Barefoot vs. Minimalist style shoes vs. Conventional shoes – what is best for your foot?

Part 1 in the Minimalist Shoe Series
You can find Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 in their respective links!

I often get asked about why I workout barefoot and choose to wear Vivobarefoot shoes over other types of shoes. I wanted to dive into the research and explain some of the benefits and risks of running, walking, and lifting while barefoot. This will be done in a series of blog posts over the next month or so! Full transparency, I prefer to workout barefoot…I think it’s due to never really wearing shoes growing up with gymnastics and even going on barefoot walks around the neighborhood with my parents! I had been working out barefoot for forever, stumbled across Vivobarefoot, and fell in love!

When diving into the research, I found that most of it is on running and done on middle aged men and women. Further research is needed to see the effect on the elderly and with other activities such as lifting. Personally, although I love minimalist style shoes, like Vivobarefoot, I don’t think they are for everyone at all times! Just like other shoes, they have their time and place!


If you choose to purchase Vivobarefoot shoes, code LAURAK will give you 10% off (yes, it’s an affiliate link)!

When we look at populations who don’t wear shoes, they have distinct differences in foot structure. They have wider and flatter feet.1 When looking at populations that wear shoes, they have more variability in arch height (some very high, some very low, and some in between) and increased incidence of toe deformities (ex. hallux valgus – big toe crossing inward toward center of foot) likely due to the conventional shoe structure.1  

Populations that don’t wear shoes have wider and flatter feet, where as populations that wear shoes have increased incidence of toe deformities likely due to the conventional shoe structure.

Franklin et al 2015
Image from shoespiracy

Conventional shoes typically have a higher heel drop (difference in height between the heel and ball of the foot), higher arch support, more cushion, and a more narrow toe box.  Minimalist style shoes typically have minimal or no heel drop, minimal to no arch support, minimal cushion/more firm surface, and a wider toe box.  Minimalist style shoes are also significantly lighter than conventional shoes.

Minimalist shoeConventional Shoe
Lower heel dropHigher heel drop
Minimal to no arch support Higher arch support
Firm but flexible soleMore cushion
Wider toe boxNarrow toe box
Lighter shoe weightHeavier shoe weight
Original images posted here.

When walking barefoot, there is increased forefoot spreading, reduced step length, increased cadence (number of steps per minute), and reduced valgus moment of the hip (knee falling inward toward midline) compared to a conventional shoe.1  The differences between walking barefoot and in shoes was reduced when wearing more flexible, minimalist style footwear.1  Some of the changes observed when walking barefoot vs. in conventional shoes may be due to the weight of the shoe or from a change in the way you walk in order to modify shock absorption.  It is possible that reducing hip/knee valgus may be important in reducing the incidence or risk of knee osteoarthritis, although future studies are needed to confirm this.1  

Differences when walking barefoot vs. with a conventional shoe were not as drastic when comparing a minimalist style vs. a conventional shoe.

Barefoot walking shows improved knee control, which may be important in reducing the risk of knee osteoarthritis.

Franklin et al 2015

Ability to absorb shock through the foot is improved when walking barefoot vs. in a conventional shoe.

Franklin et al 2015

Barefoot walkers have flatter foot placement and reduced forces that are transferred from the ground to their foot (peak vertical ground reaction forces) when they make contact.1  This potentially demonstrates improved shock absorption abilities through the foot when walking barefoot vs. in shoes. 

It has been shown that the foot and ankle can change based on footwear.1  Wearing high heels more than 5cm high over two years can lead to reduced calf muscle length, increased achilles tendon stiffness, more plantarflexed (pointed) ankle at rest, and reduced ankle range of motion.1  Additionally, foot problems, such as hallux valgus, are increased in populations that habitually wear shoes. Such foot problems are significantly associated with reduced walking performance and increased fall risk.1

Just like other aspects of the body, the foot/ankle can adapt based on the demands placed on it. Conventional shoes may result in increased number of foot problems, which are associated with reduced walking performance and increased fall risk.

Franklin et al 2015
Orignal image posted here.

Arch supports in conventional shoes reduce the change in the medial longitudinal arch during walking which inhibits the windlass mechanism.1  The windlass mechanism is an important feature of the foot that helps to efficiently absorb forces and reduce foot stiffness in the toe off or push off phase of walking.  It is possible that conventional footwear places the foot into unnatural positions and limits normal foot function, which can contribute to weakness and change in foot structure over time. This further leads to an increase in arch related problems in populations that habitually wear shoes.1 

Conventional footwear may place the foot into unnatural positions that limit normal foot function, which can lead to weakness and change in foot structure over time.

Franklin et al 2015

Additionally, footwear hinders kinesthesia, or awareness of the foot/ankle position in space, in standing.1 However, this was not shown in walking or running.1 I personally have found that when hiking in traditional footwear, I can’t react to the ground as easily as when I’m wearing minimalist style shoes. I often end up rolling my ankle multiple times (not to the point of injury) when wearing conventional athletic shoes, but when wearing minimalist style shoes or hiking boots I notice, I don’t do this nearly as much. Although this is my personal experience, I’d be interested to see if there is reduced kinesthesia on unstable surfaces in conventional athletic footwear vs. minimalist style shoes vs. barefoot.

Footwear impairs the awareness of the foot/ankle position in space.

Franklin et al 2015

Overall, conventional shoes can change the foot over time in a negative manner. They hinder awareness of the foot/ankle position in space, decrease efficiency of specific functions of the foot, and may play a role in changes not only in the foot, but in the knee. Additionally, minimalist style shoes do not simulate barefoot walking as much as one would think, as they seem to resemble more of a conventional shoe when looking at walking biomechanics such as step length, etc.

If you’re interested in trying minimalist style shoes, I personally wear VivoBarefoot shoes (affiliate code, LAURAK gives you 10% off), but there are several other brands as well!

Let me know if you have any questions about any of the information shared with a comment below or shoot me an email at paradigmofperfection@gmail.com!

Citation of Sources:
1. Franklin et al. (2015). Barefoot vs common footwear: A systematic review of the kinematic, kinetic, and muscle activity differences during walking. Gait & posture, 42(3), 230-239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gaitpost.2015.05.019

Remember, no one is perfect, and that in itself is perfect!

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Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here. 

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