In recent years, there has been quite a bit of development of the so-called “minimalist footwear”. While the definition of minimalist footwear tends to vary from user to user and from manufacturer to manufacturer, basically, any type of footwear that is designed to simulate, as close as possible, the experience of going barefooted by still providing an acceptable amount of insulation and protection from the environment (at least part, usually the soles) can fall into the category of “minimalist”.
If we think about it, the concept of minimalist footwear is not all that new. Thin-soled flip-flops and sandals with minimal strapping have been around for thousands of years. Thin-soled, close-toed shoes have been around for, at least, hundreds of years (moccasins, certain types of loafers, and the sort). More recently, we can all think of other examples of footwear that can fall into this category, like aqua-socks, martial arts slippers, among many others.
It seems to me like contemporary idea of minimalist footwear has developed as an evolution to two different trends:
- The relatively recent research and designs by footwear giants like Nike, Puma and Adidas, among others, which have been looking for ways to design footwear that allows human feet to perform in a more natural way, rather than having the traditional constraints of modern footwear.
- The recent proliferation of both the “barefooting” and “barefoot running” movements around the globe; which foster the concept that “less is more” when it comes to foot performance and comfort.
Nowadays, there is an increase in number of choices when it comes to minimalist footwear, which cater to a variety of activities and life styles. Among the most recognizable examples are the following
- Huaraches: Inspired in the type of hand-made sandals worn by natives in certain parts of Mexico – more specifically the “Tarahumara” tribe. “Huarache” is one of the Maya words for “sandal”. Certain “barefoot” runners endorse the use of these sandals when running on rough terrain or hot surfaces like asphalt. Traditionally made of thin leather soles and natural fibre straps, they are now marketed in North America using different natural and/or man-made materials. (https://barefootted.com/shop/)
- Vibram FiveFingers: These shoes can be basically described as “foot gloves”. They come in a variety of styles that are aimed to different indoor and outdoor activities, including hiking and running, with the peculiar distinction of having individual compartments for each one of the toes. The manufacturers claim this toe-compartmentalization help align the toes in a more natural way, as well as providing an opportunity for more natural foot ergonomics and motion. The thin soles are supposed to help the user re-gain the lost bio-feedback from other types of more traditional footwear. In the manufarcturer’s words: “the only footwear to offer the exhilarating joy of going barefoot with the protection and sure-footed grip of a Vibram sole.” (https://www.vibramfivefingers.com/)
- Vivo Barefoot: A line of footwear that features a wide toe-box, extremely thin soles and no arch support. The design focuses on providing ample room for the toes to avoid movement constraint, as well as allowing the wearer to feel the ground under the thin soles. These shoes are geared towards a casual lifestyle. Most models resemble walking sneakers and come in a variety of colours, from traditional brown and black, to more upbeat blue and green. (https://www.terraplana.com/vivobarefoot.php)
- FeelMax: A sporty line of shoes that seem to have a heavy design influence from martial arts footwear, such as karate and kung-fu shoes. Some of the features of these shoes are: lightweight (an average of 150g, according to the manufacturer), the “simulation” of the barefoot walking experience by allowing natural mobility through maximum flexibility, as well as sole bio-feedback by using very thin, yet resistant soles made of 1mm fabric called Continental-Contitec. (https://www.feelmax.fi/index.php)
My Personal Experience with Minimalist Footwear
Often times I’ve been asked my opinion about minimalist footwear. Considering myself a “barefooter”, while having a design background, added to the fact that I live in a place where year-round barefooting is virtually impossible, I must admit I have developed a love-hate relationship with minimalist footwear – as I have with most other footwear I wear and/or admire. In terms of “true” minimalist footwear (that is, the ones that are commercially promoted and publicly recognized as such), I’ve only had the chance to really try the Vibram Fivefingers, from which I’ve owned 3 different pairs so far: Classic, Sprint and Mocs. From that, somewhat limited experience, and the numerable reviews, and manufacturers’ summaries on the different models and brand (which I haven’t tried myself), I’ve drawn the following summary of what I consider the Pros and Cons of minimalist footwear – you will see some contradiction in some of these items, what can I say? Some of them are both a pro and a con, in my humble opinion.
Better than traditional footwear. Most of these shoes and sandals aim to promote the natural functioning of the human foot – therefore, also promoting, the strengthening and proper alignment of foot bones, muscles and ligaments, as well as having a positive impact on the rest of the body’s biomechanics and ergonomics.
Positive social awareness. I think the single most positive aspect of minimalist footwear is the amount of awareness they are promoting among the general public about the benefits of going barefooted. I’d hope that, with the increasing popularity of these types of footwear, people will have a more positive view of one’s choice of going completely barefoot.
Protection when necessary. Let’s face it, as much as being and going completely barefooted would be the ideal situation for some of us, there are times when even the most avid of barefooters, like myself, do feel the need to protect our feet and, of course, this is highly subjective. In my personal case, here are some examples of these kinds of situations:
- Cold temperatures – I’m talking outdoors for significant periods of time (10 more minutes) and in temperatures lower than 5°C / 40°F.
- Hot temperatures – I’m referring to being outdoors for significant periods of time (10 or more minutes) and with ground surface temperatures of 40°C / 104°F or more.
- Rough / gravely terrain – I’m more of a pavement and grass type barefooter, I don’t have the chance to develop my soles enough to go cross-country in my bare feet.
A good option for occasions where bare feet are not socially acceptable such as:
- Work – while I’m lucky enough to have the option to go barefoot almost all the time at work; there are times when footwear is called for.
- Formal social events like weddings, funerals, etc. – unless otherwise requested/approved by the event organizer, out of respect, I make a point to wear appropriate footwear on such occasions. The last thing I want to do is create controversy and discomfort at social event where I am not supposed to be the center of attention. Of course, the shoes come off as soon as the dancing starts at any wedding party!
- Commercial establishments and/or restaurants that request my use of acceptable footwear – I have better use of my time than arguing with staff about what is or is not on my feet.
Stylish. I must say, I’m impressed with most models of minimalist footwear out there. I think designers have done a good job at making these types of shoes visually appealing, as well as functional.
Transitional. Again, a highly subjective aspect and not something I experienced in my particular case. However, some claim these types of footwear allow them to have an easier transition between having worn traditional shoes most of their life and going completely barefoot.
Expensive. In most cases, minimalist footwear are very expensive with prices ranging from US$50, for a “do-it-yourself” kit to make your own huaraches, to upwards of US$160, for some of the Vivo Barefoot models. While these prices might be comparable to other types of footwear, most of these shoes use far less material than traditional footwear, thus bringing the manufacturing cost down. They are also lightweight; therefore, shipping should be more cost effective than with other types of shoes. Besides, I’ve read in several reviews that, because of the nature of these shoes (e.g. thinner sole and upper material), they tend to be far less durable than other footwear of similar price.
Hard to get in North America. With a few exceptions, most of these types of footwear are only available from the manufacturer’s or specialty distributor’s online stores. This, not only adds the cost of shipping and handling to the already high price of the items themselves, but it’s not the ideal way to purchase footwear. I don’t know about you, but I like trying shoes on before I make a purchasing decision.
Not the same as actually going “barefoot”. It doesn’t matter what manufacturer’s and reviewers say, minimalist footwear will never replace the simple and great pleasure of actually and really going barefoot for the following reasons:
- They still insulate one’s soles from the ground and, no matter how thin the shoe soles are, they will never replace the actual sensation of touching the ground with one’s bare soles because they muffle the feet’s sense of touch, the same way any pair of gloves do with one’s hands.
- They still constrain foot movement. No matter how well fitted they are and how flexible the materials can be, they still have an impact on how feet move and perform. In some cases, like in some of the Vibram FiveFinger models, they put unnatural pressure in some areas of one’s feet due to the way they are designed to stay on – elastic bands, etc.
Smelly. Like other types of footwear, minimalist shoes (not necessarily sandal types) are a closed environment; which promotes foot perspiration and, added to the fact that most of them are better worn without socks for better simulation of the “barefoot experience”, they can get rather “ripe” in a short period of time – this, despite manufacturers efforts to use materials that are meant to prevent such unfortunate situation.
Prone to promote fungal infections like athlete’s foot and onychomycosis (toenail fungus). Closed shoes of any kind provide an ideal environment (dark, damp and warm) for fungi of different kinds to thrive.
Perpetuation of anti-barefooting misconceptions such as:
- Bare feet should not be socially acceptable in public settings
- We need protection on our feet at all times
Interference with a true barefooted experience. This is a reflection of an unfortunate truth of our social environment: most people will sooner go for a commercial patch-like solution to a problem that should not exist in the first place, rather than trying the real thing. Moreover, certain people who are “on the fence” about trying real barefooting, tend to stop “halfway there” by adopting minimalist footwear as their choice in fear of lack of social acceptance or foot inadequacy (soft, soles, etc.). This year alone, I’ve met 5 “barefooters” who refuse to wear anything less than a pair of Vibram FiveFingers as soon as they step out of their house – one of them actually wears them at home all the time too! And they all declare they are satisfied with their level of “barefooting” and are not planning to change it.
Personally, I have come to see minimalist footwear as something rather practical: a nice option to have if I’m stuck in a situation where I need to wear something on my feet. Like any other item in the market, these types of footwear come with their own list of advantages and disadvantages and that is something I can work with, as soon as I recognize them. I can only hope the availability and price will improve with time so they will be more accessible in the near future.
I’ve also come to realize that, what bothers me about most minimalist footwear choices is the way they’re marketed and, therefore, viewed by large portions of the general public: as a “replacement” for barefooting. I’m sorry but the use of minimalist footwear is not something that can be compared to the actual, simple and natural pleasure of being completely barefooted; I can guarantee you that, after nearly 20 years of enjoying true “barefooting”.
So, I’d definitely recommend the use of minimalist footwear if you feel the need to protect your feet against potential environmental hazards. However, don’t be tricked into thinking that wearing these types of shoes will replace going barefoot… There is only one way for you to truly enjoy the benefits and pleasure of being barefoot: ditch your shoes!