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 / year for decades without injuries. If you have been using traditional shoes and want to give minimalist shoes a try, give it a shot, but 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 and needed to stretch my Achilles tendon, 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 leg muscles were sore for a couple of days after the marathon :).
Since 2005 I yearly log around 2500-4000 miles walking, hiking, backpacking. Since 2012 I also have been yearly logging 1000-1500 miles running. All of that with minimalist shoes or sandals. Other than some stubbed toes while wearing sandals or 5fingers, I have just one foot injury.
I developed plantar fasciitis in 2020 when I pushed my feet too much. Over a four month period of time I:
- Ran >=6 miles everyday without any rest days, alternating between tempo runs and a workout which included 12 intervals of 90 second zone 5 efforts with 90 second zone 2 recovery. I shouldn’t have push so much, but every few days I watched my pace improve which was intoxicating: from a 10 minute mile tempo pace to less than a 7 minute mile.
- Switched from a shoe that I had been wearing for more than a year comfortably (Merrill Vapor Glove) to a new shoe (Xeno Mesa).
- Experimenting with carrying a 40lb rucking pack while running rather than just fast walking.
To recover I spend several months wearing a cushioned running shoes. Within a couple of months the actuate pain was gone, but my feet were still hurting, especially first thing in the morning. After six months I decided the cushioning wasn’t resolving the issue. I switched back to my minimal Luna Venado Sandals. Within a couple of months my feet were back to normal and I was able to start to run regularly. After a while I tried the Xeno Mesa again and noticed my feet were not happy. I am not sure why, but Xeno shoes (and sandals) soles just don’t work for me.
Why Minimalist / Bio Mechanism
There have been numerous articles such as You Walk Wrong (slightly questioned in Your shoes are killing you), Going Barefoot is Good for the Sole, Why You Should Spend Time Walking Barefoot Everyday, A Moderate Approach to Minimalist Shoes, 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.
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. 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. It’s should be noted that a running stride is different from a walking/hiking stride.
As I have read numerous studies I am convinced that people who grew up going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes are better off than people who grew up wearing traditional shoes. When properly trained, I think most people benefit from minimalist shoes when running. When walking, the benefits from barefoot / minimalist shoes aren’t as compelling for people whose feet have been constrained by traditional shoes for a few decades. The combination of weak muscles and limited toe splay might make it challenging to adapt and fully benefiting from minimalist shoes.
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, and The Barefoot Hiker. I don’t have anything to add on this topic because I don’t got barefoot except in my home and at the beach. There are numerous studies demonstrating that unshod and minimalist running involve different biomechanics from each other (examples here, here, here and here). While there’s not as much literature involving walking, the same appears to be true.
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 likely that one toe will be traumatized. There were some additional minor issues. The first was several members of my family teased me about 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, the martial arts oriented Feiyue shoes and Terra Plana which seem to be the predecessor of Vivobarefoot which made tennis shoe with a replaceable sole that zipper on/off. All of these shoes were ok for walking around town, but all had serious traction issues in the back country. My first minimalist shoe made by Terra Plana.
I believe Inov-8 was the first company to make minimalist shoes specifically made for outdoor sports. These shoes had zero drop, relatively thin soles and lot of flexibility. I went through 14 pairs of the moderately “heavy” Inov-8 Flyroc 310 before trying other trail running (and for me backpacking) shoes. Today I typically wear Luna sandals, but when I need shoes for rugged conditions I switch to Inov-8 Trailfly 270 which are zero drop, but with a 12mm stack aren’t exactly minimalist or Vivobarefoot Gobi II when I need to be dressed up.
These days there are lots of companies that make minimalist shoes which are sports / outdoor oriented. 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 – but I hear they are too narrow in the toes. Of course Vivobarefoot continues to make excellent 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.
There are a number of small manufacturers that also make shoes which are appropriate for more formal situations such as business meetings or a night out. Besides Vivobarefoot, I have tried LEMs Shoes, Soft Star, Tadeevo and Xero Shoes. Other shoes that would be worth a look include Ahinsa, Freet Barefoot, Joe Nimble, and Sense of Motion. Carets make a zero drop shoe (though not minimalist) classic dress shoe for men. Arcopedico makes some attractive minimalist shoes for women.