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Can You Reclaim Foot Strength & Stability with Minimalist Shoes?

Updated: Jan 22

Person sitting after walking barefoot in sand

In this post we'll dive feet first into minimalist footwear, also known as barefoot shoes. First, I'll provide some context on why I'm even writing about this topic as a strength coach. Next, we'll define this style of footwear, after which we'll explore the modern history of this movement before examining the hype, potential benefits, and potential risks. Finally, we'll draw some practical conclusions to determine whether or not YOU need to throw out your maximalist shoe collection.


Disclaimers:

  1. This post is NOT sponsored by any shoe companies.

  2. I DO receive affiliate commissions which help to support this blog should you decide to buy any shoes from VIVOBAREFOOT here. Your support is much appreciated should you decide to purchase from my link above!

  3. I am not a Doctor or Medical Professional. The information provided here is for educational purposes only and does not replace medical advice. Consult your Primary Care Physician, Podiatrist, or other healthcare professional as needed before implementing any of the mentioned concepts into your lifestyle.

  4. Any views and opinions expressed are my own and are not affiliated with VIVOBAREFOOT, USA Powerlifting, or any other brands and companies mentioned in this post.


CONTEXT

Minimalist shoes are NOT just for runners or endurance athletes; as a strength coach I am interested in developing strength from the ground up. As a mechanical engineer, I was taught the importance of a strong foundation. Your feet are your foundation, as well as a means for you to interact with the world, so developing strong and capable feet to enhance stability and overall resiliency as a lifter is a high priority for me.



DEFINITION

WAIT... isn't barefoot shoe an oxymoron?!?! Yes, you could say you can't wear shoes and be barefoot! This is why I prefer calling them minimalist shoes or footwear. However, after establishing the definition, you will quickly see why it's actually appropriate, and why we can use both terms interchangeably. Ok cool, so what are they?


Minimalist shoes are a type of footwear that do not hinder your foot's ability to function. They typically have a wide toe box to allow for stability through splaying of the toes. These shoes are also relatively thin when compared to traditional footwear to maximize sensory feedback. There are 200,000 nerve endings in each foot, and traditional footwear blocks feedback with layers of thick materials. In addition, minimalist shoes have little to no heel-toe drop and lack any arch support. Finally, minimalist shoes are flexible to allow your muscles to absorb and transmit force rather than relying on the materials of the shoe to do it for you.


MODERN HISTORY

Marathon runners

I'm not going to do a deep dive into the full history of shoe making. Obviously, the first humans were walking around barefoot so I'm not going to spend time reviewing this as there is plenty of information out there on the subject. Eventually we humans got tired of walking or running around barefoot and began making protective footwear based on the demands of our local environments. Fast forward to the 21st century and barefoot style running became all the rage in the early 2010's thanks to the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and the research of Harvard human evolutionary biologist Dan Lieberman. All the big shoe brands started jumping on the bandwagon and I gave them a shot too when I got a pair of all-black New Balance Minimus 20v3 Cross Trainers. They were pretty awesome! They had Vibram soles without the weird toe thing going on. Around the same period, another brand HOKA, seemed to be going the exact opposite direction of minimalist shoes, touting as much cushioning as possible. Below is an abridged timeline of the modern minimalist footwear movement.


2002

Vibram develops FiveFingers barefoot shoes.


2004

Nike launches their first modern minimal shoe, the Nike Free 5.0 v1.


2009

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall is published and introduces the world to the Tarahumara, an indigenous people of the Americas who live in the Copper Canyon of Mexico. They are renowned for their long-distance running abilities, and McDougall points out to the world how they run these distances injury free and with minimalist shoes. The obvious conclusion, but not necessarily correct one, being that modern footwear is bad and minimalist shoes are good.


2009 & Beyond

The Big Bang of minimalist footwear occurs, leading to the emergence of new shoe companies focused on minimal running shoes including Xero Shoes (2009), Altra (2009), and VIVOBAREFOOT (2012) to name a few . Traditional shoe companies also began developing their own line of minimal shoes including New Balance, as well as some of the more fringe companies like Inov-8. Anti-minimalist shoe company Hoka One One (2009) was also spawned which had oversized outsoles and more cushioning than other running shoes of the time.


2012

A class action lawsuit was first filed against Vibram claiming they deployed deceptive marketing and falsely advertised the following benefits from wearing Vibram FiveFingers shoes, without basing its claims on any scientific research:


  1. Strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs

  2. Improve range of motion in the ankles, feet, and toes

  3. Stimulate neural function important to balance and agility

  4. Eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture

  5. Allow the foot and body to move naturally


2014

Vibram agrees to settle the lawsuit for $3.75 million.


2014 to Present

Traditional shoe companies move away from the minimalist fad but some continue to include some offering for market share. As the founder of Xero shoes likes to say, many big brand shoe companies realized that they couldn't promote traditional shoes while at the same time promote minimalist footwear.


2023 & Beyond

It does appear minimalist shoes have been making a comeback whether it's due to a change in the pendulum swing, or people are more intelligent about how they incorporate minimalist footwear into their lifestyle, I believe they serve a purpose and are here to stay for those who are willing to use them appropriately.


HYPE

I do think that the claims made by Vibram FiveFingers and implications from Born to Run led to the rise and decline of the barefoot movement, but it did not disappear completely, and it appears to be on the rise again. This time however, there is actually scientific evidence to support some claims, and users of barefoot shoes are smarter this time around. That is, more people know better now than to run in a pair of conventional cushioned shoes one day, then go for the same duration of run the next day in a pair of minimalist shoes. More people understand that you need to progressively load your feet with minimalist shoes the way you would any other physical activity. You may need to be even more conservative with this type of transition when compared to other physical activities, as you are creating a fundamental change to how you interact with the world.


Certain manufacturers have quite brilliantly marketed their shoes using a child's voice, somewhat reminiscent of the Resident Evil Red Queen, explaining how traditional shoe companies have stolen our foot strength literally from under our feet! While it may seem overly dramatic, the marketing campaign is VERY effective and in some ways kind of true, and whether or not the BIG BAD shoe companies did so on purpose is irrelevant.



POTENTIAL BENEFITS

Below are potential benefits of using minimalist footwear for your consideration. Should you decide to incorporate barefoot shoes into your routine to obtain these potential benefits, do so conservatively. You do not want to do too much too soon as that will certainly lead to aches, pains, and potential injury. So, DO NOT throw out all of your traditional footwear until you have fully acclimated to minimalist shoes. Moreover, you do not need to wear minimalist shoes solely (haha see what I did there?) to obtain benefits. You can use barefoot shoes to supplement your conventional shoes as a form of foot rehab.


Foot Strength

An 8 week randomized controlled trial found that walking in minimalist shoes was as effective as foot strengthening exercises in increasing foot muscle size and strength! [1] 57 runners were randomly assigned to three groups:


  1. Minimalist Shoe Walking (MSW)

  2. Foot Strengthening Exercise (FS)

  3. and Control Group (C)


The MSW group walked in minimalist footwear provided for the study, progressively loading on a weekly basis the number of steps taken per day in those shoes. The FS group progressively loaded a set of resistance exercises at least 5 days a week. Measurements of muscle strength via dynamometer and muscle size via ultrasound were measured at the beginning of the trial, at week 4, and at the end. It was found that all muscle sizes and strength increased significantly from weeks 0 to 8 in the MSW and FS groups, while no changes occurred in the control group.


Another study [2] by Rory Curtis and Dr. Kris D'Aout found that "Daily activity in minimal footwear increases foot strength for healthy adults that were previously conventionally western shod." They found an increase in intrinsic foot strength of about 60% when transitioning from conventional shoes to minimalist shoes. Interestingly, the shoes used in the study were a pair of VIVOBAREFOOT trainers.


Reduced Risk of Falls

A cross-sectional study of people over 65 years found that foot and ankle strength are important determinants of balance and functional ability in older people, but further study is required to determine if implementing foot strengthening protocols would reduce the risk of falls. [3] Additional research found that reduced toe flexor strength and the presence of toe deformities increases the risk of falling in older individuals. [4]



POTENTIAL RISKS

The founder of Xero shoes likens traditional footwear with arch support as a cast for your feet. There is a time and a place for cushioned or supportive shoes, especially if you are dealing with injury or are transitioning to minimalist footwear. If you have certain pre-existing conditions, you likely should stay away from minimalist footwear altogether unless you are doing so with guidance from a healthcare professional.


Injury

Changes to how you stand, walk, and especially run take time. A systematic review by Perkins et al. found that barefoot style running could increase risk of ankle injury and Achilles tendinopathy. [5] The review concludes noting that due to various running techniques and individual anthropometries, no definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding running in minimalist shoes. Moreover, plenty of anecdotal evidence exists for people who failed to transition to minimalist running shoes and who got injured along the process. Furthermore, some of the best runners in the world run in non-minimalist shoes.


Pre-existing Conditions

People with diabetic feet can have damaged nerves which may or may not be symptomatic, i.e. they may be numb or tingly. Even worse, they may not be able to tell if they are stepping on a sharp, hot, or cold object, which is a recipe for disaster when combined with thin-soled shoes. This is further compounded by poor blood flow in the feet which makes foot injuries harder to heal and could even lead to infection or amputation. It has also been suggested that people with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or Rigid Musculoskeletal Deformities should not wear minimalist shoes.


CONCLUSION & RECOMMENDATIONS

Minimalist footwear is definitely not for everyone, but there are potential benefits that warrant serious consideration. Unfortunately, if you have any acute or chronic foot injury, peripheral neuropathy, diabetic feet, or other previously mentioned existing condition, this probably isn't an option you can explore on your own but may be possible with guidance from a medical professional.


If you don't have any of the aforementioned conditions, then minimalist shoes may be something for you to try out. I recommend starting out slower than you think you should. Start by just standing in them. Gradually work your way up to walking in them and do so in a progressive manner. If you plan to run in barefoot shoes, then the progression should be even more conservative than transitioning to walking due to the higher forces your tissues will need to adapt to. Moreover, if you cannot walk in barefoot shoes for at least 6,000 steps a day without any pain, I would not think you are ready to transition into running in minimalist footwear.


Finally, minimalist shoes don't need to be worn exclusively; you can use them to supplement your current footwear. For example, I currently commute to work in minimalist sneakers and then change into more traditional oxfords when I get to the office. When I leave the office, I throw my VIVO's back on.


THANK YOU!

If you found this post helpful, be sure to like, share or comment below! Also, please subscribe below for newsletter, updates, and more! If you do decide to purchase minimalist shoes from VIVOBAREFOOT, be sure to use this link and support this blog!


REFERENCES

  1. Ridge ST, Olsen MT, Bruening DA, Jurgensmeier K, Griffin D, Davis IS, Johnson AW. Walking in Minimalist Shoes Is Effective for Strengthening Foot Muscles. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan;51(1):104-113. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001751. PMID: 30113521.

  2. The Influence of Minimal Footwear on the Biomechanics of Walking by Rory Patrick Curtis https://livrepository.liverpool.ac.uk/3128906/1/200888594_Jun2021.pdf

  3. Spink MJ, Fotoohabadi MR, Wee E, Hill KD, Lord SR, Menz HB. Foot and ankle strength, range of motion, posture, and deformity are associated with balance and functional ability in older adults. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2011 Jan;92(1):68-75. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2010.09.024. PMID: 21187207.

  4. Mickle KJ, Munro BJ, Lord SR, Menz HB, Steele JR. ISB Clinical Biomechanics Award 2009: toe weakness and deformity increase the risk of falls in older people. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2009 Dec;24(10):787-91. doi: 10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2009.08.011. Epub 2009 Sep 13. PMID: 19751956.

  5. Perkins KP, Hanney WJ, Rothschild CE. The risks and benefits of running barefoot or in minimalist shoes: a systematic review. Sports Health. 2014 Nov;6(6):475-80. doi: 10.1177/1941738114546846. PMID: 25364479; PMCID: PMC4212355.

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