Shoes

For a while, I enjoyed and learned a lot from going barefoot more often. The information below and the shoe reviews come from that period of time when I was wearing less traditional shoes and sandals. Now in 2019, I’m enjoying wearing sneakers and running shoes with more cushioning. The zero drop shoes don’t work as well for me at this point. This was difficult for me to accept. I know in my bones that barefoot is best. I also know that I’m unwilling to move slowly and with care across our concrete landscape. My body feels better when I’m walking and running in shoes that have a bit of cushioning and lift, though I still prefer a wide, flexible shoe. Wearing shoes that feel good is a part of self-care. An important way to keep my feet healthy is to spend some time barefoot, which I do at home and while dancing Nia. Another way to keep my feet happy is to vary which shoes I wear. 

Before we get to reviews of specific shoes, let’s talk about shoes. First, there are no barefoot shoes. There are bare feet, and there are shoes. Bare is bare. 

There is something called a minimalist shoe. Most shoes I’ve seen labeled as a barefoot shoe are more properly described as a minimalist shoe. Even “barefoot style” is something I’d reserve for very few shoes.

Go to SoftStar shoes to find out how they distinguish between barefoot and minimalist shoes. Their blog post is here.

The Natural Running Center distinguishes between barefoot style, minimalist, and neutral or transition shoes. (Like many sites, the Natural Running Center has to have something to sell, so they push shoes at the same time that they explain why we don’t need shoes.) Most of the shoes listed in “barefoot style” are ones that I’d put in the minimalist category. The moment the shoe changes how I stand or walk, then it’s not barefoot style. 

In bare feet and in very minimal shoes, I walk more slowly. I’m testing each step just a bit. Even those most minimal of shoes invite me to walk faster, with less consciousness and more pounding. But anything more than that very minimal sole and soft covering, and the very way my foot moves on the ground has changed. 

In barefoot style, there's the Xero sandals and the Unshoes sandals. For shoes, there’s SoftStar Run Dash Mocs as well as the new Hi-Rez New Balance shoes. The sole on these shoes is so thin that I noticed only a slight shift in my running, most of it psychological (when I know I’m wearing shoes, I’m not treading quite as carefully as I do when barefoot).  With super thin soles and light-weight strapping, there is only a slight change in how I walk. I still have to tread lightly so I’m not pounding my feet into the ground. I will feel every pebble. If I step too hard on a rock, I’ll bruise. The goatheads peak through. I get a bit of protection from the environment but not much. I don’t notice everything, for instance, the heat of the ground. It’s not the same as barefoot, but there’s also very little shoe with very little protection and no support or pressure. That’s barefoot style. 

Pick up a pair of minimalist shoes. Can you roll it into a ball? Can you push your fingers through? Is the heel as soft as every other part of the shoe, or is it a bit reinforced and a bit tougher? That’s the difference between barefoot style and minimalist. The barefoot style doesn’t seem like a shoe. People marvel at it. It’s fun to squish it up. 

On the other hand, minimalist shoes pretty much look like shoes. They have hard spaces. For instance, the Vibram Five Fingers has a stiff sole and some arch support.  Teva Zilch sandals are fairly flexible, but I can see where a small amount of arch support was added in. Minimalist sandals and shoes provide extra protection from the elements so we’re less likely to feel every pebble underfoot. 

Minimal often means a shoe or sandal has a low heel or zero drop (no difference in height between the ball and the heel). Minimalist shoes might have wider toe boxes so our feet can spread as we move. The sole may be thinner so that there is more ground feel, which is just what it sounds like: the wearer feels what’s underneath, such as pebbles and shifts in the sand. But there isn’t as much groundfeel (and sometimes none at all) as in barefoot style shoes. 

When I was at the New Balance store buying the Hi-Rez, I also tried on a pair one step up in stiffness, the 10s. I had the strangest sensation: I wanted arch support. I felt as if my arch were floating and needed something under them. This doesn’t happen when I’m bare or walking in my totally flat and flexible Unshoes sandals. My foot doesn’t want arch support normally. Something about the shoe didn’t let me walk normally as I would barefoot, and it somehow interfered with my normal arch.  Add just that tiny bit of stiffness, and the need for support is created. My foot no longer can work the way it’s designed. 

We need arch support because our feet are weakened. As women age and their muscle mass decreases, experts tell us to get out there and do some weight training. What we need, more and more especially as we age, is weight training for our feet. 

Our shoes disable our feet in such a way that our feet can’t function as they should. This is true even in great, minimalist shoes. If they’re not barefoot feel, if there is any support or cushioning, if there’s any structure, the shoe changes how our feet move. Our feet are inhibited from free movement. 

Imagine if you wore gloves on your hands to do everything. How you type would change. How you tied your shoes or buttoned your clothes would change. 

I’ve spent nearly two decades teaching a barefoot dance class. For a period of time, I also was walking outdoors barefoot and running miles barefoot. This increased my sensitivity and changed my feet radically. I adored the sensation, and I could sense my nervous system relax and ground with my bare steps. 

I love shoes. They are fun and sometimes beautiful. I enjoy searching for pairs that feel good and offer the warmth and protection I need. My needs and desires change over time, so my shoes do as well.