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Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
5 May

Barefoot Alternatives

2349235973 e8ce7a571eI got the following email from a reader:

Mark,

The Vibram 5 Fingers look great for exercise but not very practical for daily use and I’m wondering if there are any decent shoes available.

The Vivo shoes are the most interesting I’ve been able to spot so far (but haven’t tried them yet).

Many thanks,

Scott

Thanks, Scott. This is actually a pretty common question I get from readers, and it’s typical of the essential problem we Primal Blueprinters face almost every day: that constant battle between doing what is right for our bodies and what is deemed socially acceptable.

Do we politely decline the dessert plate?

How do we turn down the freshly baked, homemade bread without offending our host?

Do we tone down the grunts and heavy breathing during our intense deadlift/squat/weighted-pullup circuit at the gym so as not to frighten the guy on the thigh abductor?

The waiter brought us our steak with no silverware; do we chow down with our hands?

And, finally – must we submit our precious feet to the rigid tyranny of the modern shoe simply to avoid looking weird in our Vibrams or, worse, barefeet?

Absolutely not!

Even I’ll admit that wearing the Vibrams will get you some strange looks, especially if you’re at the grocery store or on a job interview (note: don’t wear them to a job interview, unless you’re interviewing at MDA or Vibram itself). They are essentially foot gloves, and their use can be explained away when you’re at the gym or running a trail, but they aren’t all that (aesthetically) practical in everyday life. Like it or not, we are members of society and, unfortunately, the vast majority of its other members cannot seem to handle the sight of bare feet (or the detailed contours of the foot and toes) in a non-sandy, non-athletic commercial setting. Unless you simply don’t care about social mores and norms (which, I’ll admit, I usually don’t), you’ll want to find a suitable shoe that won’t compromise the health of your feet (even if it compromises your personal ethics… kidding!).

So what are our choices?

Well, when I’m not barefoot or Vibrams-clad, I’m usually wearing a pair of TOD’s tan leather Moccasins. They’re extremely thin, flexible, and comfortable, and they’re about as close to barefoot as you’re going to get while still looking “normal.” TOD’s certainly aren’t as funky as Vibrams, and they’re no good for athletics, but they make a great compromise for the fashion-conscious Groks out there. The sole isn’t hard or rigid, and your feet feel unconstrained. But be warned. They are pricey. Other moccasins may do the job just as well.

Another option is simple sandals. Flip-flops, thongs, whatever you want to call them – as long as they’re thin and pliable, they’ll promote better foot health than the most expensive casual shoes. Rickshaw drivers around the world aren’t outfitted in the latest Nike trainers; they’re either barefoot or in cheap thin sandals. Their feet are their livelihood, so you think if they were causing some problems they’d wear “real” shoes. The other good thing about sandals is that they’re actually socially acceptable – little do they know that we’re secretly wearing them to emulate going barefoot!

According to a close friend of mine, Tom’s Shoes is another good option. I don’t have a pair myself, but he swears by them (he’s also a huge Vibram FiveFingers fan, if you were wondering, so he’s into the barefoot thing). He is quick to mention, however, that if you’re looking for a barefoot approximate you’ll want to get the soft suede versions. Most of the shoes have fairly stiff soles, but the suede ones are fairly pliable, especially once you’ve broken them in. He goes hiking a lot, and once he couldn’t find the Vibrams (which he usually uses), so he went in the Tom’s and was pretty happy with it. Again, these aren’t athletic shoes, but the soft suede shoes are decent replacements for going full on barefoot. Plus, for each pair of Tom’s someone buys, the owner will throw in an extra one to a shoe-less kid in a third-world country (although I’d suggest that maybe they’re doing okay already without shoes!).

Those Vivos you linked to look pretty good, although I’d have to try them on before taking the plunge.

To sum up – Barefoot or Vibrams FiveFingers (with a healthy dose of antipathy toward social protocol) are the best, but there are other options. Try Tod’s Moccasins, soft suede Tom’s, sandals, or Vivos, in no particular order.

Anyone else know some better casual barefoot shoe options that won’t get you thrown out of a 7-11?

M.V. Jantzen Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Toe Socks Met Combat Boots and Had a Baby

Why You Should Nix Shoes

Beach Sprints in FiveFingers

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I’ve been trying to track down a shop that sells Vivo Barefoot for a LONG time now. I live in Atlantic Canada and so far the closest I know of is in Toronto and New York. Does anyone here know of someplace closer?

    Right now I wear faux-leather thong flip flops outside and go barefoot/sock-footed indoors.

    Christine Crain wrote on May 5th, 2009
    • I noticed you were wearing flip flops, I recommend the following flip flops to my patients. Invented by Swiss and Australian Chiropractors they are a neuro orthotic shoe with TGA and FDA approval and very good alternative to bare foot itself on hard falt surfaces.
      Check out the website equilibras-revolution.com
      Worth a try iif you don’t like going bare foot all the time.

      Chiro wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  2. I live in NYC and the thought of even wearing flip flops around the city in the summer really skeeves me out, frankly. I’m understand the health benefits of going barefoot but have a hard time embracing this particular PB suggestion here, sadly.
    Here’s a lengthy but excellent article published last year in NY magazine on this very issue (trust me- the amazing photos alone is worth a look!)- and there are suggestions as to what shoes might be worth a try(note to self!)
    http://nymag.com/health/features/46213/

    Marci wrote on May 5th, 2009
  3. I am passing this along to so many people! I pretty much live in sandals and if it’s too cold I wear Ugg’s moccasins (with a soft suede outsole…unfortunately I think the newist version has a rubber sole :( ) I am barefoot during my workouts since they are almost always on the beach. People constantly give me a hard time about how bad doing this is for me – arch support, back support, foot support etc etc etc. Now I have proof I’m doing right!

    Jane wrote on May 5th, 2009
  4. Another option are the Sanuk line of sidewalk surfer shoes. They were also made with the barefoot mentality in mind and are not much more than a sandal with an upper stitched on. I’m going to have to check out the Vivos though since those look even less conspicuous.

    Marcus wrote on May 5th, 2009
  5. Good post.

    I found Vivos a while ago, but have yet to buy them. I often can be found wearing a very thin pair of tsubos.

    pnw fitness wrote on May 5th, 2009
  6. I’m a huge fan of skate shoes. They’re designed to have minimal padding and are low profile to enable the skater to feel the board, thus giving you much better control.

    I don’t skate anymore, but absolutely refuse to give ‘em up. My fave happens to be the Etnies Callicut (http://etnies.com/shop/mens/footwear/shoes/) but the cinch are pretty nice too. DC also makes some similar shoes. I wear my DC’s everywhere and that includes my workplace (in a lovely windowless office). You just gotta pick the right color so it’s not too conspicuous :-)

    Pablo wrote on May 5th, 2009
  7. Some ‘Puma’ shoes are decent for promoting foot health and mobility. When I can’t go barefoot, or with sandals, this is usually what I choose. Both my wife and I have pairs. They have a very thin sole, and bend, twist, and flex quite nicely.

    John Sifferman wrote on May 5th, 2009
  8. I wear the Vibrams while training but during the da it’s Sanuk Sidewalk Surfers. Check ‘em out at Zappos! Many styles and reasonably priced

    Dean wrote on May 5th, 2009
  9. No mention of the Nike Free?

    Joey wrote on May 5th, 2009
  10. I’m a big fan of Airwalk Kicks, which are available at Payless Shoe Source:

    http://www.payless.com/store/catalog/brandlisting.jsp;jsessionid=9A06478B6BCBF233BBEFB841822739F4?trail=1014%3A100003&catId=cat10376&brandId=100003

    They’re basically the same as Converse, but less expensive.

    dragonmamma wrote on May 5th, 2009
  11. “so as not to frighten the guy on the thigh abductor?”

    I about fell out of my chair laughing.

    JD wrote on May 5th, 2009
  12. I use some UA sandals (so comfy) for daily walking…and for lifting and running, I’ve been using a pair of Solomon water shoes I got at REI on clearance like 3 years ago. They are almost like wearing sandals with all the mesh but don’t come flying off your foot. I am anxious to try the vibram 5 fingers soon.

    Mike OD - Life Spotlight wrote on May 5th, 2009
  13. Joey- the article I posted mentions the Nike Free as well as Masai, Vivos and Vibrams…
    This is bad news for a girl with a trendy shoe fetish like me!

    Marci wrote on May 5th, 2009
    • Yea, the only chance I have of convincing my girlfriend to wear Vibram’s is if I write Prada on them… I think I just thought of a brand new market =)

      Alex Shalman wrote on May 12th, 2009
  14. I have had my 5 fingers for a few years now and have been known to wear them to work as well as out on the town. They will definitely start some conversations, but I have never met anyone who doesn’t think they are cool. Except when they get a little smelly in the Florida summers :-)

    Eric B. wrote on May 5th, 2009
    • I actually find these and all other ‘bare’ feet apparel, offensive. While we may have the gut of a cave man, and i am more than willing to eat this way, and when on vacation, one can wear sandals, and the ubiquitous ‘flip-flop’ (whether high tech or no), coming from a land where sub-zero freezing temps are the norm for over seven months of the year, civilized Western shoes/boots, and other footwear bespeak civilization. If we can afford to eat Paleo (and grass fed beef, and organic produce ain’t for someone on a budget!) then the least we can do, is dress as if we were above the rank of the barefoot peasant. My 2 cents.

      Dr. John wrote on February 20th, 2012
      • What I find offensive is foot, knee, hip and back pain. I was plagued with very painful ingrown toenails from ill-fitting shoes as a kid. I loved getting birks and flipflops…sometimes had to buy boy shoes so they’d be wide enough for my duck feet. High heels are ridiculous and ugly to my eyes. And the unnatural gait of women walking in them feels like witnessing something bizarre on National Geographic. Hearing men say self-defeating things like “dress shoes are supposed to hurt” offends me.

        Olivia wrote on May 19th, 2012
  15. dragonmamma beat me on the converse/airwalk suggestion. A pair of worn chucks feel like socks. Why be primal when you can be… metroprimal? :)

    SerialSinner wrote on May 5th, 2009
  16. Vibrams aren’t suitable to work? I wear them to work every day. I’ve tried to stick to the black ones to keep them from being quite so noticable. I figure they just give people something to talk about. I personally feel that vibram’s are more suitable than flip-flops.

    Leah wrote on May 5th, 2009
  17. Friend of mine really likes the Nike Free.

    Greg at Live Fit wrote on May 5th, 2009
  18. I love my vibrams but i also wear my JawPaws alot as well -

    http://www.jjbsports.com/mens-sandals-and-flip-flops/adidas-jawpaw-ii/prod_105170.aspx?utm_source=googlebase&utm_medium=affiliate

    There a touch quicker to put on then vibrams (none of that getting each toe in business) plus u can wear socks (in say winter) and dont stand out as much….

    Better traction in the city then vibrams in the wet as well…

    It also helps that there 1/3 the cost!

    Sadly ive become a fair weather vibram user ;o)

    TonyB wrote on May 5th, 2009
    • Looked on posted site, even searched JawPaw.
      ‘no product that matches your search’

      art wrote on August 13th, 2010
  19. Forgot to say – to me “primal footwear” needs to fit these criteria -

    – full articulation of the ankle (no “support” – read weakening)

    – minimal sole

    – full articulation of the toes

    JawPaw fits the first two and whilst isnt as good as the vibram on the last one its pretty close…

    TonyB wrote on May 5th, 2009
  20. Great suggestions so far! I am thinking about replacing my Nike Frees with some Vibrams for my weekly sprint session. I am starting to wear my Converse shoes for more than just weight lifting. I would LOVE to find a casual daily shoe, but at an affordable price.

    For any suggestions above or to follow: How are the shoes for durability? With the minimalist soles I fear frequent replacement which would get costly in a hurry.

    Rodney wrote on May 5th, 2009
  21. I second the recommendation of Sanuks. I can’t bear stiff soled shoes – they make me feel uncoordinated, just clunking my feet down with every step.
    Thong sandals IMO are only a good choice if they’re snug (leather ones most often are). If they are even slightly loose, they threaten to fly off your foot with every step, causing some people to develop a habit of gripping with their toes – which undermines the whole purpose of wearing light shoes.

    Gittit wrote on May 5th, 2009
  22. I wear Puma H-Streets for sprinting and weight lifting. They are very minimalist and extremely light weight. They are the next best thing to the Vibrams. I believe Puma has discontinued them, again. The new ones are are called K-Street and there is the Saloh. Haven’t tried them yet, but overall I highly recomment the PUMA.

    Ron Kelley wrote on May 5th, 2009
  23. I bought a pair of vivo barefoot shoes last year precisely for this reason. I’ve worn them almost every day since. Can’t recommend them enough.

    BCR wrote on May 5th, 2009
  24. I’ve heard very good things about Feelmax shoes – especially their soon-to-be-released Niesa shoe – but they may be hard to get in the US (they’re a Finnish company).

    Fergus Power wrote on May 5th, 2009
  25. I wore Tsubo exclusively for about seven years. I especially loved the thinner-soled varieties and still keep a pair for variety.

    but for the past year or so, my primary shoe it the Vivo. It’s fantastic. It looks like a (pretty damn sexy) shoe, but it feels kind of like a slipper – except that it doesn’t slip (if that makes any sense). They don’t have much padding, but they fit snug on your feet. Nice.

    The thin sole is great for tactile feel and and foot strike, though there are insoles included if you like a little bit of cushion (and to use in winter). I was concerned about the thinness of the sole at first, but after having stepped in thumbtacks and such several times at work, I have a lot of faith in them – nothing is getting through there.

    The leather is also extremely flexible and allows full range of motion around the ankle. I can even flex my toes in them.

    My only caution would be to make sure you give them a good coat of mink oil before wearing them on wet days, as the leather doesn’t appear to be waterproofed.

    They’re great shoes and I recommend them highly. Especially if you can find them on sale (I got mine for about $45, though I’d gladly pay full price).

    Andy Fossett wrote on May 5th, 2009
  26. I’ll wear my Vibram KSOs pretty much anywhere, unless an event calls for actual shoes (e.g. the bar scene). The shoes will absolutely start conversations at the mall/grocery/etc, and most people seem to like them. I’ve had more than one conversation where the other party demands to know where to buy them (most recently in Turkey of all places).

    I do the occasional 4×400 sprint or mile jog in Vibrams, and fortunately my feet don’t look anything like those in the blog photo!

    Asof wrote on May 5th, 2009
  27. Rodney – Jawpaws are pretty hardwearing…..ie my vibrams (classic) have started to show wear + the bloody tags at the back have come off one side…

    They also get pretty funky and need washing regularly…

    Jawpaw worn practically everyday outside for 4-5 months (including around house) still no signs of wear on bottom…

    Bit surprising considering how soft and flexible they are…. + no real signs of dreaded mass weapons of biological malodourous destruction… Probably down to the ability to use socks.

    Personnely i think the shoe industry most likely have at some point invented the non-wearing “eternal” sole. Shortly before realising theres no profit for them in it!

    More profit in having a design obselesence of a few months. As well as having the next fashionable sports “technology” comes out….

    TonyB wrote on May 5th, 2009
  28. Sanuk shoes are awesome; especially if you have to work in an office-like world.

    Checkout Saucony Kilkenny XC flats for running. Buy them a size bigger than you would normally wear. They are pretty close to barefoot for running off or on road.

    thinnmann wrote on May 5th, 2009
  29. PS – please get rid of that photo. That guy just does not know how to run barefoot. Experienced – or maybe just smart – barefooters never wind up with injuries anything like that. Never ever. Pain porn like that just serves to keep barefoot running looking like only crazies do it.

    thinnmann wrote on May 5th, 2009
    • I agree. That guy has the equipment, he just needs to read the manual. The pic gives barefoot running a bad reputation … and it’s difficult enough to convince people that it’s beneficial and not crazy!!

      steadycrush wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  30. If I’m not at work I’m in VFFs or barefoot. Who cares what others think.

    George wrote on May 5th, 2009
  31. OMG, those feet are gnarly! I hope there wasn’t any glass on the road!

    Rachel wrote on May 5th, 2009
  32. You can totally wear vibrams to work (in socal anyways). Everyone at work, including my CFO even liked them!

    Ryan Denner wrote on May 5th, 2009
  33. I recently purchased some vibrams, and have every intention of migrating to their use during workouts, but I just always seem to choose my trusty Tigers from Asics. They’re just rigid enough for barbell lifts and have just enough cushion for running on pavement (I know, I should find a better running surface). Plus, they’re serviceable in just about any setting/situation.

    http://www.classicsportshoes.com/onitsukatiger.html

    Mike wrote on May 5th, 2009
  34. I was excited to buy a pair of vibrams but then their FAQ reminded me that it wouldn’t work with webbed toes. Hopefully the company gets big enough and can custom build shoes for people with genetically freaky feet…

    Dave | The Intelligent Workout wrote on May 6th, 2009
  35. Great post and comments! I’ve been researching barefoot shoe options for a while since my toes don’t seem to be in the proper proportions for Vibram FiveFingers :(

    A good place to look for reviews is BarefootRunner.com. There are cool options there for thin-soled shoes and moccasins, but man, most of these shoes are in the $150 range and the durability is lackluster.

    I think my next purchase will be Nike Frees, which I haven’t tried yet, but guys at the local running shop like them.

    Levi wrote on May 6th, 2009
  36. Levi -

    The Nike Free does NOT mimic barefoot running! The heel has too much elevation and totally negates one of the main reasons barefoot running works to move you to proper form. You will be much better off in cheap water shoes, XC flats, or um barefoot.

    thinnmann wrote on May 6th, 2009
  37. I’m with Levi…

    Nike Frees are somewhat of a step in the right direction but alas, still too thick and way too much of heel, especially when it comes to proper running form. Vivo shoes rock (I own two pairs) and are quite suitable for people who live in colder temps (like Montreal!!!) but otherwise, flip-flops and Vibram Five-Fingers work well in warmer temps. Someone also mentioned Puma; some of their shoes actually do fit the bill of ‘almost’ barefooting…

    For those interested, check out http://www.barefooters.org/ for more info on the subject of “barefooting” and the medical, legal and other implications of the latter…

    And for the more “extreme” among us, here’s another solution: http://www.barefooters.org/faq/22.html

    Eric wrote on May 6th, 2009
  38. Good on you Leah and Asof!

    I also wear my VFF to work. I work in an office and my KSO’s go fine with my pants and collared shirt.

    I’m shy and hate getting made fun of (though I never did), but my health is more important than what anyone thinks.

    I am either barefoot or in my Vibrams.

    Bob wrote on May 6th, 2009
  39. Great post! It looks like I have some shopping to do :)

    Can anyone suggest a good ‘close to barefoot’ shoe for my 4 year old preschooler? It was easy to find flexible stuff when he was littler, but now that his feet are size 11 everything is so structured and hard. I worry about his feet but am having trouble finding good alternatives. Thanks in advance!

    Amy wrote on May 7th, 2009

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