Whether you’re an aspiring barefoot runner or just want to get in touch with your own feet, “barefoot” shoes are an excellent option for strengthening your legs and improving tactility. Here, we outline some of the best in minimalist footwear.
There are plenty of articles out there about why, as a trail runner, you should try barefoot shoes. But, if you’re not a runner, should you even bother? Well, sure!
Not Just for Trail Runners
We’ve spoiled our feet with modern shoes. Thick soles and arch support have made our feet soft and weak—we seem to think our feet can’t touch the ground without being injured. Modern footwear encases our feet like armor.
Throughout much of human history, our ancestors wore simple shoes with minimal support, like sandals or leather socks with some extra layering at the sole. They also wore things like kilts, tights, and three-quarter length pants. Why? Because they wanted to show off the impressive calf muscles they developed walking around and not wearing overbuilt shoes.
For us, making the switch to minimal shoes presents a bit of a learning curve. Without the shock absorption of a thick heel, you’re forced to take advantage of your natural shock absorption mechanisms: ankles, toes, and foot muscles, rather than just landing on the heel bone and letting that shock ride up into your knees and back.
But the challenge is the benefit. You’ll use your feet more, make your legs stronger, and absorb the impact where it was meant to go (your muscles), rather than where it tends to be absorbed now (by our shoes, bones, and joints). Wearing barefoot shoes even when you’re walking around town can strengthen your legs. You’ll also feel nimble enough to hop over a candlestick, and every other shoe will feel like a ski boot in comparison.
Everyone is different, though. If you’ve had problems with your feet, consult with someone who has spent seven years at foot school before donning minimalist shoes. You’ll also find out what your dog already knows: pavement’s not as fun to walk on as dirt and grass.
Interested in giving barefoot shoes a try? Here are some of the top contenders.
Best Premium Shoe: Merrell Vapor Glove 3 ($50-$150)
While not the newest iteration of this line, the Merrell Vapor Glove 3 is, perhaps, the most popular, upper-end barefoot, single-toe shoe out there. It’s been successful enough to come with different material options (cotton or mesh), and a Vibram sole with a low profile that rises just high enough at the front to protect your toes from stubbing on a root, the sidewalk, or some other terrible thing.
The fact that these are top sellers means they also come in a range of colors. This is great because, sometimes, athletic shoe manufacturers only give you a khaki or safety-vest yellow option, forcing you to choose the lesser of two evils.
The downside of this shoe (and most with minimal construction) is even the higher-end brands tend to fall apart from normal use. We’re not sure what the fix is for this (make the mesh out of spider silk?), but it’s consistent with shoes that aren’t as overbuilt as those to which we’re accustomed.
Best Budget Shoe: FITKICKS ($20-$25)
Are the Merrell’s too rich for your blood? Well, these FITKICKS cost much less. Rather than going for the cross-trainer look, they’re more like the Vans Old Skool slip-ons of barefoot shoes. They’re super simple, and there’s only one model, but it comes in a variety of colors and patterns.
They look a bit like water shoes or slippers that near-future spaceship crews might wear around the artificial habitat.
But don’t let their unassuming, simplistic design and low price fool you: Garrett Busch at breakingmuscle.com says his first pair lasted 900 running miles, and he’s also used them successfully for a half-marathon. So, they’re serious running shoes if that’s what you need. Busch also notes that these shoes force you to abandon flaws in your walking or running forms, as you can really feel the ground through them.
FITKICKS also come in both men’s and women’s sizes.
Best Five-Finger Shoe: Vibram KSO ($55-$90)
This list wouldn’t be well-rounded without including a pair of the somewhat more divisive, five-finger-style barefoot shoe. To the uninitiated, these odd-looking foot-gloves are the poster-shoes of the barefoot running zeitgeist.
When Vibram isn’t busy making soles for Merrell, it makes its own shoes. Perhaps their most iconic creation is the FiveFingers line. The KSO is one of the more contemporary FiveFingers models. It boasts the kind of snug fit you only find in a shoe that lovingly embraces each toe in mesh and rubber. Why not give each of your toes some privacy?
However, FiveFingers are a preference thing. It’s hard to quantify what advantages you get over a single-toe shoe. You either love the idea and feeling, or you don’t. If you love it, then the Vibram KSOs are a good bet, and they’re available for both men and women.