics. For example a paper about how Foot strike patterns and collision forces in runners were less with barefoot runners. It’s worth noting that a running stride is different from a walking/hiking stride. The book Born to Run tells the story of people who run barefoot (or in minimalist sandals) for their entire lives. Other studies have suggested that while running is more efficient on the balls of our feet, that walking with heel strikes is more efficient. Another interesting paper is on The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques.
Some people go fully barefoot not just when walking, but running, backpacking over terrain which many would expect to be painful. There are a variety of resources such as barefooters.org. barefootted.com, The Barefoot Hiker is free on the web or you can buy the physical book. I don’t have a lot to add on this topic because I don’t got barefoot except in my home and at the beach.
vibram fivefingers has been a cult hit. The soles of five finger shoes looks like the bottom of our foot, down to a separation between the toes. There is a nice beginner’s guide to five fingers for people getting started with these shoes.
There were many things I loved about wearing Five Finger shoes. The first was a sense of freedom, and the sensory experience on walking in them. I felt more connected to my environment. I felt more free. I also loved that I stopped getting blisters between my toes.
The major problem I found with Five Fingers was that I was regularly stubbing my toes. A more traditional shoe spreads the force of impact over all the toes making it much less lightly that one toe will be traumatized. There were some additional minor issues. The first was several members of my family teased be able how ugly the five fingers were. Second, they take longer to put on because you have to line your toes up. Finally. the original model used a mesh on the upper that let trail dust into the shoes. After an hour or so the dust would start to function like sandpaper forcing me to stop and clean off my feet. I found the Five Finger Spyridon addressed this problem. I used the Spyridon for trail running, hiking, and backpacking for several seasons.
The most minimal shoes are the classic, sole-less, suede moccasins. When I starting using minimalist shoes there weren’t many options. Besides moccasins the only choices were ballet slippers, track shoes, Feiyue shoes and the original Vivobarefoot tennis shoe. These might have been ok for walking around inside or around town, but all had serious traction issues in the back country.
I believe Inov-8 was the first company to make minimalist shoes specifically made for outdoor sports. These shoes had zero drop, thin soles and lot of flexibility. I went through 14 pairs of the Inov-8 Flyroc before switching to the Altra and Vivobarefoot shoes I now wear.
Today there are many options for minimalist shoes. Main stream companies like New Balance, Merrell and Nike have minimalist models. I have enjoyed running in the Merrill Vapor Gloves. Vibram has expanded from 5finger to the minimalist Furoshiki sneaker. There are several cottage manufacturers or start-ups like Xero Shoes, LEMs Shoes, and Soft Star that specialize in minimalist shoes. After Born to Run was published, there are a number of companies that started making minimalist versions of Huaraches sandals such as Earthrunners, Luna Sandals, Unshoes, and Bedrock Sandals
Carets even make a zero drop shoe (though not minimalist) that looks just like a classic dress shoe.