Minimalist shoes and training shoes are very different from one another and they each come with their own list of benefits. In the world of footwear, there tend to be two sides to the equations when debating minimalist shoes and training shoes, but why does it have to be this way?
There are a ton of benefits that come along with both minimalist shoes and training shoes and the utilization of each style of footwear can be a really great strategy for most lifters and athletes. In different contexts, each style of the shoe could be a better fit for your training goals and athletic progression.
In this article, I want to discuss my rationale behind why and how using both minimalist shoes and training shoes can be a useful strategy for most lifters and athletes.
Minimalist Shoes Vs Training Shoes Differences
As with all of my shoe content, I think understanding context is the main driver to really getting the bigger picture. Before we discuss the why and how of implementing minimalist shoes and training shoes, let’s first set the stage with a few key differences of each shoe.
1. Barefoot Shoes Have Wider Toe Boxes
The first difference is the toe box construction that comes with each shoe style. Generally speaking, barefoot/minimalist shoes will have much wider toe boxes compared to training shoes. These wider toe boxes promote greater degrees of toe splay.
Some training shoes have wider toe box constructions, but this width still pails in comparison to how much the general minimalist shoe has. This makes minimalist shoes a great option for those with wider feet that want more width in the toe box for their feet.
Toe Splay Definition: The act of spreading the toes to increase the base of contact and stability under the foot.
2. Training Shoes Have Great Stack Heights
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 significantly greater stack height compared to minimalist 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. This is not inherently a bad thing, it’s just different from minimalist shoes.
Minimalist 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.
Stack Height Definition: The metric in a shoe that is used to measure the amount of material that separates the foot from the ground.
3. Minimalist Shoes Have More Flexible Outsoles
One of the key benefits of minimalist shoes is their outsole’s ability to protect the foot while also replicating a barefoot feeling. Compared to training shoes, minimalist shoe outsoles will be much more maneuverable in nature and will usually be thinner as well.
A minimalist shoe’s thin and flexible outsole will provide more ground feedback for the mechanoreceptors in the feet. Basically, promoting how much we feel and sense the ground below us.
Training shoe outsoles will vary a lot depending on the shoe’s overall niche construction. For example, some training shoe outsoles are fully rubber while others are rubber with grooves with exposed midsoles. 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.
Mechanoreceptor Definition: Neural receptors on the body that provide feedback to the brain to increase our ability to sense the world around us and to support the efficiency of our movement.
Benefits of Using Minimalist 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 foot losing some of its arch strength and structure. In addition, wearing training shoes all of the time with high stack heights can decrease our mechanoreceptor’s abilities to do their jobs.
If you passively integrate barefoot shoes into your weekly footwear for things like walking and errands, you can start to build your feet without having to sacrifice wearing training shoes for your tough sessions.
Barefoot training takes a lot of time to acclimate to and some just simply don’t like it. So, if we can blend in the use of training shoes for traditional sessions and barefoot shoes passively for walking, then we can reap the benefits of both.
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 needle moving in the right direction for foot strength.
2. Performance Isn’t Compromised
Some athletes and lifters may never find comfort in using only “one” style of footwear and that’s totally 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 performance or they’re cheating in some way. If this style of footwear will promote better mechanics per your sport’s goals and your body’s needs, then why not utilize and leverage them?
Similarly, some athletes and lifters may never find comfort training in a particular type of footwear. This is why 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 use each to gain benefits in areas that we’re strong and weak in.
Tips to Use Both Minimalist 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 minimalist and training shoes for your training is separating personal wants from objective performance metrics. Basically, using the tools (shoes) for the environments that actually 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.
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.
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, then scaling 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)!