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Barefoot Shoes Vs Training Shoes (2024) | How I Use Both

Barefoot shoes and training shoes are very different and it’s important to establish what makes them different so you can better utilize them for your benefit.

Far too often, I have beginners ask me questions like, “Which workout shoes should I use between the Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III, Nike Metcon 9, and Xero Shoes Prio?” Before I suggest a shoe for them, I have to then take a step back and ask if they want a barefoot shoe or traditional training shoe — and that’s where the education of shoes comes in.

Barefoot shoes and training shoes are super different regarding their construction, intent, and how they’ll feel in the gym. All of these factors can make each shoe more or less better depending on what you’re looking for and what you want out of your shoes.

For example, if you end up buying a barefoot shoe for working out but you’ve always worn running shoes or traditional training shoes like the Nike Free Metcon 5 then that barefoot shoe is going to feel VASTLY different from what you’re used to.

Not to mention, a barefoot shoe will typically come with a change in lifting mechanics, and this brings us back to why it’s important to understand the differences between training shoes versus barefoot shoes.

For the Record

  • I’m a strength coach with an MS in Sports Science and a BS in Exercise Science, and I have been training clients for over a decade. I approach the topic of barefoot shoes vs. training shoes from a practical point of view by recognizing how shoes can influence mechanics for different individuals.
  • Far too often, I see barefoot shoes versus training shoes discussed from a personal bias and not a practical point of view, or better yet, a point of view with a marketing tie to it — thanks, social media…
  • Below, I’ll cover how I see shoes as tools and how you can be more objective with your footwear choice for training. I’ve also covered how I rotate shoes for training before on my blog.

Barefoot Shoes Vs Training Shoes Differences

As with all of my shoe content, I think understanding context is the main driver to getting the bigger picture. Before I discuss the why and how of implementing barefoot shoes and training shoes, I want to set the stage with a few key differences between each shoe.

1. Barefoot Shoes Have Wider Toe Boxes (Generally)

The first difference is the toe box construction that comes with each shoe style. Generally speaking, barefoot shoes will have much wider toe boxes compared to training shoes.

These wider toe boxes promote greater degrees of toe splay which can be useful for balance, power production, and building general foot strength.

Vivobarefoot Motus Strength JJF Width
Vivobarefoot Motus Strength Toe Box Width

However, it’s worth noting — and this is an industry shift that’s happened more in 2024 than when I first published this article in 2021 — training shoes are starting to have wider toe boxes.

I think the pressure from users wanting wider toe boxes, which is arguably due to the popularization of barefoot shoes and barefoot training, is that more companies are adapting wider toe boxes.

Even the Metcon 9 has a [wider] toe box, which is low-key unheard of by Nike who has notoriously used narrower and more “athletic” last constructions.

Reebok Nano X4 Vs Nike Metcon 9 Sizing
Nike Metcon 9 vs Reebok Nano X4 Toe Box Width

When in doubt, it’s typically safe to assume a barefoot shoe will have a wider toe box compared to training shoes. If you have wider feet barefoot shoes will typically work great for your feet, and if you’re opting for training shoes, make sure you research a shoe’s fit.

2. Training Shoes Have More Stack Height

Stack height entails the amount of material that separates the foot from the ground. Generally, stack height will be measured at the base of the forefoot and heel.

Training shoes will usually have a greater stack height compared to barefoot shoes. The utilization of foams for midsoles and thicker rubbers in outsoles increase the overall amounts of material that separate the foot from the ground.

Tolos 2.0 for Daily Wear

This is not inherently a bad thing; it’s just different from barefoot shoes, which feature thinner soles and outsole rubbers, and typically thin foam removable insoles — and sometimes thin internal EVA midsoles.

Barefoot shoes will have limited material between the foot and the ground, and this is due to them promoting a more “barefoot” feeling — hence their name.

For many, thicker stack heights will feel more responsive and versatile compared to barefoot shoes that rely on the ankle and foot’s stiffness for responsiveness. You’ll notice that you feel more force and pressure through the floor with barefoot shoes.

PUMA Fuse 3 for Squats

General Stack Height Range for Barefoot and Training Shoes (Based On All of My Review Data)

 Barefoot ShoesTraining Shoes
Low Stack Range4-6mm10-14mm
High(er) Stack Range7-9mm15mm+

Keep in mind that stack height can vary between different barefoot shoes and training shoes. For example, some training shoes will have less stack height, increasing their ground feedback, and some barefoot shoes have slightly higher stack heights, giving them a little more cushion.

3. Minimalist Shoes Have More Flexible Soles (Most of the Time)

One of the key benefits of barefoot shoes is their sole’s ability to protect the foot while also replicating a barefoot feeling. Compared to training shoes, minimalist shoe soles will be much more maneuverable and will usually be thinner as well, i.e., have lower stack heights.

A barefoot shoe’s thin and flexible sole will provide more ground feedback for the mechanoreceptors in the feet. Promoting how much we feel and sense the ground below us.

TriBase Reign 6 Flexibility Test

Training shoe soles will vary depending on the shoe’s overall niche construction. Some training shoes will be more flexible than others and this has to do with midsole and outsole materials/rigidity and their thicknesses.

Both will provide a different feeling and neither is necessarily better or worse than the other, it depends on one’s preferences and contextual training needs.

If you want barefoot and training shoes with specific levels of “feel” and “ground feedback” this is where checking out reviews and how others have interpreted a shoe’s feeling for training can be useful, *coughs* That Fit Friend reviews.

Benefits of Using Barefoot Shoes and Training Shoes

When discussing the benefits of minimalist and training shoes, I like to try to contextualize where each can be useful for athletes and lifters when used in combination.

In my opinion, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach when using these shoes and the moment we think definitively with only exclusively using one over the other, then we can blind ourselves to our own internal biases.

1. Passive Foot Strength Gains

Foot strength is incredibly important for daily life and athletic performance. A lot of times we neglect to give the feet direct love, which can lead to our feet losing some of their arch strength and structure.

In addition, wearing training shoes all of the time with high stack heights can decrease our mechanoreceptors’ abilities to do their jobs.

If you passively integrate barefoot shoes into your weekly footwear for things like walking, running errands, and tackling low-threshold training sessions, you can start to build your feet without having to sacrifice wearing training shoes for your tough sessions.

1HUND Aerolux Barefoot

Barefoot shoes can take various amounts of time to acclimate to and even when acclimated some just simply don’t like how they feel. So, if we can blend in the use of training shoes and barefoot shoes we can get the foot strength benefit without pigeonholing ourselves to “one” thing.

The training shoes will provide us with the responsiveness we want in a training environment, and the barefoot shoes will help build the feet in a lower-intensity and scalable way.

Remember, if your foot is never exposed to more barefoot-style locomotion, then you’ll need less stimulus to get the ball rolling in the right direction for foot strength gains. Ease into using barefoot shoes.

2. Performance Isn’t Compromised

Some athletes and lifters may never find comfort in using only “one” style of footwear and that’s okay. I think when we can’t separate our emotional bias from something like a style of footwear or piece of training gear, then we can almost limit our potential in some areas.

This is like some lifters never wanting to wear weightlifting shoes because they “feel” as though they’ll do something negative to their squat and lifting performance or they’re cheating in some way.

If this style of footwear will promote better lifting mechanics per your sport and lifting goals along with supporting your body’s needs, then why not utilize and leverage them?

How To Rotate Workout Shoes

Similarly, some athletes and lifters may never find comfort with certain shoes in particular types of training. This is where understanding that shoes are just tools for accomplishing tasks at hand is important.

If we can objectively define what type of footwear helps us perform our best, then we can contextualize how we can use each to gain benefits in areas in which we’re strong and weak.

Tips for Using Barefoot Shoes and Training Shoes

When contextualizing the use of minimalist shoes and training shoes for your needs, it’s important to recognize and establish your current weekly footwear usage.

The most important aspect of using both barefoot and training shoes for your training is separating personal wants from objective performance metrics. Using the tools (shoes) for the environments that support your performance.

Tip 1: Ease Into Minimalist Shoes

If you’ve never worn minimalist shoes before, then expect an acclimation period. Ease into wearing them for low-intensity activities that are shorter in duration, then scale from there.

Testing the Vivobarefoot Motus Strength JJF for deadlifts

So, if you always wear training shoes or thicker midsole shoes for running, training, and day-to-day wear, then start using minimalist shoes for some activities within the day-to-day wear usage. This is the lower intensity setting that can easily be scaled per one’s time of usage.

Just like learning new exercises and adapting to their demands, the feet will need time to adjust and adapt to less material under them.

The muscles and tissues have had limited exposure to higher-demand settings, so easing into minimalist shoes will help you scale your foot’s strength and integrity without compromising other areas of performance due to the feet being overly sore or fatigued.

  • Step 1: Use them for low-intensity activities.
  • Step 2: Scale their usage by time.
  • Step 3: Once acclimated, scale their usage by performing slightly more demanding activities.

Tip 2: Wear What Supports Performance

Context always matters. I like to take an approach with footwear that acknowledges there is never a “you have to wear this for this” type of mindset.

With your training for example, if you like wearing training shoes for their responsiveness or weightlifting shoes for the elevated heel, then proceed to do so especially if they support performance.

Various types of footwear are tools to support performance and things like biomechanics. Understand the “why” behind each footwear and you can then differentiate their use to support your performance goals.

Testing the Nike Metcon 9 for CrossFit

This is why I think it’s almost important to experiment with different types of footwear per your performance needs. What style of shoe will produce the most favorable performance outcomes?

An example of what my footwear usage looks like is as follows.

  • Barbell Back Squat, Weightlifting Sessions, and Knee Tracking Exercises: Weightlifting Shoes
  • Athletic-Style Training and Recreational Lifting: Cross-Training Shoes
  • Day-to-Day Wear and Lower Body Accessory Exercises: Barfoot Shoes

And I’ll rotate these around based on the adaptations I’m going for with the training day. If you want help understanding how to do this for your training, feel free to reach out and I’ll gladly make suggestions.

Context Is Always Needed

Training shoes and minimalist shoes are both useful tools for improving and supporting athletic performance. It’s important to understand when each can be useful, and then scale their usage to your needs, goals, and preferences.

If you have any questions on this topic, drop a comment below or reach out to me via Instagram (@jake_boly)!

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of That Fit Friend. He's often regarded to as a go-to resource in various performance shoe communities. He’s been formally reviewing shoes and training gear for over 7 years and has hand-tested over 400 pairs of shoes. Jake is known on the internet and YouTube for blending his review process with his educational, strength sports, and personal training background.

Jake has a Masters in Sports Science, a Bachelors in Exercise Science, a CSCS, and he's been personal training for over 10 years helping hundreds of clients get stronger, lose weight, and accomplish their goals. He uses his exercise science brain and personal training background to make curated and thoughtful review content on the fitness gear he's testing.

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