I’ve been wearing “barefoot shoes” for about six years now and they have taught me a few things about feet and shoes in general:

1) We need shoes. No matter how adapted our bare feet are to forest floors or savannah, which is debatable, they are not adapted to industrial landscapes. This is true no matter how gnarly your feet get and no matter how prancing of a gait you adopt. (If this does not seem true to you, you are either young, do not have a real job, or both, and that’s awesome. Enjoy it while you can.) This is especially true if you like to have fun with foot-intense activities like dancing all night, or running marathons.

2) All shoes are uncomfortable, even barefoot shoes. You may not yet know this because you wear shoes all the time or haven’t paid enough attention.  The major problems with shoe discomfort are from narrow toe boxes, heaviness, stiff uppers, heel lift, and lack of cushion. Since there are no truly comfortable, versatile shoes right now, I have to assume these are tough engineering problems. Still, I can complain.

3) The toe box seems to be a fashion problem rather than an engineering problem. Clearly, narrow toe boxes are hipper than wide ones. I remember the first time I saw a shoe with a wide toe box (a early-2000s Birkenstock shoe) how weird and somehow wrong they looked to me. This, I think, is something we just have to get over. We need shoes that are shaped like feet. Anything else is culturally accepted foot binding. Look at any old person’s feet and ask yourself, did they “break in” their shoes or did their shoes “break in” their feet?

(Those early Birkenstock shoes turned out to be really heavy, clunky, and with painfully stiff uppers. Can’t recommend them even though their toe box was lovely.)

4) Once you get used to barefoot shoes, regular shoes mostly feel like cement blocks tied to your feet, and you can feel the weight and clunkiness of them jarring your ankles and knees with each step. It’s awful. Barefoot shoes are straightforwardly better in this way. However, if your real job involves the possibility of heavy and/or sharp objects landing on your feet, there are no good barefoot shoe options for you.

5) A surprising number of barefoot shoes have stiff uppers that cut into the tops of your feet almost as bad as normal dress shoes. Nike Frees have the best upper I’ve found so far, though it depends on the model, and they have heel-lift problems.

6) Heel lift may have a place for runners–I’m not particularly a runner so I have no opinion–but is purely uncomfortable otherwise. Once you are used to no heel lift, putting on heel lift shoes feels like standing on or walking down a slope constantly, which is hard on the toes and knees. The only thing I’d miss about heel lift is getting to be slightly taller than my wife every once in a while, which is nice for partner dancing.

7) Barefoot shoe enthusiasts say your feet need to be able to feel the terrain, and many barefoot shoes have little or no cushion underneath to accomplish this. I do enjoy being able to feel the terrain, as long as it is not concrete, but as far as I can tell the benefit of this is still an open question. It is obviously, experientially true, though, that walking without cushion is more tiring and harsher on feet, legs, and low back than walking with cushion.  Walking through a city in very low cushion shoes, like Terra Plana Vivobarefoots, it is clear that sidewalk is harsher than asphalt to walk on, which is harsher than brick or cobblestone–the more texture the better. Lawns and devil strips are the best terrain you will find in a city by far, and barefoot shoes turn you into a deviant grass-walker.

8) Barefoot shoe enthusiasts believe that arch support is just bad, that it weakens the muscles that would otherwise hold up your arch, making you dependent on supports. I think it is more complicated than that. I think spending time with collapsed arches is probably worse than having weak arch-supporting muscles, so be careful, especially during taxing activities like backpacking. After some experimentation, I’ve settled on wearing flexible, custom leather orthotics in my barefoot shoes most of the time–any time I’ve got a long day on my feet or doing anything athletic for an extended time. When my feet are fresh, the supports don’t seem to come into play much. When tired, they rest on the supports. It’s working for me so far.

9) It may be possible to design truly comfortable, versatile shoes. I’d like to try Nike Frees with no heel lift and without the wide sole in the heel. That might be the perfect athletic shoe, especially if they could tone down the bright, ugly color combinations so long compulsory for athletic shoes. For work, I’d like to try Terra Plana’s Vivobarefoot Gobi Suede but with some cushion in the sole.

10) I can’t comment much on toe shoes, but I haven’t found any that fit me. I am interested in them for the way they spread toes out–maybe they could help correct problems that years of regular shoes create. I found, though, that I needed a perfect fit: Too small hurts and too big means little floppy extensions on the end of each toe. No thanks. I have been wearing Injinji toe socks to get a little spread for the last few months and I like them.

 

My Shoes for the Last Year

Vivobarefoot Terraplanas. I wear these to work most of the time.

Vivobarefoot Terra Planas. I wear these to work most of the time. I got married in these.

Nike Free Run + for anything athletic or yard work.

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Merrell Edge Gloves for casual stuff, or a break from the others. I wear these the least, but a few times a week.

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