Education FAQ

Barefoot Shoes FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Barefoot Shoes 

October 17, 2022
Barefoot Shoes FAQs

A comprehensive guide to your frequently asked questions about barefoot shoes.

Learning about barefoot shoes can be overwhelming at first. Often times, it means questioning principles we believed to be true our whole lives, like all shoe must have arch support or that flexible shoes are bad for you. I’ve put together these frequently asked questions from all of the DMs and comments I’ve received, so it’s a great place to start if you’re interested in learning more about barefoot shoes.

This FAQ begins with the fundamental questions about barefoot shoes and tips for picking your first pair, and moves into more specific questions like where to find wide toe box cleats or steel-toed boots.

If you don’t see a question on this list that you’d like answered, please leave a comment at the end of this post.

I. Intro to Barefoot Shoes  

Think of this section as Barefoot Shoes 101.

1 What are barefoot shoes? 

Barefoot shoes or minimalist shoes are terms used for shoes that let us walk and move like we do when we’re barefoot. The shoes have a very minimal structure, and they aren’t changing our natural way of movement and walking gait. Here are the main attributes of a barefoot shoe: 

  • Wide, naturally shaped toe box 
  • Flat, meaning there is no heel drop. Most shoes have a raised heel. This is often referred to as zero drop when people are talking about barefoot shoes. 
  • Flexible, so the foot can move naturally 
  • Thin sole. This helps the shoe be more flexible and provides better ground feel, so we have better awareness of how we are walking. It’s hard to get the proper feedback from our feet if we have so much cushion. It may take time to get used to thinner soles, so a transitional minimalist shoe may have a bit thicker sole for those that aren’t ready for a thin sole yet. 

2 What are transitional barefoot shoes? 

A transitional shoe is usually meant as a shoe that has many of the barefoot shoe attributes, but typically has a thicker sole to help those that are starting to switch from conventional shoes to barefoot shoes. Most of us have spent our whole lives in conventional shoes with very thick, cushy soles, so it can be a lot to ask our feet to give that up so quickly. If you are just starting on your transition, the most important characteristics of a healthy shoe are a wide, foot-shaped toe box, and a flat, reasonably flexible sole. 

3 Why do people wear barefoot shoes? 

Many people find barefoot shoes after a search to resolve foot pain or in an effort to live more naturally and in-tune with their body.  

I wear barefoot shoes because they are comfortable and they help my whole body feel so much better. I’m speaking for myself here, but I’ve talked to so many people who feel the same. I found barefoot shoes after a long search for more comfortable hiking shoes and boots. I was mostly tired of my toes constantly feeling squished and my feet feeling achy and sore. When I found barefoot shoes, I realized that most conventional shoes are not foot-shaped, so we’re spending hours and hours every day re-shaping our feet which leads to a lot of problems. Add in elevated heels that throw off our natural alignment, arch supports that immobilize our feet, and stiff soles that limit our natural movement, and we end up with weak feet and the rest of our body working to compensate for all of these issues. 

4 Does research support barefoot shoes? 

Research shows that people that go barefoot or wear shoes that have a wide, anatomically shaped toe box and thin, flat and flexible soles develop less foot-related problems and pain, and develop stronger, more functional feet compared to those that wear conventional shoes that feature restrictive toe boxes, cushion, heels, and support. The shoes that feature the minimalist characteristics listed first are commonly called barefoot shoes. 

For a well-researched book on barefoot shoes, check out “Whole Body Barefoot, Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear” by Katy Bowman. Her book references over 40 research articles, so this is a great place to start. 

Here are a few others studies for further reading: 

The effects of habitual footwear use: foot shape and function in native barefoot walkers

Summary: The evolutionary history of humans shows that barefoot walking is the biologically natural situation. The use of footwear remains necessary, especially on unnatural substrates, in athletics, and in some pathologies, but current data suggests that footwear that fails to respect natural foot shape and function will ultimately alter the morphology and the biomechanical behaviour of the foot. 

Conclusions drawn from a comparative study of the feet of barefooted and shoe-wearing peoples

Summary: The relative lengths of the foot and its component parts are practically the same in barefooted and shoe-wearing races. Its form, functions and range of voluntary and passive motion are the same in both up to the time of shoe-wearing, after which progressive characteristic deformation and inhibition of function ensue. 

Daily activity in minimal footwear increases foot strength 

Summary: This study shows that foot strength increases by, on average, 57.4% (p < 0.001) after six months of daily activity in minimal footwear. The experienced group had similar foot strength as the post intervention group, suggesting that six months of regular minimal footwear use is sufficient to gain full strength, which may aid healthy balance and gait. 

Motor Skills of Children and Adolescents Are Influenced by Growing up Barefoot or Shod

Summary: The results emphasize the importance of footwear habits for the development of motor skills during childhood and adolescence. Regular physical activities without footwear may be beneficial for the development of jumping and balance skills, especially in the age of 6 to 10 years. 

5 Are barefoot shoes comfortable?

The short answer is, “yes!” The longer answer can be a bit more complicated. A wider toe box is immediately more comfortable as you’re no longer squishing your toes. A thin, flat and flexible sole will ultimately be more comfortable as you strengthen your feet and return to a natural walking gait. But as many of us have weak feet as a result of the altering features of conventional shoes (like a lot of cushion, arch support, ankle support, raised heels), there may be a transition period where you experience some discomfort. Read a more thorough explanation here.

6 Do barefoot shoes have arch support? 

Barefoot shoes do not have arch support. A flat sole means no raised heel, no toe spring, and no arch support. Barefoot shoes are based on the idea that our feet are meant to be functional all on their own. While things like support and cushion may have a time and place for certain people, a typical healthy foot should be able to walk barefoot without any issues.

7 What does zero drop mean?  

A zero drop sole means it is the same thickness from heel to toe; essentially no drop or change from the height of the heel. Our bodies are meant to stand flat on our feet. When we wear shoes with a heel drop, it’s like we’re constantly standing and walking on an incline.  

Heeled shoes date back over a millenia wide wide ranging purposes – in the 10th centry, Persian calvary used heeled shoes to hook into the stirrups. Heeled shoes have been used to signify a number of different things including social status, wealth, and taste in fashion. 

Prior to the 1970s, running and athletic shoes were flat. Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike, introduced the wedge in his running shoes to accommodate the growing population of people that were interested in recreational running that had no training in proper running technique, and were accustomed to wearing heeled dress shoes. Therefore, these heels were an accommodation to make poor form more comfortable, not a healthier option. As Nike’s popularity grew, so did many of its design features, including the wedge heel in athletic and running shoes, which is why so many have them today. 

8 What is a toe spring? 

When a shoe curves upwards at the toes, that’s called a toe spring. This toe spring is usually there to counteract a stiff sole, making walking easier and more comfortable. However, this comes at a price, which is usually weaker feet and the potential to cause common foot problems including plantar fasciosis (this is often times incorrectly called plantar fasciitis).  

For further reading, see the study “Effect of the upward curvature of toe springs on walking biomechanics in humans” published in Nature. 

9 Can I wear socks with barefoot shoes?

Yes, you can definitely wear socks with barefoot shoes. Barefoot is more in reference to how the shoes let us walk and move as if we were barefoot. Since you want to take advantage of all the room a barefoot shoe has for your toes, try to avoid tight socks that may squeeze or restrict the toes. If you are going to wear socks, I’d recommend toe socks, or socks with a wider toe box. Here are some good options: 

Knitido+ Toe Socks (KELLY20 for 20% off)  

Feelgrounds toe socks or wider toe box socks 

BeLenka wider toe box socks (KELLY5 for 5% off) 

II. Can I wear barefoot shoes? 

Are barefoot shoes good for most people? 

Our feet were made to walked unassisted, so if you can walk barefoot, then you can wear barefoot shoes. If you have been wearing cushioned and supportive shoes for a long period of time (like most of us have), then it may take time to build the muscles in your feet back up to wear you can walk in barefoot shoes all day. Overall, most people see an improvement in their foot health when they wear barefoot shoes as part of a holistic approach to more functional feet. 

Some people may have specific health issues that need to be addressed with external support. If you’re interested in speaking with a medical practitioner more focused on natural solutions about transitioning to barefoot shoes, here are a few that offer virtual consultations: @foundationsptofwny; @doctorark.dpm; @gaithappens; @theplantarfasciitisdoc 

2 Are barefoot shoes good for people with flat feet? 

Feet come in all shapes and sizes. According to this study, the longitudinal arch height does not predict either pain or dysfunction. So essentially, it’s not the appearance of our arch we should be looking at, but whether you feel pain or experience dysfunction.

Flat feet or low arches can sometimes be a sign of weaker arches. This study found a higher prevalence of flat feet in those that wore shoes earlier and for longer. Barefoot shoes give your feet the opportunity to build the strength back up, in which case many see an improvement in the strength and shape of their arches. 

3 Can I wear barefoot shoes all day on concrete or hard flooring? 

This is a common question from people in the health care industries like nurses that work 12-hour shifts. It may take time to get to the point where your feet are comfortable going long periods without cushion. There are a range of minimalist shoes, some of which have a bit more cushion that still feature wide toe boxes and zero-drop soles. Some of the most popular are Altras and Lems. You can find more info about them in this post here. 

4 Will barefoot shoes help my bunions? 

Bunions, or hallux valgus in medical terminology, is one of the most common forefoot deformities. One of the most repeated misconceptions about bunions is that they’re completely genetic and unavoidable.  

Some people may be more likely to develop bunions based on inherited traits, like foot shape and structure. So, out of two people wearing the same tight, narrow toe box shoes, only one may develop a bunion because they have a wider foot. The genetic foot-shape isn’t the problem, but that fact that they’re being squished into a shoe that’s too narrow. Shoes with a wide toe box are both a preventative measure and the best treatment once you do develop a bunion.  

If you’ve already started to develop bunions, barefoot shoes, along with things like toe spacers and foot/toe exercises can help. In some severe cases, surgery may be needed, but that should be a last resort.  

III. Getting started with barefoot shoes 

1 Tips for picking a first pair of barefoot shoes 

Transitioning to barefoot shoes is not just a commitment of time and effort, it can also be pretty expensive. Start with a type of shoe you wear most often, and then continue to replace your shoes one at a time. For me, that was a pair of casual sneakers, but it may be something different for you. 

I hardly ever bought shoes online before transitioning to barefoot shoes. Why – because the sizing and shape of each brand is so different, it’s really hard to get that perfect fit without trying them on first. The same goes for barefoot shoe brands, they vary in sizing and fit. The goal of my barefoot shoe reviews is to make ordering online easier, and for you to be able to find a great fit on your first try. Here’s what I’d keep in mind when ordering your first pair: 

  • Measure your feet to determine the correct size. Sizing varies from brand to brand, so it’s best to get an accurate foot measurement and compare to the size chart for each shoe. You can read how to measure your feet here. 
  • Shipping/returns policy: I’d opt for a shoe that has reasonable shipping rates and return policy. If you can’t return a shoe, there is a pretty active resell market on Facebook with over 20K members, so you’ll likely be able to sell them if you keep them in like new condition.  
  • Consider sole thickness. While you can go straight to the super thin soles and build up from there, it may be helpful to have a slightly thicker sole to start off with, or an option to add a flat insole to a barefoot shoe for slightly more cushion. Here is a list of barefoot beginner brands, and here is a list of insoles. 

2 How do I transition to barefoot shoes? 

We’re all starting with different histories and completely unique feet, so transitioning to barefoot shoes will look and feel different for everyone. If you’ve already been spending a lot of time barefoot, you may find the transition easy. If you’re more reliant on external support or intervention, it will likely take more time and effort. It’s important to listen to your body and feet through the process and go at your own pace.

Like with any health transition, you usually can’t expect results from making just one change. If your goal is healthy feet, barefoot shoes are one piece of the puzzle. As part of your transition, I also recommend adding these daily habits (here’s a quick video too):

1 Spend as much time as you are comfortable barefoot. This includes walking barefoot outside (it can just be your yard or at the park) over lots of different types of textures and terrain. Each foot has over 20 muscles and 7,000 nerve endings, so we need to wake them up! 

2 Spread your toes. You can do this manually be places your fingers between your toes and giving them a stretch, or wearing toe spacers like Correct Toes. The goal is to reteach your toes the correct alignment.  

3 Work on your toe mobility. Stand up with your feet flat on the floor, and focus on just lifting your big toe, while your little toes stay on the ground. Switch off and do this with your little toes, while your big toes stay on the ground. You can help your toes with your hands at first to help them learn the movement. This exercise can be really hard for some at first because our toes are so used to be crammed tight together and not moving. The more you do it, the easier it will get! 

4 Incorporate other movements into your day, like squatting and balancing. I try to squat more instead of sit in a chair, and incorporate more balancing into my regular exercise or just to give myself a little challenge. 

5 How do I measure my feet for barefoot shoes? 

The easiest and most accurate method I’ve used to measure my feet for shoes is the wall method. Measure both feet, as usually one is a few centimeters longer than the other. The best time to measure your feet is typically at the end of the day, when they are at their largest. 

1 Measure your feet on hard, flat flooring that meets a wall. Place a piece of paper against the wall.  

2 Place the heel of your foot against the wall and set it on the piece of paper. Place something straight and about an inch or so high (like a thick, hardback book) at the end of your longest toe. This will usually be your big toe or your second toe. Mark the line where the book meets your toe.  

3 Measure from the wall to the mark. I typically measure in centimeters as it’s a smaller unit of measurement and many barefoot shoe companies list insole measurements in cm.  

4 Repeat for the second foot. Use the longer measurement for your size reference.  

5 Add about 0.5cm to 1.2cm to your foot measurement to determine the correct insole length. I almost always add 1.2cm for closed toe shoes, but may use closer to 0.5cm for sandals. For example, with my 23.3cm foot measurement, I look for closed-toe shoes with an insole length around 24.5cm.  

See a more detailed guide here.

Studies Cited in this FAQ

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