Barefoot Vs. Minimal Vs. All Other Shoes: What Should You Train In?

Have you ever wondered what shoes are best for your movement practice? Or maybe you’ve seen lots of talk about going barefoot all the time, but does that make sense for you?

What you wear on your feet is important, and it’s even more important when you consider the activity. But sometimes you don’t need shoes.

By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know which shoes are likely best for you.

Which Shoes Are Best?

As you might imagine, there’s a spectrum. Your shoe choice will depend on the level of impact you experience during exercise. Let’s think about this for a second.

Your feet are your base and support. You use them to walk around and stand for hours every single day. Every time you jump, sprint, carry your groceries, or pick up your kids, your feet are absorbing the shock.

So you owe it to yourself to understand what shoes are appropriate for various activities and then make a decision that’s best for you regarding footwear.

Barefoot Vs. Minimalist Shoes Vs. Everything Else

You may have read from various gurus online that you should only go barefoot. Everywhere. No matter what. Everything from lounging at home, to training at the gym, hiking, and running on the road.

On the contrary, you’ve probably also read that you should always wear shoes, no matter what.

The thing is, absolutes are almost always absolutely wrong. There are times when you can benefit from being barefoot and times when you should, without a doubt, wear protective footwear.

On The Taboo Of Being Barefoot

Your feet and ankles are complex bundles of meat and connective tissue. And for thousands of years, we walked around barefoot nearly everywhere. Eventually, there were sandals and very primitive forms of shoes to protect our feet, but nothing like the shoes we wear today.

If you look at modern hunter-gatherers, you’ll see their feet are wider, with their toes naturally splayed. Their feet are also very tough and callused from walking around on the natural earth bed their entire lives.

This is because their feet have never been trapped by modern shoes like yours and mine have.

Imagine that. Your feet are designed to walk on all types of terrains, like sand, shells, dirt, rock, and twigs without a second thought.

But if you were to walk out into the forest right now with no shoes, you’d likely tip toe around because of how tender the bottom of your feet are. Even walking out onto some slightly rough sidewalk can be painful.

This is the result of two things:

Lack of regular exposure to these elementsModern shoes protecting your feet from birth

So before we get into what’s optimal and what’s optional, we want you to know this. Your feet are capable of so much more, and you can improve your ability to move well by being barefoot more often.

But there is a process here. If your feet have been trapped in tight shoes for 40 years, jumping straight into barefoot training is a recipe for injury.

By the way, you only have one pair of feet to last you a lifetime, so make sure you take care of them by reading our extensive article on🦶 feet.

Going Barefoot When It Makes Sense

Chances are, you spend a good amount of your day barefoot already. But it’s likely on smooth and hard surfaces like your kitchen or living room floor and the rest of the time on carpet or rugs.

In general, we think it’s ideal to be barefoot as often as possible, and when it makes sense. Plus, wearing shoes in your house is kind of gross, especially when they’re your outside shoes.

But what about doing your training or even running when barefoot? This is where it gets a bit tricky.

Some people’s foot and ankle health aren’t the greatest because our shoes are often too padded, too tight, and sometimes restrictive (especially high heels and designer shoes). So this means, we have to undo some of the damage.

And this damage isn’t necessarily anything majorly wrong with your foot structure.

It could simply be that certain muscles in your feet are weak from years of wearing shoes, and this causes tension in other areas of your body, such as your ankles, knees, or hips.

So the first thing you might think about is how can you go barefoot more often? And where can you go barefoot outside that doesn’t cause too much pain or discomfort?

An easy transition for most people is to get out in the grass and walk around.

If you’re not used to this, you’ll likely feel a lot of interesting sensations on the bottoms of your feet. It might even be a little bit uncomfortable. But just having this exposure over time can improve your body’s ability to move well and that translates over to your training.

When practicing your movement, say with Elements or Mobility, we think doing it barefoot is ideal if your space allows you to. However, if you’re training outside, say on the grass or concrete, you might want some footwear.

Minimalist Shoes For The In-between

By definition, minimal shoes are supposed to be a step above being barefoot and just below trainers or running shoes. Minimal shoes will typically have a wider toe box to simulate being barefoot by allowing your toes to spread out, but will have a sole that is thin with little to no arch support, and fairly flat. This means there’s a 4-8mm drop from heel to toe.

Minimal shoes are great if you want some protection from the elements but still get that barefoot feel and the foot freedom you’d have being barefoot.

Some companies that make minimal shoes are Xero Shoes and Vivo Barefoot. These shoes have very little cushion and are quite flexible in the sole.

A step up from these would be the Altra HIIT XT 2, or the Reebok Nano 2.0, which have a little more stability, a more durable sole, but still very light with wide toe boxes to mimic being barefoot.

Minimalist Shoes We’ve Tried:

Vivo BarefootLemsReebok Nano 2.0AltraAstralMerrell

These are great for training outside, in the gym, or on slightly rougher surfaces. However, if you expect to be walking or running for long periods, or experiencing a lot of impact, you’ll want more protection.

Running Shoes, Hiking Boots, And Everything Else

When you run, especially on hard surfaces, your feet are vulnerable to impact. And you’ll want to protect them as much as possible with a cushion that absorbs the shock from running. This is why running and walking shoes tend to have more arch support, a cushioned sole, and typically a slightly higher heel-to-toe ratio to encourage good running and walking mechanics.

This is even more important when it comes to hiking on rough terrains because of the impact. Hiking boots have thick, sturdy soles, and tend to fit very tight around your feet and ankles to stabilize yourself in the case of uneven and slippery surfaces.

Unfortunately, your toes aren’t able to move around as much, but this is a tradeoff you probably want given how much you want to protect your feet from the rough surfaces you’ll be on.

One thing you may have seen, and it’s not okay, is lots of barefoot running on hard surfaces, like the road or sidewalk. Regardless of what some barefoot minimalist gurus say, this is a recipe for disaster. We are capable of running, even long distances barefoot, but we didn’t evolve running on these hard surfaces.

Our ancestors who ran barefoot were doing so on prairies, jungle floors, dirt, or sand, not the Walmart asphalt.

Pros and Cons of Being Barefoot or Wearing Shoes

Being Barefoot Minimal Shoes Padded Shoes
✅ Pros + Automatically improve range of motion and strength throughout your foot.
+ The natural splay and movement in your foot is less restricted.
+ You are essentially exercising your feet every time you walk.
+ Mimics being barefoot but adds more protection.
+ Allows better range of motion in the feet than tight, padded shoes.
+ Protects feet and ankles during intense and high-impact activity.
+ Allows for longer duration of high-impact movements like running and jumping.

⛔️ Cons – Can be painful if you’re not used to going barefoot
– Could scrape or bruise your feet if you do high impact activities on hard surfaces
– Can still restrict toes and overall foot movement.
– Can limit mobility and flexibility of the foot over time.
– Will limit mobility, especially with basketball shoes and hiking boots.
– Will restrict movement and can make your feet weaker over time.

Prepping Your Feet for Minimal to No Footwear: Flexibility and Mobility

If you’ve been wearing shoes for any period of time, you likely have some limitations in terms of flexibility and general range of motion.

Let’s face it… chances are you haven’t made it this long without some sort of injury, be it a sprain or break. And at best, you’ve probably not put your feet and ankles through their full range of motion often enough, which can cause some limitations.

In this short video, Ryan takes you through a quick exercise to help you improve the flexibility of your ankles and toes.

What Shoes Are Best For You?

This is hard for us to say, but look at what you’re wearing now. And what are your goals? Would you like to have more control over your movement, especially when barefoot? If so, it’d be wise to look for footwear that is a step down in terms of cushion than what you’re currently wearing.

But be gradual about it. If you’re walking around in super padded, clunky basketball shoes, you likely aren’t ready to go out into the grass and be barefoot for your entire workout.

So take it slow. We recommend a step down from what you’re currently wearing. So if you’re always in some padded shoes, maybe step down to a minimal shoe that has more support than being barefoot, but a bit less than your running shoes.

And once you get used to those, you can start to do more work barefoot.

In a perfect world, we believe training barefoot is ideal. And everyone should work into being able to do this sooner than later. But wearing minimal shoes with large toe boxes are a great compromise, especially if you’re training outside or on rough surfaces.

We encourage you to do our programs barefoot when possible, because strong feet are a crucial part of a strong body.

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