'Barefoot' shoe is a funny term, isn't it?
The odds are that sometimes over the past few years you have somehow came into contact with some sort of barefoot footwear. The terminology that distinguishes barefoot footwear from from regular footwear and what is called 'minimalist' footwear is all a little vague. For ease in this article, I will say that barefoot trainers are those that allow your feet to interact with the ground with less interference than regular shoes. To do this, they have flexible, thin soles and a small or zero height differential from heel to toe – this prevents the heel making contact with the ground prematurely which would alter the timings involved through the full stepping cycle.
Barefoot shoes have become all the rage these past five years off the back of lots of research that suggests that the shape of regular shoes has significantly changed the mechanics of the way we walk for the worse and also that the thickness and rigidity of regular shoes has decreased the amount of sensory feedback we gather through our feet from our environment. Decreased info through the feet means decreased info for the rest of us above and with this impoverished feedback from the floor, we lose our ability to respond to it with precision. It's a bit like asking a piano player to play wearing mittens. If they can't feel the keys, how good are they going to be?
If we decide to agree with the research which suggests that barefoot is the best way to be, why bother with shoes at all? After all, we are born without shoes and there are cultures all over the world that still go without shoes, right? Most of those cultures are based in environments with more natural terrain than ours. Earth is very different underfoot than our artificial road surfaces. Also consider that walking barefoot in these cultures is the norm meaning that adults have developed the capability to do it throughout their development meaning that the skin on their feet has adapted to be tougher than on a regularly shoed foot and also that the feet tend to be much more mobile and dextrous than a shoed foot with be. Barefooters will tend to have more voluntary control of their ankles and toes and the bones of the foot will be more mobile. With this lack of foot conditioning, it is wise for most people to use a thin shoe to give some protection to their relatively skill-less, hypersensitive soft feet. Plus, these 'specialist' shoes mean shoe companies can charge 'specialist' prices.
I have three types of thin, flexible barefoot shoe. Here are my thoughts on them.
Vibram Fivefingers – These trainers have separate compartments for your individual toes, making them look a little wild to some people but allowing for toe differentiation that has never before been possible in shoes (there are some other imitators on the market now). This gives you a unique opportunity to experience individual toe movement. I have only found this benefit to become apparent if I walk in them on uneven ground. These shoes do have a small heel elevation meaning that the heel still hits the ground a little before it would barefoot but are very thin and flexible giving you a good feel of the ground. The material between the toes can fray easily and unless you wear them with fairly expensive toed socks, they need ultra-regular washing. The individual toe compartments will not suit the shape of everyone’s feet and with a different fit from regular shoes anyway, I would recommend only buying after trying on. These shoes have helped me condition my feet to be much less hypersensitive and I enjoy the feel of the floor I get wearing them.
I will review my other pairs of barefoot trainers and their benefits tomorrow.
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