Ditch Your Shoes: Go Barefoot (and Barefoot Shoes) for Stronger, Healthier Feet

Ditch Your Shoes: Go Barefoot (and Barefoot Shoes) for Stronger, Healthier Feet

The Best Barefoot Shoes for Every Occasion

There's no better feeling than your bare feet against the soft ground, toes squishing in the mud, connecting directly with the earth. Though your experience may differ, there's growing evidence that modern footwear is harming our feet. Shoes force us into an unnatural gait, deform our feet, and often lead to knee and foot pain.

No matter how you feel about going barefoot, it's increasingly clear that we were not meant to wear the constrictive shoes that are so common today. Our ancestors walked and ran unshod or in simple moccasins for hundreds of thousands of years. Only very recently have we crammed our feet into narrow, stiff, heeled shoes and paid the price in weakness, deformity, and pain.


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The good news is that we can reverse the damage and reclaim strong, healthy, functional feet at any age. By spending more time barefoot and wearing proper minimalist footwear, we can restore natural foot shape and gait, alleviating many common issues. Plus, going barefoot is free, fun, and feels fantastic!

In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the many problems with modern shoes and the benefits of ditching them in favor of bare feet and barefoot-style shoes. We'll address how to transition safely to avoid injury and review the best options for barefoot running, hiking, walking, and everyday wear. Whether you're a seasoned barefooter or just kicking off your shoes for the first time, read on to learn how liberating your feet can drastically improve your balance, posture, and overall well-being.

Benefits of Going Barefoot

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, calves, and hip stabilizers
  • Increases flexibility and range of motion in the foot and ankle joints
  • Improves proprioception (awareness of the body in space)
  • Reduces impact stress on the knees, hips, and back
  • Promotes natural arch support and stability
  • Enhances sensory feedback from the feet to the brain
  • Allows the foot to move and function as designed
  • Grounds us to the earth's healing negative ionic charge

Walking Barefoot

Problems With Modern Shoes

While most of us have worn shoes from a very young age, the type of footwear that is most common today is a relatively recent invention. Stiff, narrow, heeled shoes significantly alter the shape and function of the human foot, leading to weakness and deformity over time. Some of the issues caused by standard shoes include:

  • Narrow toe boxes squeeze the toes into an unnatural pointed position
  • Raised heels shorten the calves and Achilles, destabilizing posture and gait
  • Stiff soles limit the foot's natural ability to bend and flex
  • Thick cushioning prevents sensory feedback and actively works the foot
  • Arch supports and orthotics weaken the foot muscles and intrinsic structure
  • Tight uppers further constrict and immobilize the feet

Narrow Unhealthy Shoes

All of these design elements drastically change the shape and workings of the human foot. They essentially act as a cast, holding the foot in a compromised position and preventing it from functioning as nature intended. The result is weak, atrophied muscles, loss of mobility, poor balance, and a host of lower extremity alignment issues and pain.

Evidence That Barefoot Is Better

Overwhelming anecdotal and growing scientific evidence point to the benefits of going barefoot and wearing minimalist shoes. Numerous studies have found that barefoot and minimally shod populations have healthier feet, better gait patterns, and fewer lower extremity injuries and issues such as:

  • Bunions
  • Hammertoes
  • Heel spurs
  • Ingrown toenails
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Shin splints
  • Knee pain
  • Hip pain
  • Lower back pain

By contrast, habitually shod populations have much higher rates of these chronic problems, which often develop even in childhood when the feet are still forming. Acute injuries like ankle sprains are also more common in shod individuals than in barefoot populations.

While going completely bare is ideal for foot health, it's not always safe or practical. Luckily, switching to properly designed minimalist shoes can provide similar benefits while still protecting the feet from hazards. The key is finding footwear that allows your toes to spread, your arches to work dynamically, and your feet and ankles to move through a complete range of motion with each step.

In the following sections, we'll delve into the specifics of how modern shoes harm us and how to choose truly foot-healthy alternatives. With a slow, smart transition, almost anyone can enjoy the comfort, pleasure, and benefits of getting back to barefoot.

Common Foot Issues Caused by Shoes

Modern footwear is the root cause of many chronic foot conditions and lower body ailments that plague us today. Let's take a closer look at some of the most prevalent problems that develop from a lifetime of wearing conventional shoes.

Shortened Achilles and Heel Cords

One of the most harmful features of modern shoes is the elevated heel. Whether it's a dress shoe with an obvious heel or a running shoe with a thick wedge of cushioning, most footwear positions the heel significantly higher than the forefoot.

Over time, this shortened position leads to a contraction of the Achilles tendon and calf muscles. Because these tissues are never stretched fully, they gradually adapt to the limited range of motion and become permanently tight and weak.

This unnatural alignment throws the entire body out of balance. With the heel elevated and the weight shifted forward onto the ball of the foot, the knees, hips, and spine must compensate. This altered gait pattern places excessive stress on the joints and connective tissues, leading to conditions like plantar fasciitis, shin splints, patellar tendonitis, IT band syndrome, and lower back pain.

Bunions and Toe Deformities

Another problematic design element of most shoes is the narrowed, pointed toe box. By squeezing the toes together and forcing them into an unnatural triangular shape, these toe boxes cause a gradual dislocation of the big toe joint known as hallux valgus or bunions.

Bunions form as the base of the big toe is pushed out while the top of the toe angles inward toward the others. The resulting bump on the side of the foot can be extremely painful, making every step agony. Hammer toes, claw toes, and ingrown toenails are other common deformities caused by restrictive footwear.

Foot Problem

Though often considered purely cosmetic issues, these toe misalignments actually have serious consequences for the entire kinetic chain. The big toe is meant to carry 40% of the body's weight and balance pressure throughout the foot. When it's not aligned properly, the foot cannot support the body correctly, altering whole-body alignment.

Collapsed Arches and Flat Feet

Along with narrow toe boxes, most shoes also feature built-in arch support and rigid soles that prevent the foot from flexing. This may feel comfortable and supportive at first, but over time it leads to muscle atrophy and loss of the natural arch.

The 33 joints, 26 bones, and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments in each foot are meant to move dynamically with every step. The arches should compress slightly on impact to absorb shock and then recoil to propel us forward. Stiff arch supports prevent this natural movement and support the foot in an unnatural supinated position.

When the foot's intrinsic muscles don't have to work, they gradually weaken and the arch collapses. Flat feet are so common today that we consider them normal, when in fact they're a sign of dysfunction. Fallen arches not only look strange but disrupt healthy gait and lead to issues like overpronation, plantar fasciitis, and knee and hip pain.

Impaired Proprioception and Balance

On top of immobilizing and misaligning the feet, modern shoes also blunt sensory feedback from the soles. Our feet are packed with proprioceptive nerve endings that relay information to the brain about the ground beneath us and our position in space.

Thick soles dampen these essential signals, basically putting the feet to sleep. With this sensory input impaired, the brain doesn't have the information it needs to make micro-adjustments to our gait and posture, leading to clumsiness and instability.

Shoes also have a much smaller surface area in contact with the ground than the bare sole. Less contact means less traction and stability, especially on uneven terrain. It's much easier to trip, roll an ankle or lose your balance in shoes than in bare feet.

By ditching your shoes, you'll immediately notice a heightened perception of the ground and greater surefootedness. You'll instinctively place your feet more carefully and adjust your stride for the surface, improving balance and body awareness with every step.

How to Transition to Barefoot Safely

As discussed above, a lifetime of wearing conventional shoes can significantly weaken the feet and alter the shape and function of the lower body. Most people have at least some degree of muscle imbalance, bone misalignment, or movement dysfunction from shoes.

For this reason, it's essential to transition to barefoot gradually and progressively. Throwing away your shoes and immediately running a 10K on pavement is a recipe for disaster. Your feet and legs need time and care to adapt to the new demands of barefoot movement.

Here are some guidelines for making the switch without risking injury:

Start Slow and Build Gradually

Begin by simply spending more time barefoot around the house and yard. Go for short walks on safe, forgiving surfaces like grass, sand, dirt, or pebbles. Let your soles toughen up and your muscles start activating gently.

Gradually increase the amount of time you spend barefoot and the variety of terrain you walk on each week. But don't do too much too soon. If your feet feel sore or fatigued, take a rest day. Steady, consistent practice is better than going overboard and having to take time off.

Use Minimalist Shoes for Protection

For times when barefoot isn't appropriate or practical, use minimalist shoes as a transition tool. Look for shoes with wide toe boxes, zero drop soles, and minimal padding. These will protect your feet from hazards while still allowing them to move and function naturally.

Be sure to rotate between several different pairs of minimalist shoes to vary the stresses on your feet. Alternate with barefoot time as much as possible. You may also want to wear toe socks or use toe spreaders to help reverse the effects of tapered toe boxes.

Address Underlying Weaknesses and Imbalances

Years of wearing shoes can lead to stubborn muscle imbalances, joint restrictions, and movement compensations. Jumping into barefoot activities too quickly can exacerbate these issues.

Instead, take the time to assess your current foot and lower leg function and address any weak links. Perform daily mobilization and strengthening exercises to restore lost mobility and wake up underused muscles.

Some simple tools to try include:

  • Golf ball or lacrosse ball massage for the plantar fascia
  • Top of foot and toe yoga poses and stretches
  • Calf and Achilles stretches against a wall or step
  • Bent knee ankle dorsiflexion for soleus strength
  • Single leg balance on various surfaces
  • Short foot exercises to build the arches
  • Barefoot balance and agility drills

Progress to Barefoot Running and Hiking Carefully

If your goal is to run or hike barefoot, be especially cautious in your progression. Because of the greater forces involved, you'll need to prepare your feet and legs adequately to avoid overuse injuries.

Start with only a few minutes of jogging or hiking in minimalist shoes and stop if your feet or legs feel fatigued. Slowly increase time and distance as your body adapts while still taking plenty of rest days.

Focus on maintaining a short, light stride with a midfoot landing and bent knees. Keep your cadence high and your feet under your hips. Listen to your body and back off if you feel any twinges or warning signs of pain.

Over time, you'll develop strong, flexible feet that support an efficient, natural stride. The freedom and fun of running and hiking unencumbered are well worth the patient work of getting there safely!

With these strategies and a gradual, mindful approach, you'll be well on your way to reaping the lifelong benefits of barefoot living. In the next section, we'll highlight the best barefoot shoe options to support your journey.

Barefoot Shoe Options Reviewed

While going completely barefoot is ideal, it's not always safe or practical in today's world. Luckily, there are now many great minimalist shoe options that provide protection without compromising foot health. Here are our top picks in several categories:

Road Running Shoes

Vibram FiveFingers

The original toe shoe, Vibrams have a glove-like fit with individual toe pockets. They allow your toes to spread and grip naturally while providing grippy rubber traction. The KSO EVO is a versatile cross-trainer while the V-Run is designed specifically for pavement.

Vivobarefoot Primus Lite

A stylish, ultra-minimalist option, the Primus Lite has a roomy toe box, zero drop sole, and just enough cushioning for comfort on roads. The breathable mesh upper keeps your feet cool while the flexible sole allows natural movement. Available in several colors for men and women.


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And check out our latest Vivobarefoot video review here:


Merrell Vapor Glove

One of the lightest and most flexible road shoes available, the Vapor Glove fits like a second skin. The TPU toe bumper and Vibram outsole provide protection and traction while the zero drop sole and wide toe box allow natural foot positioning.

Trail Running Shoes

Xero Shoes TerraFlex

Designed for rugged trails, the TerraFlex has a flexible 6mm sole, zero drop platform, and roomy toe box. The lugged tread grips securely on all terrains while the removable insole lets you customize underfoot feel. Huarache-inspired heel strap system keeps your foot secure.

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Altra Superior

A great choice for mixed terrains, the Superior has a FootShape toe box, zero drop platform, and flexible StoneGuard midsole for protection from rocks. The MaxTrac rubber outsole and multi-directional lug pattern provide excellent grip on any surface. Drainage holes in the upper keep water and debris out.

Topo Athletic MT

The MT (Mountain Trainer) is designed to handle the most technical trails with ease. It has a roomy toe box, flexible zero drop sole, and rock plate for underfoot protection. The Vibram XS Trek EVO outsole is super grippy on all surfaces.

Athletic and Casual Shoes

Lems Primal 2

Modeled after the shape of the human foot, the Primal 2 is designed to be the ultimate barefoot shoe. It has an ultra-wide toe box, zero drop sole, and suede and mesh upper. Lightweight, breathable, and comfortable for everyday wear.

Softstar Adult DASH RunAmoc

Handcrafted from premium leather, this minimalist moccasin is designed for active people. It has a zero drop sole, roomy toe box and flexible Vibram sole for max comfort and functionality. Great for work or play.

Vivobarefoot Ra and Gobi

Stylish barefoot oxfords that can pass in any business casual setting. Both have a sculpted zero drop outsole, roomy toebox, and soft premium leather upper. Flexible enough to walk miles in but sleek enough for the office.


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Luna Sandals Mono

Made for ultimate barefoot feel, the Mono has a 6mm suede leather footbed and a flexible Vibram sole. The traditional lacing system keeps the sandal snug and offers a customizable fit. Lightweight and packable for summer adventures.

Bedrock Cairn 3D

The Cairn 3D has a contoured moulded footbed for comfort and a Vibram Megagrip outsole for serious traction. The unique 3-point webbing system is adjustable to dial in your perfect fit. Durable enough for rugged trails but still light and airy.

Earth Runners Circadian

Unique among running sandals, the Circadian has a grounded conductive panel in the heel to keep you earthed. The Vibram sole and adjustable toe and ankle straps provide stable support and traction. Great for road running and light trails.

Tips for Choosing and Using Barefoot Shoes

Now that you have some specific options to consider, here are a few general guidelines to keep in mind when transitioning to barefoot footwear:

Get the Right Fit

Proper fit is essential for healthy, happy feet. Look for shoes that have at least a thumb's width of space between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. Make sure the toe box allows your toes to spread comfortably without constriction.

Most barefoot brands have a specific sizing system and unique lasts, so be prepared that your usual size may not translate. Measure your feet carefully and consult each brand's size chart and fitting tips. When in doubt, go up a size, as too-small shoes will negate any benefits.

Be Patient With Breaking In

No matter how comfortable your barefoot shoes are, there will be an adjustment period as your feet adapt to the lack of cushioning and support. The soles of your feet need time to get used to feeling the ground again.

Start by wearing your new shoes for short periods around the house and gradually increase wear time. Take note of any hot spots or discomfort and adjust the lacing or positioning as needed. You may need to wear slightly thicker socks at first.

Let your feet guide the process, and don't rush it. With time, your soles will toughen up and your toes will splay more naturally. Embrace the feeling of your feet making contact with the earth again!

Adjust Your Gait As Needed

Wearing barefoot shoes will naturally encourage a shorter, quicker stride, but you may need to consciously adjust your gait at first. Avoid landing hard on your heels by striking with the mid or forefoot.

Keep your stride light and springy with plenty of knee and hip flexion. Imagine you're sneaking up on someone. Stay upright and balanced, not leaning forward. Take smaller, quicker steps rather than long, heavy strides.

On trails and uneven surfaces, slow down and place your feet carefully. Allow your feet to mold to the contours rather than fighting the terrain. Use your toes to grip and balance. Going deliberately will build serious strength and stability over time.

Use Caution on Hard Surfaces

While your feet are adapting, be careful about too much bare time on unforgiving surfaces like concrete and asphalt. Hard, uniform surfaces place a lot of stress on the joints and soft tissues.

Opt for natural substrates like grass, dirt, sand and gravel as much as possible. If you need to be on pavement, opt for thin-soled minimalist shoes over completely bare. Gradually expose your soles to rougher textures and longer distances.

If your feet or legs feel sore or fatigued, respect their feedback. Take some time off or scale back the intensity and duration until the discomfort subsides. Steady, incremental progress wins the race!

Consider Going Barefoot in All Shoes

Spending more time barefoot and in minimalist shoes is a great start, but also consider the qualities of your non-barefoot shoes. Opt for flatter, more flexible soles, wider toe boxes, and less heel-to-toe drop whenever possible.

Even small changes can add up over time to improve foot health. Avoid stiff, narrow toe boxes, thick heels, and rigid soles and arch support at all times. Your feet and whole body will thank you!


There's no denying the comfort and convenience of modern footwear. But there's also no denying the damage and dysfunction caused by conventional shoes. From bunions and flat feet to knee pain and postural issues, the consequences of cramming our feet into narrow, heeled, rigid shoes are far-reaching.

Luckily, the solution is simple - take off your shoes and let your feet move and function as nature intended! Embracing barefoot living can improve your balance, gait, and whole-body alignment while preventing chronic lower body issues.

By gradually introducing more barefoot time and wearing properly fitting minimalist shoes, you can enjoy the best of both worlds - the freedom and health benefits of bare feet with the protection and practicality of shoes.

Use the tips and recommendations in this guide to begin your own barefoot journey. Start where you are, be smart about transitions, and choose the best options for your lifestyle and environment. Most importantly, have fun rediscovering the lost joys and reclaiming the foundation of your whole-body health, one bare step at a time!

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