Like many other people, I was often barefoot as a kid. I have many memories of running through the forest, stopping to occasionally pull a holly leaf out of my skin; to feel the soft, cool mud squelch up between my toes; the roughness of tree bark as I clung ape-like in my favourite willow.
School, modern social convention, and the pressures of teen fashion forced me to squeeze my simian clod-hoppers into more conventional footwear. I suffered a number of foot issues from skin complaints (thank you nylon socks), acute achilles tendonitis, over-pronation and knee issues, to slowly inwardly creeping toe alignment.
I also seemed to move less in the shoes I was wearing. It would drive my Mum mental, having to watch me shuffle along in my massive DM boots with the laces undone, scuffing the heals away. “Pick your bloody feet up!” was the soundtrack to my youth.
I was fairly late to the whole exercise thing and at age 24 decided to try running. By this point my feet had become fairly dysfunctional, typical of many adults, and thus created their own issues in the form of many running related injuries and the expensive quest to find the perfect motion controlled, shock absorbent, air-gelled trainer.
Many years, blisters, and IT band issues later, I had an epiphany. Sitting around a campfire in a woodland, sewing a pair of Seminole style moccasins out of buckskin, it dawned on me that humans had done pretty well on no or very minimal footwear since we first stretched up onto our hind legs and took that one giant step for mankind.
It was from this point that I became infatuated with learning about barefootedness. And it was at this point that my ridiculous addiction for barefoot/minimalist footwear began to surface.
What is a barefoot/minimalist shoe?
This is hotly debated, so let’s keep it simple. They are a shoe that mimics much of the benefits of going literally barefoot, while offering us a little more protection, and less likelihood of being asked to leave a restaurant.
The key characteristics of a barefoot/minimalist shoe are:
- Zero (or near zero for less ‘barefoot’ minimalist shoes) Drop – This means there is no difference in the thickness of sole between the toes and heel. Your foot sits flat.
- A wide toe box/foot shaped shoe – The area that house your toes needs to be wide enough to allow them to ‘splay’ as you move. This is also achieved by foregoing the toe box all together and making a shoe with toes, e.g. Vibram Five Fingers.
- Thin, flexible soles – These give us a more natural ‘ground feel’. They allow us to use the nerves in our foot to relay information, and strengthen the muscles of our feet more than supported shoes do.
- Sole connection – This is more concerned with barefoot sandals (yes, they are a thing). The sole of the shoe wants to stay in contact with the foot at all times, unlike a flip-flop for example, which causes the foot to ‘grip’ in unnatural ways.
- And Lightweight – Ideally the shoes should be barely noticeable rather than like hobnail boots.
What are the benefits of barefoot/minimalist shoes?
Barefoot/minimalist shoes have really helped me in a number of ways, but that’s me, and you are different. Minimalist footwear is not a panacea for all foot and postural problems, and they are not appropriate for all individuals and situations. Nothing said here should be used in place of talking to a qualified medical practitioner.
That said, here are a number of reported benefits worth considering:
- It’s natural – We were born without hooves, and designed to walk heel to toe (plantigrade), not on our toes all day, so it makes sense to try and move the way nature intended. Barefoot is our factory setting. However, the human body is an amazing adaptive organism, but it takes time to adapt. If you are my age then it has spent nearly 5 decades adapting to the misalignment created by ill considered shoes. To expect it to happily adapt back to it’s default setting overnight is asking too much. We need to take it slow.
- They strengthen and stiffen our feet – The excellent Daniel Lieberman, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, in a 2018 study, found that minimalist shoe wearers developed stronger and stiffer muscles in the feet, resulting in less likelihood of collapsed arches/flat-footedness, and in turn may reduce the occurrence of knee pain, cartilage damage and lower back pain.
- They allow for optimal skeletal alignment – Even a modest heel elevation will push our centre of gravity towards our toes, and this is fine intermittently throughout our day. But when this is our dominant pattern from wearing heels, it throws our body’s alignment off by increasing the anterior tilt of the pelvis and creating excessive arching of the lower back, potentially causing postural problems down the line.
- Enhances our feet’s proprioception – Proprioception is our body’s ability to sense the world around it – vital for balance. We have up 200,000 nerve endings in each sole of our feet, far more than in the palms of our hands. These are there to give us information about the world around us. When the ground is too harsh for our sensitive, shoe adapted feet, barefoot/minimalist shoes can act like sunglasses for our tootsies, reducing the sensation down to a manageable level whilst still allowing us to receive the information through our soles. Conventional shoes act more like a blindfold, creating a total void of information. Minimalist shoes have been shown to increased stability and mobility in people with a history of falls.
- They make you more mindful of your movements – This is true partly because of the last point, and in part because we don’t have 2 inches of rubber strapped to our heels like in conventional shoes. We can’t just slam our feet down willy-nilly, because it will hurt. This is a good thing. If we are more aware of our bodies and surroundings we will be less likely to trip and stumble. We are also engaged more with our activity of walking and the substrate upon which we walk, making the whole practice an exercise in mindfulness. This is one of Wild Life’s goals – to reconnect people’s mind to their bodies and vice-versa.
How to transition to barefoot/minimalist shoes
I whole-heartedly encourage people to spend more time either fully barefoot or with minimalist shoes. But it comes with a caveat. You need to transition slowly. If you have spent a lifetime in hard, narrow, heeled shoes you must take it slow. Start with barefoot snacks, small chunks of time where you kick off the shoes and gambol about slowly. You can increase the duration and frivolity of your barefoot snacks over time.
I don’t recommend running in barefoot/minimalist shoes until your feet have totally become accustomed to walking in them, and even then to choose some ‘transition’ shoes before charging in.
I can’t recommend the work of Katy Bowman highly enough and would suggest that people wanting to take a deep dive into this subject read her barefoot book.
Now I am very hard on shoes. I don’t know what it is about my movements or feet that make me destroy shoes so easily, but I do, and so I am always looking for a shoe that lasts.
My all time favourite go-to brand is Vivobarefoot. I’ve been wearing their shoes for well over a decade, from when I could pick up a pair for twenty quid from the factory outlet shop. The Aqua (it had nothing do with water weirdly) is still my favourite shoe. Please bring it back, Vivobarefoot!
The company has gone from strength to strength, and their ethics and environmental policies are second to none. They sadly don’t cost £20 any more, but if you can afford them, they are worth every pound.
But what if you can’t afford them and still want to give barefoot/ minimalist shoes a try; or you are unsure if it’s the thing for you and are unwilling to fork out? I have a potential answer for you below.
Budget Barefoot/minimalist shoes from Amazon
We have 2 types of shoes advertised as barefoot trail shoes on offer from Amazon, both for under £40. The TSLA Trail Running Shoes and the Whitin Unisex Wide Toe Trail Running Shoe.
Now, these are unlikely to have any of the ethical or environmental pedigree of Vivobarefoot. They are here to represent a budget option for minimalist shoes. Let’s see how they fair.
And sorry for the state of the shoes. I never remember to take a photo when they are new, partly due to giddy excitement and partly because I don’t want Kelley to know that I have bought yet another new pair of shoes.
Kelley: “Are they new shoes again?”
Me: “These old things? I bought these ages ago. Ooh look at that lovely ……”. Kelley is very easily distracted, thankfully.
So first up we have the TSLA. £29.98 from Amazon
The initial thing that hit me was how similar they are to the Merrell Vapour Glove 3. I mean really similar. The shape, the construction, the sole, everything. I really liked the Vapour Glove but they didn’t last very long, my Hobbits’ feet burst straight through the sides.
I was pleased with the shape; a lovely wide toe box with plenty of room for my toes to splay. I went with my standard size choice, size UK 10, but on reflection I’d say that these shoes run a little on the large size. A half size down would have been a better fit. You can see in the photo below where my big toes don’t reach to the end of the shoe and have created a small hole.
The soles have a surprisingly good ground feel to them, nowhere near as good as something like the Vibram Five Fingers El-X, but very good nonetheless. They are nice and flexible and the rubber felt quite grippy on wet rock and tarmac.
Now this shoe is marketed as a trail shoe, but as far as trails go I’d say it was fine for a hard packed gravel trail. Anything mucky, wet and on a gradient and you’d slip constantly. This is far more of town shoe in my opinion. The low profile of these soles will also mean any depths of puddle will herald wet socks.
I wore this shoe pretty consistently last year and, other than the aforementioned hole, they are still going strong with no other issues and very little wear on the soles. The same cannot be said for the ‘double the price’ Merrells.
So on the whole I’ve been pretty impressed with the TLSR. Stylistically, they suffer from the same problem that many barefoot shoes suffer from – The Clown Effect. This is a bi-product of the wide toe box, but it’s minimised by the subtle colour scheme. Again, this is in contrast to bright colour of the Merrell.
Would I buy again. Yes, overall I’m very pleased with the shoe, and the price means it’s well worth a punt.
Next is the Whitin Trail Shoe. £39.99 fro Amazon.
These shoes were not quite what I was expecting. The speckled appearance on the top was what I assumed to be ventilation mesh. They are merely shiny dots of plastic giving the shoe a bit of a sequined look. Now I like a sequin as much as the next man, I just wasn’t expecting them on these shoes. And in reality I think it’s only me who notices it, although when I start doing Liza Minnelli impersonations it becomes more obvious.
I digress. The uppers were also different to my expectations. I expected more firmness to them, instead they appear to be made out of neoprene, although this actually feels more like a spongy foam than a true neoprene. This gives them the look and indeed the feel of a water shoe. They aren’t a water shoe though as there are no drainage holes.
They are secured by an elastic lace with a toggle and a velcro strap. I love a velcro strap as it makes me feel like I am 8 years old again.
The sole is far more gnarly than the previous shoe and as a result loses much of the ground feel in comparison. It does however supply the shoe with much more traction than the TSLR, so in theory would be much better for tackling the trails.
I say in theory, because the soft, unsupportive upper are a little difficult to really secure, leaving a lot of scope for your feet to move around. This can make traversing gradients and, in particular, walking along contours a little tricky.
The soles are fairly flexible, but not nearly as flexible as the TSLR, potentially making them more suitable to rockier paths.
These shoes have an inner sole (the TSLR do not), that is slightly wedged, so the barefoot purists will want to either get rid or replace it with a flat alternative.
My initial impression when putting them on was the slipper-like feel to them. It was quite a pleasant feel. There is plenty of room for my toes to splay thanks to the wide toe box and give in the material.
They are quite a bit warmer than the TSLR due to the material of the uppers and the extra thickness on the soles. This was nice through the colder months as the TSLR’s minimalist design doesn’t offer much insulation. Will these be too hot in the summer? Only time will tell.
I’ve yet to wear these in any serious wet weather but I suspect they will act like a sponge. I hope to be proven wrong.
All in all, I actually quite like these shoes for walking around the trails here on the nature reserve. They feel like extreme slippers, the sort of slippers that Rambo would wear.
Quick to put on, comfy, warm and with fair traction, they don’t do a bad job as a shoe for bimbling about it in. Just don’t expect the world. I haven’t run in these, not seriously anyway, but I don’t think it would be that fun on anything other than flat ground.
The durability of these shoes has so far been pretty good, again a surprise, and many other reviewers have noted the same. So yet again, a cheap shoe worth considering.
With regards to both these shoes, be a little cautious of the style you buy. Each listing has a number of different styles available and I’ve been told that not all are barefoot/minimalist.
Neither shoe is going to win any style awards anytime soon, at least not outside of the Clown and Slipper communities, but they are far from ugly.
So there you have it, two budget barefoot/minimalist shoes that both performed better than I expected. For anyone wanting to try minimalist footwear without breaking the bank both these shoes would be worth a look.
Let us know in the comments what your favourite barefoot/minimalist footwear is, and sign up to our newsletter for more reviews, tips and recipes.