The shift to more minimalist footwear has begun, and more and more companies are offering “minimalist” models for the growing subset of their customer base interested in less shoe. We welcome this change in mindset from the major shoe manufacturers, though we’re sometimes puzzled by what companies label as minimalist or “barefoot” shoes. If the goal of minimalist shoes is to allow the user a more barefoot type of experience, then most manufacturers are still not getting it right. Here’s why.
What's A True Minimalist Shoe?
A true minimalist shoe, according to our definition, is a protective covering and ornamental dressing for your foot that contains four very important design features that encourage optimal natural foot health and function. These four design features include:
1. A sufficiently wide toe box to allow for natural toe splay2. No heel elevation (i.e., a shoe that is completely flat from heel to toe)3. No toe spring (i.e., a shoe that does not possess a “toe ramp”)4. Soles that can easily be bent or twisted in multiple directions
A Major Design Flaw Not Considered
Most minimalist shoe models we’ve seen possess perhaps two or three of these key features, though, almost universally, manufacturers are failing to incorporate a sufficiently wide toe box into their minimalist designs. We can’t stress enough the importance of this design feature in supporting both short-term and long-term foot and lower extremity health. Your toes are absolutely crucial to proper foot function and health, and ensuring they are splayed properly (especially during weight-bearing activities such as standing, walking, and running) means significantly reducing your chances of developing common (and sometimes debilitating) foot ailments.
A true minimalist shoe takes into consideration normal, healthy foot anatomy, respecting the fact that the widest part of your foot should be at the ends of your toes, not the ball of your foot. And it eliminates any motion control “technology” that could interfere with the natural function of your foot. A true minimalist shoe celebrates the inherent strength and integrity of your foot and acts as a thin protective layer between you and the surface you walk upon.
Effects on Gait and Foot Strike
A true minimalist shoe should also encourage healthy gait patterns during both walking and running, and it should help you track lighter too (i.e., they should encourage a midfoot or forefoot strike). A midfoot or forefoot strike helps your body better handle or disperse the forces associated with bipedal movement (Note: Try plugging your ears and walking or running using a heel strike technique versus a midfoot or forefoot landing technique; you’ll see what we mean). If you shift from walking to running, you should feel your forefoot effortlessly seeking out the ground in front of you. In this scenario, using true minimalist shoes, heel striking may seem unintuitive, unnecessarily jarring, or both.
Actionable Steps You Can Take
We encourage you to use the information in this post when shopping for minimalist shoes. Look at the shoes using a critical eye, examining them based on the criteria we listed above. Handle the shoes, noting their flexibility and their potential for both comfort and performance. And most importantly, try on the shoes, if you can, to see how they feel on your feet during various types of weight-bearing activity. We at Natural Footgear offer a number of minimalist options for men and women in the Shop section of our website. If you are planning to make a switch from conventional shoes to minimalist or minimalist-like shoes, we encourage you to read this article on how to safely make that transition.