There are all kinds and types of shoes out there; running shoes, tennis shoes, sandals, hiking boots, flats, high heels, dress shoes…. But have you heard of minimal shoes?
You might not see them at Sport chek or The Running Room and you might not see your favourite celebrity showing them off on the red carpet. BUT you just might see me wearing them! I recently got my first pair of minimal shoes!
So just what are minimal shoes?
They are just that, minimal. They are also sometimes called ‘barefoot shoes’. They are made to protect your feet form cuts, the cold and other weather and harsh terrain; that’s all. These shoes don’t have memory foam insoles, arch support, cushioning, tapering toe box or heel drop. You could say that minimal shoes are foot shaped not shoe shaped.
If you look at the shape of the toe box of your shoe, it most likely does not resemble the shape of your foot. Does your shoe gradually or sharply come to a point? Do your toes also do that? Probably not. The traditional shoe can force our foot into shapes that are not necessarily its natural shape.
Can you spot the minimal shoe?
There are a few key features that make a shoe a minimal (or barefoot) shoe:
1. Heel-to-toe drop
The heel-to-toe drop is the difference in millimetres between the height of the sole in the forefoot vs the heel of the shoe. Minimal shoes have a zero drop, meaning there is no difference between the height of the heel vs the height of the forefoot. Hmmm…sounds like our feet!
A traditional running shoe could have an 8-14mm drop. A shoe can be classified as a ‘low profile’ shoe if it has a 4-7mm drop but a true minimal or barefoot shoe has zero drop.
In terms of your body, wearing shoes with a higher heel-to-toe drop can chronically shorten your calf structures including muscles and tendons. This can affect your range of motion in your ankles which can affect other things up the chain of your body.
2. Stack height
The stack height in the overall height of the sole. Minimal shoes have a very thin sole. Why does this matter? We have thousands of nerve endings in our feet (just like our hands) that provide our brain with sensory feedback from the ground. Traditional shoes with a thick sole can absorb all that needed information, keeping it away from your feet and your brain! Shoes with thinner soles allow you to get all that good information from the ground and then adapt accordingly. The information your feet are gathering helps with postural stability and dynamic gait patterns.
3. Toe box
The toe box is the part of the shoe where your toes are. Like I mentioned before, traditional shoes tend to have a tapered toe box. This tapering pushes the toes together to make them shoe shaped rather than foot shaped. In a minimal shoe, the toe box is wide, giving the space for the toes to play! They have the room to splay, and recoil to stabilize the body.
Our feet are the base of our body! When our toes are forced together, they aren’t able to do what they naturally do to be a stable, reactive base.
4. Lightweight and flexible
When we walk barefoot, you may notice just how much our feet bend, twist, balance. And then we put on stiff shoe with little flexibility that restricts this natural movement. Minimal shoes are lightweight and very flexible. You could even roll them up! You might even forget that you are wearing shoes when you have minimal shoes on.
Don’t just take my word for it. Let’s see what the research says:
In a study in 2020, Cudejko et al. looked at the effects of minimal shoes on stability and physical function in older people. They found that compared to the conventional shoe, the participants were more stable during walking and standing in minimal shoes and were able to complete timed-up-and-go (TUG) test faster when wearing the minimal shoe with wider sole. The TUG test assesses mobility in older people. The researchers concluded that ‘wearing minimal shoes might be more beneficial for stability and physical function in older adult than wearing conventional shoes.’
You might draw from this study that if the participant was more stable, they may also have a decreased risk for falls! Wow!
In another study in 2014, Miller et al. looked at the effect of minimal shoes in arch structure and intrinsic foot muscle strength. This study focused on endurance running with minimal vs standard shoes. What they found was that there was an increase in volume of the flexor digitorum brevis muscle regardless if the participant wore the minimal shoe or the standard shoe. But only those who wore the minimal shoes had significant increased volume in the abductor digiti minimi and significant increase in the longitudinal arch stiffness. Based on their findings the researchers concluded ‘endurance running in minimal support footwear with 4mm offset or less makes greater use of the spring-like function of the longitudinal arch, this leading to greater demands on the intrinsic muscles that support the arch, thereby strengthening the foot.’
Just by wearing minimal shoes, participants’ foot strength improved. You might say that the minimal shoe created an environment that encouraged the foot to work and use the muscles where the standard shoe prevented this.
Check out this YouTube video called ‘Shoespiracy’ In this 5 minute video they talk about the evolution of footwear and where we are now.
Doesn’t that all just sound so fantastic??? Really feeling your feet and the ground, having a strong base for your body to move and live! Should you go throw out all your shoes and go out and buy minimal shoes immediately? Is the best shoe for every person a barefoot/minimal shoe?
Some feet do need the increased support from shoes. This need can change over time.
Going from a high support shoe to a minimal shoe can be a big leap. If your feet have been in traditional high support shoes for many years, they have not had to work too hard as the shoe did some of the work for them.
Here are some tips for setting your feet up for success and building that fantastic base for your body!
- Try going shoeless as much as you can. Work on increasing your time without shoes.
- Spend some time barefoot on the earth. This sometimes is called grounding. Walking, standing and being on grass, sand, gravel, rocks, etc will give your feet more sensory input. Sensory input is delivered to our feet through vibration. Unnatural ground like cement, vinyl etc don’t vibrate as readily as natural substances like the ground.
- Try exercises like 1. While sitting, spread your toes apart using the muscles in your feet. 2. While sitting with your foot on the floor, lift only your toes off the floor and spread them apart. Place your toes back down on the floor trying to keep them as spread out as possible. 3.keep all your small toes on the floor and try to lift only your big toe. 4. Keep your big toe on the floor while lifting all your other toes.
- Lastly, try a ‘low profile’ shoe that has a small heel-to-toe drip and small stack height. This is a good alternative if your not quite ready for a true minimal shoe.
It’s never too late to start working on your feet! Your feet are very important and are often forgotten about! Give your feet some love!
Tomasz Cudejko, James Gardiner, Asangaedem Akpan, Kristiaan D'Août, Minimal footwear improves stability and physical function in middle-aged and older people compared to conventional shoes, Clinical Biomechanics, Volume 71, 2020.
Elizabeth E. Miller, Katherine K. Whitcome, Daniel E. Lieberman, Heather L. Norton, Rachael E. Dyer, The effect of minimal shoes on arch structure and intrinsic foot muscle strength, Journal of Sport and Health Science, Volume 3, Issue 2, 2014.
Carrie Doll Kinesiology provides in-home exercise therapy. Services include senior wellness & falls prevention, neuro rehab and Fascial Stretch Therapy. Service area includes Kitchener, Waterloo, St. Jacobs, Elmira and Conestogo.