Barefoot shoes continue to grow in popularity for training, hiking, daily wear, and much more for good reason. This type of footwear comes with multiple proposed benefits and understanding these benefits, how barefoot shoes should fit, and how to properly acclimate to them can be incredibly important for your barefoot shoe experience.
On my YouTube channel, I’m frequently asked questions about barefoot shoes and how they should be used. I wanted to put all of those questions into one place and discuss how to properly acclimate to barefoot shoes.
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Interested in new barefoot shoes? Check out my comparison between two of my favorite models the Xero Shoes 360 versus the Vivobarefoot Geo Racer Knit.
What Are Barefoot Shoes?
Barefoot shoes are shoes designed to protect the foot while replicating barefoot movement. Barefoot shoes are also referred to as minimalist shoes.
Footwear can, at times, alter how we move and change our gait depending on the construction details of the shoes being worn. Barefoot shoes are designed to promote natural movement by limiting the material used in shoes and promoting a more “grounded” feeling.
A few construction traits that barefoot shoes possess to replicate barefoot positioning include:
- 0mm heel-to-toe drops
- Minimalist and thin soles
- Minimalist stack heights
- Wide Toe Boxes
All of these construction traits help to replicate what it’s like to move barefoot while also serving to protect the foot from the ground and our external environment.
I like to compare barefoot shoes to really thin gloves. We still have full dexterity in many ways and there’s only a light layer of protection, so we can still fully feel the world around us.
Suggested Read: 7 Best Cross-Training Shoes In 2021 | Best Picks for Your Needs
Why Barefoot Shoes?
Barefoot shoes are interesting because there tend to be a lot of strong opinions around them. Some live and die by barefoot shoes while others think they’re overhyped and not actually beneficial. Who’s right and who’s wrong?
I like to take an approach that sees the middle ground and benefits of both working out in training shoes and barefoot shoes. I think there are contextually appropriate times to where each and if one helps you perform stronger, then that will likely be the best shoe for you in that setting.
When discussing why barefoot shoes and their benefits, I’ll cover a few of the benefits that are related to daily wear and performance output.
1. Improve Proprioception With the Ground
Proprioception is our body’s ability to feel the ground around us to help us move through space and time through a calculated means. Our feet have a ton of mechanoreceptors on them — almost as much as the hands and lips — and these mechanoreceptors help provide the brain with feedback to help you strategically navigate the world.
Let’s say you’re walking barefoot and step on a small rock. The slight difference in surface area and the potential discomfort that you feel through the bottom of the foot then sends messages to the brain, which then helps you manipulate your foot positioning and body to navigate that obstacle per a fluidic means.
In the context of barefoot shoes, this style of footwear’s minimalist construction helps to provide the brain with this heightened level of sensitivity. When we wear shoes with thick midsoles and outsoles, we’re not going to have the same level of perception that we would with barefoot shoes, which can actually hinder our body’s abilities to sense the world around us.
In some ways, it’s the old “use it or lose it” sentiment with mechanoreceptors. If we’re never walking barefoot or using barefoot shoes, our feet can lose out on some of their sensitivity which helps us to sense the world around us.
2. Increase Foot Musculature
Another subtle benefit that comes with barefoot shoes is that they can help strengthen the foot as a whole. There are 29 muscles associated with the foot and ankle and the foot itself has multiple intrinsic muscles that help provide it with its structure, shape, and function.
When we wear thicker shoes day in and day out, we can lose out on training some of the deeper foot muscles. By opting for barefoot shoes here and there, we can help hedge our bets for ensuring that we’re training the foot musculature of the foot on a weekly basis.
The intrinsic muscles of the foot can be strengthened and trained by exposing the foot to variability. Basically, we can train the foot subtly by wearing barefoot shoes due to their thin soles exposing the foot to the variability of the ground. By constantly changing shape to accommodate natural movement, our feet can be trained by simply wearing these shoes.
3. Promote Natural Gait and Movement Mechanics
When we walk wearing barefoot shoes our gait can, at times, be slightly different than our gait wearing shoes. For example, if we’re wearing thicker shoes with a high heel-to-toe drop, then our ankle will take a slightly more plantarflexed position. This slight plantarflexed orientation when at rest can then change our ankle and foot mechanics during our gait cycle.
This is NOT to say that wearing shoes is bad for our gait or lower body movement mechanics, more so, that it can be useful to create a little gait variability and train with different footwear.
When we lift, play sports, and move on a daily basis, our gait and lower body mechanics will constantly be changing to accommodate the task at hand. By exposing the body to different footwear options, we can broaden our abilities to move with different lower body orientations which can be beneficial for performance output.
From a coaching point of view, this is where it’s also important to conceptualize your goals with what types of footwear help you perform your best. I think there’s a context where everyone can use barefoot shoes sparingly to gain benefits without having to change everything about their performance and footwear preferences.
How Should Barefoot Shoes Fit?
I always recommend sizing your barefoot shoes similarly to how you size your cross-training shoes. A good rule of thumb is to have between .3″-.6″ of wiggle room in the toe.
Since most of us will be using our barefoot shoes in a variety of environments, I think it’s important to find a size that’s comfortable for things like daily wear and the other activities in which you’ll be wearing them.
For example, if you like to have a little bit of room at the toe in your cross-training shoes for things like HIIT and daily wear, and you plan to use your barefoot shoes similarly, then you’ll want to size them the same.
Where to Buy Barefoot Shoes?
As of right now, the barefoot shoe industry is in a really interesting growth period. I think more companies are starting to produce more barefoot shoes and multiple companies only focus on barefoot shoes.
In the world of strength training, companies like Xero Shoes and Vivobarefoot are helping to move the needle forward with their innovative models. I’ve published multiple reviews on their shoes and I’d highly suggest checking them out and starting there if you’re interested in buying barefoot shoes.
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How Should You Walk In Barefoot Shoes?
When wearing barefoot shoes and walking, you’ll want to assume a normal gait pattern that you would use when walking barefoot. You do not need to overanalyze your stride or change how you walk solely due to wearing barefoot shoes.
The best way to conceptualize walking in barefoot shoes is to assume you’re barefoot and just walk. If you’re not used to wearing barefoot shoes, then I would suggest starting with softer surfaces like turf, tracks, or grass, and then progressing from there once you feel comfortable walking with barefoot shoes.
How to Acclimate to Barefoot Shoes
If you’re thinking about investing in and wearing barefoot shoes for the first time, then you’ll want to take a calculated approach when wearing them.
I liken wearing barefoot shoes for the first time to learning a new exercise. The muscles supporting the new exercise you’re learning will need time to strengthen and adapt. You wouldn’t just take a maximal load on something like a back squat and do a high-volume session on your first training day. You’d ease into it and train the muscles to adapt properly.
In the case of barefoot shoes, this is the musculature of the feet and ankles. The last thing you want is to go all out too fast with barefoot shoes and get incredibly sore which could detract from your normal training. There’s a happy medium to find and walk.
Below, I’m going to outline an in-depth three-step approach to adapting to using barefoot shoes. It’s important to note that everyone should work at their own pace when adapting to barefoot shoes, so please don’t rush the process if you don’t need to!
Step 1: Decide When You’ll Wear Your Barefoot Shoes
The first step is identifying the times in which you plan to wear your barefoot shoes. This step is incredibly important because different activities and environments will require different acclimation periods.
For example, if you just want to wear them on a daily basis, then your timeline will be much different than someone who wants to wear barefoot shoes for lifting, running, HIIT, and so forth.
When it comes to wearing barefoot shoes in different settings, I like to place certain activities into particular “thresholds” for how intense they’ll be on your feet when adapting.
- Daily Wear: Low Threshold
- Running: High Threshold
- HIIT: High Threshold
- Lifting: Medium Threshold
In this context, I’m putting these activities into thresholds that will require different demands from the feet and ankles musculature, and tissues. Jumping, running, and doing other high force-producing activities will take a lot more out of the tissues and muscles compared to something like walking.
Step 2: Account for Your Training History
Once you’ve defined when you want to wear your barefoot shoes, you’ll then want to explore your training background.
Training backgrounds and history can help provide further direction into how long it will take you to acclimate and how hard you can push at the beginning. For this step, we want to specifically explore how often you’re barefoot and how comfortable you are being barefoot.
If you’re someone who’s constantly barefoot and loves doing activities barefoot, then you’ll likely feel much more comfortable in barefoot shoes right away compared to someone who’s never barefoot.
I’d suggest rating your comfort being barefoot with the categories below.
- Very Comfortable: Barefoot often.
- Somewhat Comfortable: Barefoot 1-2x a week for 20-min+ bouts.
- Not Comfortable: Rarely barefoot and not that comfortable being barefoot.
If you’re landing on the “not comfortable” category, then you’ll simply want to acclimate slower to barefoot shoes and start with lower-threshold activities during the initial acclimation period.
Another factor to consider in the context of running and training history is what your normal running gait looks like currently. For example, forefoot and mid-foot runners will often feel naturally more comfortable in barefoot shoes than those who heel strike when running in thicker midsole running shoes.
Step 3: Create an Individual Plan
After answering step one and step two, you should have a loose idea of how to approach the process of acclimating to barefoot shoes. I’m going to provide a few examples below to help you construct a plan that works for you.
Again though, I can’t stress enough to go at your own pace and to adjust your plan as you go based on the feedback your body, and more specifically, your feet and ankles are giving you.
Case Study 1: Desired Activities: Lifting and Daily Wear | Very Comfortable
For this case study and person, they’ll adapt fast to their barefoot shoes due to them already being comfortable barefoot. Plus, daily wear and lifting are low and medium-threshold activities.
A starting game plan for this case study could look something like this.
- Week 1: 1 Lifting Session, 1 Longer Daily Wear Session
- Week 2: 1 Lifting Session, 2 Longer Daily Wear Sessions
- Week 3: 2 Lifting Session, 2 Longer Daily Wear Sessions
- Week 4: Wear Per Your Wants!
In this case, this lifter will have a much larger range of comfort when wearing their barefoot shoes for the first few weeks.
Case Study 2: Desired Activities: Running | Somewhat Comfortable
High-threshold activities mixed with little exposure or comfort to being barefoot will require the longest timelines. This is why it’s important to understand acclimation periods to avoid jumping in too fast to this style of footwear.
In this case study, I’d suggest doing the following.
- Week 1: 1 Shorter Running Session On Grass or Turf (<2 miles)
- Week 2: 2 Shorter Running Sessions On Grass or Turf (<2 miles ea)
- Week 3: 1 Very Short Session On Pavement (<1 mile), 1 Shorter Run On Grass or Turf (<2 miles)
- Week 4: 1 Very Short Session On Pavement (<1 mile), 1 Medium Run On Grass or Turf (2-4 miles)
For these sessions, use your best judgement and try to spread them out. If you’re getting excessively sore after your barefoot running sessions, then it might be a good idea to scale back or spread training sessions far apart.
Case Study 3: Desired Activities: Everything | Not Comfortable
So, you want to make the shift to barefoot shoes full time, but you have no experience. Where do you start? For this case study, you can take your approach to adapt to barefoot shoes in multiple directions.
An example game plan could look like the following.
- Week 1: 1 Daily Wear Session
- Week 2: 1 Daily Wear Session, 1 Casual Lifting Session
- Week 3: 2 Daily Wear Sessions, 1 Lifting Session
- Week 4: 2-3 Daily Wear Sessions, 1 Lifting Session, and 1 Very Short Run On Turf (<1 mile) or Grass or HIIT Session
By week four, you’ll have multiple exposures to different environments which can then help direct the following weeks. For example, if you’re fine wearing your barefoot shoes on a daily basis, but notice HIIT sessions produce a ton of fatigue, then you know where to spend a bit more energy on.
Barefoot shoes can be a great tool for strengthening the feet and exposing them to variable environments. When exploring barefoot shoes, I can’t stress enough to ease into wearing them so your intrinsic foot musculature and tissues can acclimate properly.
If you have any questions about barefoot shoes, drop comments below or reach out to me personally via Instagram (@jake_boly) and I’ll help where I can.