Despite fluctuations in the footwear industry (such as the relatively recent embrace of “maximalist” shoes by manufacturers), the interest in more minimalist footwear continues, with many consumers wanting to try something new and novel. More and more minimalist footwear companies are popping up, and many conventional shoe manufacturers are still offering “minimalist” models for the 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.” 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 no more (or no less) than a protective covering and ornamental dressing that allows your foot to function like a bare foot inside the shoe. In order for a shoe to do this, it must incorporate four very important design features that encourage optimal natural foot health and function. These four design features include:
A sufficiently wide toe box to allow for natural toe splay (i.e., no tapering toe boxes)
- A completely flat sole from heel to toe (i.e., no heel elevation or toe spring)
- A sole that can easily be bent or twisted in multiple directions
- An overall lightweight design
For a more in-depth review of what constitutes a foot-healthy shoe, please see our article entitled Definition of a Healthy Shoe. For a more thorough consideration of footwear features to avoid, please see our article entitled Problematic Shoe Design Features.
A Major Design Flaw Not Considered
Most minimalist shoes we’ve seen possess perhaps two or three of the key foot-healthy characteristics mentioned above, though, almost universally, manufacturers fail 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 properly splayed, especially during weight-bearing activities such as standing, walking, and running, means significantly reducing your chances of developing common—and sometimes debilitating—foot ailments, such as bunions, crooked toes, plantar fasciosis, and osteoarthritis.
Indeed, a true minimalist shoe takes into consideration normal, healthy foot anatomy and respects the fact that the widest part of your foot should be at the ends of your toes, not the ball of your foot. The gold standard for assessing toe box width in minimalist shoes is whether or not the shoe can accommodate Correct Toes toe spacers. Correct Toes gently realigns your toes in their normal anatomical position, which is in line with their corresponding metatarsal bones. If the shoe can accommodate Correct Toes without pinching or encroaching on your toes, then you can be reasonably confident that the shoe will help, not hinder, foot form and function.
SHOP CORRECT TOES
Effects on Gait & Foot Strike
A true minimalist shoe does not include any motion control “technology” that could interfere with the natural functioning of your foot, celebrates the inherent strength and integrity of your foot, and acts as a thin protective layer between you and the surface upon which you walk. A true minimalist shoe should also encourage healthy gait patterns during both walking and running, and it should help you step lighter too (i.e., the shoe should encourage a lower-impact midfoot or forefoot strike). A midfoot or forefoot strike helps your body better handle or disperse the forces associated with bipedal movement and will help preserve the integrity of your joints and other tissues.
Helpful Exercise: To better understand the impact forces that occur during walking or running and how they differ between conventional and minimalist shoes, try plugging your ears (with earplugs, ideally) and then going for a short jog, first in conventional athletic shoes, then in minimalist athletic shoes. You should notice or experience (via feedback through your ears) quite a difference between these two very different types of footwear, as they encourage radically different gait patterns and resultant impact forces. Conventional shoes almost always (and inevitably, due to their design) lead to a jarring heel strike, whereas minimalist shoes encourage a smooth, controlled, and gentle footfall. In minimalist shoes, you should feel your forefoot effortlessly seeking out the ground in front of you, and you should experience much quieter feedback through your plugged ear as you pad along.
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. One additional simple and helpful thing you can do when assessing minimalist (or other) footwear in person is to perform the Shoe Liner Test. This illuminating test will help you know for sure if a given shoe is wide enough for your foot and toes. Be sure to wear your Correct Toes while performing this test to get the most accurate results.
Some Examples of Foot-Healthy Minimalist Shoes
We at Natural Footgear feature a number of foot-healthy minimalist shoe options for men and women on our website. We want to share with you here some of our absolute favorites—ones that check off all the boxes when it comes to features or design elements we've found to be most beneficial in achieving optimal foot form and function. And here they are:
Lems Primal 2 Shoes
The Lems Primal 2 is one of the most comfortable shoes we have ever tried, and it meets all of our criteria for a truly foot-healthy minimalist shoe. With its flat and supremely flexible sole and generous toe box, the Primal 2 is a durable and versatile option for those hoping to achieve foot health naturally.
SHOP LEMS PRIMAL 2 SHOES
Xero Pacifica Shoes
The Xero Pacifica is an excellent example of a foot-healthy minimalist shoe. This attractive casual shoe has it all: A toe box that accommodates Correct Toes, a zero drop platform, a thin and flexible (yet sufficiently protective) sole, and a lightweight design. The Pacifica also possesses a wool-blend upper and moisture-wicking lining.
SHOP XERO PACIFICA SHOES
Ahinsa Bindu Bare Shoes
The Ahinsa Bindu Bare is a lightweight and minimalist casual shoe that's handmade in the Czech Republic using high-quality, regionally-sourced materials. Incorporating one of the widest toe boxes we've ever seen, the Bindu Bare is Correct Toes compatible and truly lets your toes roam free. This shoe also has a flat, flexible sole and low overall stack height.
SHOP AHINSA BINDU BARE SHOES
Xero Z-Trail Sandals
The Xero Z-Trail is a warm-weather minimalist sports sandal or “shoe” that’s perfect for a wide variety of activities, from hiking to running to camping to water sports. Featuring a flexible zero drop sole and wide footbed, the Z-Trail is a lightweight option for those who enjoy an open-toe footwear experience.
SHOP XERO Z-TRAIL SANDALS
Note: If you are planning to make the switch from conventional shoes to minimalist or minimalist-like shoes, we encourage you to read this article on how to safely and successfully make the transition.