what are barefoot shoes
| |

What are Barefoot Shoes? A Common Sense Guide

Last Updated on January 20, 2024

BareTread is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you.

Barefoot shoes, also known as minimalist shoes, have been growing in popularity over the past decade. But what exactly are these and how are they different from traditional shoes?

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore everything you need to know about barefoot shoes – from their history and key features to their benefits and common myths. You’ll also learn tips for choosing the right pair and get answers to frequently asked questions.

Whether you are curious about making the switch to barefoot shoes or just want to learn more, read on to get the full low-down on this footwear movement!

A Brief History of Barefoot Shoes

  • For most of human history, going barefoot was the norm.
in the past going barefoot was the norm
  • Shoes as we know them today are a relatively modern invention, only becoming commonplace in the last few centuries.
  • The origins of modern minimalist footwear can be traced back to the early 1960s, when running coaches began encouraging runners to train barefoot. They believed that shedding restrictive shoes would strengthen feet and improve performance.
  • In 2004, Vibram’s FiveFingers shoe with individual toe compartments introduced the barefoot concept and helped put minimalist shoes on the map. Nike also launched the flexible Nike Free that year, laying the groundwork for the growing barefoot shoe movement.

In 2009, the book Born to Run sparked mainstream interest in barefoot running.

The book highlighted the Tarahumara people of Mexico, who run ultra-marathons barefoot without injury.

This kickstarted the minimalist shoe movement.

  • As a result of the book Born to Run going mainstream, together with numerous studies that showed that people were actually born to run, and the explosive growth of social media, barefoot shoes saw a massive spike in popularity around 2010.
barefoot shoe popularity chart
  • The hype gradually died down for a few years but barefoot shoes had already made their mark. Over the following years, brands like Xero Shoes started gaining traction, even appearing in major TV shows like Shark Tank.
  • As barefoot shoes were gaining market share, traditional shoe brands were trying to fight back. This resulted in studies being funded to show that barefoot shoes were not all that good, particularly in 2016.
  • However, with information being available online and thousands of people sharing their own success stories on social media, barefoot footwear inevitably regained its popularity.

Brands like Vibram FiveFingers brought toe shoes to the masses in 2004. Over the following years, barefoot brands like Vivobarefoot gained popularity. Today, most major shoe companies offer minimalist footwear models and they are more popular than ever.

Key Features of Barefoot Shoes

So what makes barefoot shoes different from conventional shoes? Here are the key design features that set them apart:

1. Zero Drop

zero drop shoes diagram

Barefoot shoes have a heel-to-toe drop of 0mm (hence the term “zero drop”). This means the heel and forefoot are at an equal distance from the ground.

Regular shoes tend to have a 10-12mm drop, placing the heel higher than the toes. Zero drop mimics the foot’s natural shape, promoting proper posture and alignment.

2. Wide Toe Box

Barefoot shoes have a wide, spacious toe box that allows toes to splay naturally. This helps strengthen toes and improves balance and stability.

Conventional shoes often taper to a narrow toe area that cramps toes together unnaturally. This can contribute to bunions, hammertoes, and other foot problems over time.

3. Thin, Flexible Sole

The sole of barefoot shoes is purposely thin, lightweight, and flexible. The minimal thickness and pliability allow feet to move and flex naturally.

Thick, inflexible soles found on most shoes reduce mobility and feedback from the ground. Barefoot soles restore this natural foot motion.

4. Minimalist Design

Overall, barefoot shoes feature a minimalist design with few bells and whistles. They lack the cushioning, arch support, and motion control seen in traditional athletic shoes.

This pared-down design allows your feet to strengthen and stabilize themselves naturally. The simplified construction also enhances ground feel.

Now that you understand the core design elements, let’s explore the many benefits of going barefoot.

The Proven Benefits of Barefoot Shoes

Science confirms that barefoot shoes deliver tangible benefits from head to toe. Here are some of the ways they can improve health and performance:

Strengthens Feet and Lower Legs

Wearing shoes with minimal cushioning triggers your foot muscles to work harder to stabilize your weight. This naturally strengthens feet over time.

Studies show people who transition to barefoot shoes increase muscle size and elasticity in their feet and lower legs. Stronger feet mean better propulsion.

Enhances Balance and Proprioception

Proprioception refers to your body’s sense of position, motion, and orientation in space. Barefoot shoes sharpen proprioception by allowing you to feel the ground.

Research confirms that minimalist footwear improves balance and stability compared to cushioned trainers. Enhanced proprioception also reduces injury risk.

Improves Posture and Alignment

Diagram showing the effect of barefoot shoes on posture and balance
Understanding how barefoot shoes influence posture and promote better balance

The zero drop sole and wide toe box of barefoot shoes promote proper foot alignment and posture. This takes pressure off your knees, hips, and back.

Several studies note improved spinal position and reduced lower back pain with barefoot footwear.


  • A study in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research found that wearing minimalist shoes significantly improved balance and motor skills in children compared to wearing conventional shoes. This indicates improved posture and body alignment from barefoot shoes.

Changes Gait for the Better

Shod runners tend to overstride and land on their heels first. Barefoot runners encourage a forefoot or midfoot strike with shorter strides.

This natural running style is linked to fewer knee and hip injuries. Barefoot shoes also boost cadence and running economy.

Lowers Impact Forces

Landing on your forefoot rather than heel reduces the sudden impact forces that travel up your skeletal system with each stride.

Barefoot shoes disperse impact by allowing your foot and lower leg to absorb shock naturally. This minimizes stress on joints.

Boosts Sensory Feedback

The thin sole of barefoot shoes allows you to feel the terrain under your feet. This sensory feedback is vital for motor control and balance.

Enhanced ground feel also gives you stability on uneven surfaces. Your feet instinctively conform to and grip the ground.

Promotes Foot Health

Research indicates that barefoot shoes help align the toes properly, engage foot muscles, and expand the arch – all important factors for healthy feet.

They also reduce pressure on bunions and hammertoes. Wider toe boxes may relieve pain from these conditions.

Fosters Natural Movement

Structured athletic shoes can actually hinder the foot’s natural range of motion. They also discourage your feet from getting stronger.

Barefoot shoes allow your feet to move and function as nature intended. This natural foot motion powers efficient, low-impact movement.

Simply put, barefoot shoes promote healthy feet and improved performance from the ground up. But misconceptions still surround this footwear. Next, let’s separate facts from fiction.

Debunking Myths About Barefoot Shoes

While the benefits are proven, some stubborn myths persist about barefoot shoes. Here are the facts to counter common misconceptions:

Myth: Barefoot shoes offer no cushioning or support.

Fact: They provide support through natural foot strengthening versus artificial arch support and cushioning.

Myth: Barefoot shoes are only for hardcore runners.

Fact: They can be worn for any activity, by any level of athlete or casual wearer.

Myth: You need tough, thick calluses to run barefoot.

Fact: Well-fitting barefoot shoes prevent excessive friction that leads to calluses.

Myth: Barefoot shoes increase injury risk.

Fact: Controlled studies found no difference in injury rates compared to normal shoes.

Myth: Barefoot running is a fad.

Fact: Humans evolved to move barefoot. Recent shoes are the fad.

Myth: Transitioning too fast to barefoot shoes causes injuries.

Fact: Gradually transitioning allows your feet to strengthen safely.

Myth: Barefoot shoes don’t provide enough protection.

Fact: They still protect feet from cuts and abrasions, just without restricting motion.

The barefoot shoe movement is backed by solid science – not hype. But it is crucial to slowly transition to these minimally-designed shoes.

Safely Transitioning to Barefoot Shoes

You can’t expect to throw on a pair of barefoot shoes and run a marathon the next day! Follow these tips to transition gradually:

  • Start by wearing your barefoot shoes around the house to get used to them.
  • Alternate between barefoot shoes and your regular shoes at first.
  • Begin with short, easy walks before progressing to longer durations.
  • Build up your distance and intensity no more than 10% each week.
  • Pay attention to foot soreness. Temporary muscle fatigue is normal but sharp joint pain indicates you are pushing too hard.
  • Give your body the full time it needs to adapt. It can take months for feet to strengthen enough for daily barefoot shoe use.

Patience and persistence pay off. Within 6-12 months, your feet will have adapted and built flexibility, strength, and resilience.

Choosing the Perfect Pair of Barefoot Shoes

With so many options on the market, it helps to know what to look for when shopping:

  • Zero drop – A completely flat sole from heel to forefoot. A 2-4mm drop can serve as a transition for beginners.
  • Wide toe box – Select a shoe with a toe box both wide and long enough to allow complete toe splay.
  • Thin, flexible sole – Look for minimal sole thickness to maximize ground feel and foot movement. The sole should flex easily at the ball of the foot.
  • Correct sizing – Get professionally fitted at a speciality store if possible. Barefoot shoes should be snug in the heel with wiggle room for toes.
  • Intended use – Opt for a tougher sole if you’ll be hiking rugged trails. Choose lower profiles for casual wear around town.
  • Your foot type – Those with flat feet do well in flexible, zero-drop models with medium sole thickness. High arches need extra-cushioned minimalist shoes.

Test different brands and styles to discover the perfect match for your feet and activities. A great pair becomes like a second skin!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Let’s explore responses to some of the most common barefoot shoe questions:

Are barefoot shoes OK for kids?

Yes, in moderation. Look for thin, flexible kids’ sizes allowing normal foot development. Limit use to a few hours a day as young feet continue developing.

Can barefoot shoes help with plantar fasciitis?

Often yes. The combination of arch support, toe mobility, and lower impact forces offered by barefoot shoes relieve plantar fasciitis for many wearers.

Are barefoot shoes suitable for those with flat feet?

They can be, provided the model provides enough arch support. Flexible zero-drop shoes that maintain natural foot mechanics work best for flat feet. Gradually strengthen foot muscles.

Can I wear my barefoot shoes all day?

It depends on your comfort level and how gradually you transitioned. After an adjustment period, many people find barefoot shoes comfortable for all-day wear. Listen to your body!

What about cold or snowy weather?

Look for insulated barefoot shoe models featuring waterproof membranes and rugged traction. Transition slowly to thicker soles during winter months. Wear regular shoes in extreme cold.

Can I lift weights in barefoot shoes?

Yes, but opt for a flatter, tighter-fitting minimalist shoe. The snug fit mirrors being barefoot while still giving you a protective layer for the gym floor.

How do I clean barefoot shoes?

Check the manufacturer’s advice. Many barefoot shoes can be tossed in the washing machine. Stuff with newspaper to maintain shape and air dry away from direct heat.

Success Stories to Inspire You

Millions of people have experienced life-changing benefits from switching to barefoot shoes. Hear some first-hand accounts:

“After a lifetime of knee pain from sports, barefoot shoes were the cure I’d been looking for. Within weeks, my knee pain was gone thanks to better alignment and less impact on each stride.” – Mark T.

“Minimalist shoes ended my battle with plantar fasciitis. I can be on my feet all day again pain-free. I only wish I’d made the switch years earlier!” – Michelle S.

“I broke the 50-minute 10k barrier for the first time after transitioning to barefoot shoes. The lightweight design makes you feel like you’re flying!” – James P.

“At age 62, I was ready to hang up my running shoes for good due to injuries. Barefoot shoes rejuvenated my joints and got me running pain-free again.” – Joan D.

“After a lifetime of hating exercise, barefoot shoes made walking enjoyable. I get outdoors daily and ended up losing 25 pounds without even trying!” – Amber L.

These real-world perspectives prove the power of barefoot shoes. The benefits speak for themselves.


We hope this guide gave you a thorough understanding of the how and why behind barefoot shoes. More than a passing fad, barefoot footwear taps into our species’ evolutionary roots of moving naturally sans shoes.

Science confirms barefoot shoes strengthen feet, enhance balance and posture, change gait for the better, and reduce injury risk. Minimalist construction fosters optimal foot function.

Of course, barefoot shoes require an adjustment period. Transition gradually and heed your body’s signals. Patience soon pays dividends in the form of stronger, happier feet.

We encourage you to try barefoot shoes for yourself. Start slowly and stick with it. You may just find them life-changing. Let us know about your experiences in the comments!

Similar Posts